The African Development Bank—the Knowledge Broker ... the Transformation Bank?
WE WRITE THIS, with 28 large cardboard boxes stacked in the corridor, emblazoned with the removal company’s slogan: ‘You deserve the best’. Therein lie a large proportion of the paper records of the Department that occupied the office space before the Strategy team moved in. In amongst the rubble, we know that there will be pearls of great price. What to do? How do we manage this knowledge?
There are still some who say that Knowledge Management is basically about filing—or more accurately ‘Everything you always knew about filing, but never quite managed to achieve.’ They remember elusive advice, from as far back as their first job. ‘Keep everything in good order—everything that is current, everything that has gone before. Not just what you did, but what the others did, too. Don’t let people file too much on their own: try and build up something that belongs to all, which all can access. Know where to find things—in cupboards, perhaps, but better still on computers—and, most importantly, how to use them when you do find them. And while you’re at it, why not share some or all of it with others, with outsiders—in fact with as many as you reasonably can? Why horde good information? There is something in there for everyone.’
There are others who publish journals about Knowledge Management, set up websites on the subject, and write impenetrably academic articles about it, referenced to the hilt.
Both have a point. Knowledge management is an art and a science, simple in principle and complex in
practice. It is indeed about knowing things or where to find them, and using that knowledge to the maximum effect. There are distinctions between knowledge bankers and brokers, knowledge generators and knowledge sharers, but when that knowledge is designed to transform lives, it becomes something not far short of a crime when it is not used and shared to maximum effect. This is, after all, the knowledge on how to treat disease, to support small businesses, to grow crops. To do the groundwork … to raise the money … to build the road … to link the towns … to join the countries … to build up the region … to change the continent. This is the road that takes the children to school, the pregnant mothers to hospital, the crops to market, and the truck-loads of goods from country A to country B, via country C.
That is ultimately the reason why the African Development Bank aspires to be Africa’s premier knowledge institution, and to use that knowledge to transform lives.
‘Transformation’ is the central theme of the of the
Bank’s new Ten Year Strategy covering the period 2013 to 2022: a vision of a transformed and transforming Bank at the service of a transformed and transforming continent.
One key element of the Strategy is its novelty in answering what we will do and why; another answers the question ‘how?’
The Strategy sets out the view that while the Bank should continue to be Africa’s development partner of choice—financing transformative projects in countries and regions, especially in the field of infrastructure in which our reputation and status is unquestioned—we need to be firmer in our foundation, and in the principles and practices that guide us. Based on the fact that economic growth does not become real transformation until it is shared by all, and until it is sustainable in preserving the natural world, then the overarching goals of the Strategy emerge. First, it makes clear that all our work should be ‘inclusive’—for women as much as for men, for younger people as for older, for rural communities as much as urban, for fragile economies and for the more developed—and second, that all of it should support the gradual transition towards ‘green growth’. So by using our knowledge to improve the quality of growth—making it more inclusive and gradually greener—we will support Africa’s vision of stability and prosperity.
The Strategy also states that while the Bank should continue to lend and grant money, it should do other things as well—not least because its own funds (some $5 billion a year in a continent-wide economy worth $2 trillion) can only go so far. Given its uniquely African character and its unique skills and networks, this means that—more and more—it needs to set about attracting others’ funds, on top of its own, from the public and the private sectors, from home and abroad. Its accumulated knowledge will be instrumental in doing this. It also means that the Bank needs to be a voice for Africa and for African development, and that in projecting that voice it should rely on the foremost element of its African character—that is, on its experience and networks. So by using our knowledge to be both a broker and an advocate, we will again support Africa’s economic transformation.
Hence the aspiration not just to be a Development Bank, but to be a Knowledge Broker, certainly, and more: a manager of knowledge, a generator of knowledge a thought leader, an agent of transformation— dare we call ourselves a Transformation Bank?
And hence, in turn, the need for a definitive Knowledge Management system, maintained and nurtured, and shared far and wide. The science that began with management theorists like Peter Drucker in the 1960s and Ikujiro Nonaka in the ‘90s deserves the Bank’s full attention, and in 2013 it will further articulate its Knowledge Management strategy.
Knowledge, we know, is power, and—in the democratic societies to which we aspire in Africa—as a Bank which is expert in infrastructure, we can mix metaphors by saying that power should be shared by everyone on the grid. It mobilizes all the prepositions by being of, by and for the people. Gaining and using knowledge is not bound by the confines of school: just as the science of Human Development has a sworn belief in the power of education, so does the science of Economic Development swear by the processes of continuous learning and the sharing of experience and wisdom.
A cosmic and alarmingly rapid revolution in information technology has unearthed a world of possibility for this to happen, and yet there is no guarantee that it will do so. The Worldwide Web is perhaps a microcosm of life: a gift of incalculable wonder and enormous potential, which is invariably underused and abused. Technology also brings with it the serious problem of information overload: a US academic research program two years ago concluded that the average white collar daily data bombardment is equivalent to that of 174 newspapers. As such, discernment is a major factor in managing, presenting, sharing and above all using knowledge. The task is to use technology and judgment to the full by spreading the democratizing and life-giving power of knowledge.
Internally, what does the Bank aspire to do with its knowledge?
The simplest definition of Knowledge Management is that it is how an organization manages its knowledge better, for its own benefit and that of its stakeholders. Those stakeholders are internal and external. And when the latter embrace the one billion people on the continent of Africa—and by extension their relationships with the six other billion people on the planet—then the stakes of knowledge management are extremely high.
First, to collect and collate all the knowledge and experience that we have generated over 50 years. How many development organizations can lay hands on the Country Strategy Paper of 20 and 30 years ago, in preparing the one of today? How many have lost access to years of valuable know-how when individuals have left and taken their wisdom with them? At issue is the optimal usage of our intangible assets, and intellectual capital.
Second, to ensure that all of our different channels and bodies of information are coordinated. How many development organizations maintain separate databases of project data, or financial data, or evaluation data, which fail to talk to each other, and which are known only unto themselves? How many fail to connect and create communities of knowledge between headquarters and field offices, or indeed across different departments working on the same set of development challenges?
Third, to evaluate the knowledge we have, allowing us to see and plug the gaps. Above all, this necessitates the intellectual work needed to inform investment decisions worth millions of dollars, basing them on the sharpest and most current intelligence of economic, social and political analysis. In this way our internet and intranet sites need to be monumental but living and organic repositories of knowledge and wisdom, in which all 2000 Bank staff take pride and ownership.
Externally, what does the Bank aspire to do with its knowledge?
We want to make every morsel of knowledge, and every single dollar that we spend, go the furthest possible distance. The last half-century has left too many examples of development done with faulty or insufficient knowledge for this to be anything other than a paramount task.
First, and most importantly, we want to add to the canon of development knowledge from which this continent will benefit. Our own research work and publications program—with its commodities, economics, market and policy briefs—breaks new ground. The African Economic Outlook is already receiving significant attention, and it and the African Development Report can be beacons for African development in the way that the World Bank’s annual World Development Reports are for the global development community. Recent AEOs and ADRs have brought fresh research and interpretations to Africa’s challenges in area like ports and trade logistics, youth employment, and natural resource management. The work of the African Development Institute, and the information available at the Bank’s dataportal website, are further substantial Bank offerings to the body of knowledge about the continent. So too are all our country and sector reports, data, and field and project experiences. Just as important are case studies and creatively animated stories from the field—our external communications work can generate knowledge substance, with style.
Second, we want to be brokers of knowledge, maximizing the power of our reach among governments, businesses, NGOs, universities and other communities. The annual African Economic Conference goes part of the way, but we can go further. The Bank has funded the African Virtual University, linking Open Distance and eLearning institutions in over 30 sub-Saharan African countries. Online fora offer extraordinary opportunities to share knowledge. The ‘D-groups’, for instance—online development spaces built around email lists and online shared workspace—globally host 2,500 groups and 100,000 members, well over half of them from the Global South.
Perhaps the biggest single leap the Bank could take, towards becoming a true knowledge broker and a force for transformation, is to develop a truly portal knowledge website. Its current site houses quality knowledge, but it is first and foremost an institutional site. ‘The Bank did this; the Bank thinks this.’ As a portal site, it would be the definitive forum for African development—a Google to the nth degree, a sample page of a portal website would link to a further ten pages on different websites, reflecting a multiplicity of views and sources of information.
A random search of the website unearths the limits of what an institutional site can do. ‘Gabon agriculture’, for instance, reveals a refreshing and workmanlike taste of the Bank’s engagement in that sector in that country … extremely important, no doubt, but not a definitive guide to the background to the sector, to the role of the government and local players (the Ministry of Agriculture, the Faculty of Agriculture, the farmers’ cooperatives, the community associations...), to the role of other international players, to comparative information on neighboring and other countries, to the best thinking of experts and academics and teachers and trainers around the world. A portal website is a living, breathing, growing thing. 10 ‘institutional’ AfDB web pages could become the 100-page definitive site on the subject, and there are 100s, if not 1000s, of individual topics which would merit a similar ‘portal’ treatment. This would cost very serious time and money, and is perhaps the biggest test of how far the Bank is really committed to being a true knowledge organization. It has started to take the portal route –for instance with the websites of the African Water Facility, or the new African Financial Markets Initiative—but it has only just begun.
Third, we want to bring our knowledge directly to the countries we serve, knowing that its value often outstrips the face value of the funds we can bring to the table. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf addressed the Bank in February 2013 about the value of a partnership with a Bank that is as much a trusted partner and a source of wisdom, as a source of valuable funds. She viewed much of the Bank’s engagement in Liberia as a product of applied Bank knowledge and its convening power, for example in helping her country arrive at solutions for the energy sector and in so doing dramatically bringing down the cost of electricity (which costs 15 times the rate in the US), in a country in which only 2% of people have access to electricity. This is the transformative power of knowledge. In the same way, she attributed emergency Bank aid in the face of a caterpillar plague in her country as the result of knowledge and the willingness and speed to deploy it, as much as of finance. Meanwhile Angola has an annual oil industry worth billions— what, realistically, can the Bank add? The answer is knowledge: in the management and governance of natural resources and their revenues, gained over generations. The Bank has so far assisted 10 countries to implement the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and has plans to scale up significantly in this area.
Fourth, we want to be conduits in a global information exchange, by which South may continue to share with and learn from North, but so too in which North learns from South, and—perhaps most significantly of all—South learns from South. We operate on the premise that there are no globally uniform paths to development, other than the empowerment of people. The Bank has the capacity to learn from and to teach its friends in the developing South, exchanging ideas on different models of growth—market-led and state-led, built on publicprivate and sometimes public-private-third sector partnerships, based on agriculture or industry or manufacturing or services, or any combination. The Bank’s task is to trade in the global information marketplace, and come home with as much of the produce as possible. It is already producing research on the way that experiences have been shared by Africa and China, and Africa and India.
Fifth, as the voice for development in Africa, we want to use our knowledge to be global advocates and global conveners. We were these, for instance, in the wake of the global financial crisis which began in 2008, when the Bank brought together the Committee of 10 Ministers of Finance and Central Bank Governors. Likewise, in the Bank’s role as an ambassador for Africa at the G20 in Seoul in November 2010, and in its mobilizing role in the public sector-led Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa, the private sector-led Infrastructure Consortium for Africa, and the North-South transport corridor.
The African Development Bank can already lay serious claim to being a knowledge institution for Africa. It’s Disclosure and Access to Information Policy is a key element of that—but its new Knowledge Management strategy will take it further down the road towards ever better management and use of its own and others’ intellectual capital. In all this, it supports the great goal of the economic transformation of Africa. By standing on the firmest foundations of Knowledge, the Bank can exercise a Wisdom Function for Africa.
Kapil Kapoor is Director of the Strategy Department at the AfDB. Prior to joining the Bank, he was the World Bank representative for Uganda and Zambia. As a manager, a development economist and governance specialist with the World Bank for over twenty years, he managed a portfolio of projects in excess of $1 billion. He has led numerous multi-sectoral development initiatives in diverse country settings. He has a PhD in Economics and an MBA in Finance.
John Phillips is Lead Strategic Communications Adviser in the Strategy Department of the AfDB. Since 1995 he has worked at the crossroads of international affairs and public affairs-- for the European Union, the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. In the last 10 years he has been public affairs adviser to a UK Minister for International Development, two Commonwealth Secretaries-General, and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. He studied History at Cambridge University.
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