One of the most enduring misconceptions in developing countries is the notion that if farmers and rural people are not involved in creating knowledge they will not adopt what comes from outside. As a result, billions of US dollars have gone into diverse versions of participatory development approaches. Unfortunately, as soon as donor funding dries up, most communities either go back to their original practices or they become more confused about what course of action to take.
Development agencies have not invested in understanding the main reasons why some approaches and technologies are adopted effortlessly while others are rejected even though they seem to make sense. While involving users in creating knowledge is considered a key component of ensuring adoption, many African countries have several technologies that have been developed and adopted without involving users. Experts who understand human psychology have gone ahead to successfully create machines and frame works without consulting users. For example, rural African communities are teeming with grinding mills, oil expelling machines, tractors, water pumps, solar panels, cultivators, planters, ploughs and many other tools that have shaped livelihoods. No farmer or rural artisan was consulted in designing, pre-testing and rolling out all these gadgets yet they have spread like wild fire.
Experts should not under-estimate themselves
The world is a better place because of experts and gifted geniuses who can accurately see what is hidden to the majority of human beings. While it makes sense to consult or involve communities in generating knowledge and technologies that affect their lives, what if you are introducing something entirely new that a particular community has never seen it work anywhere before? How can you expect people to have an opinion about what they do not know they need to know? If you do not know what you need to know, everything new is acceptable. There are many situations where an outsider can clearly see the big picture in ways that local communities may never see even in 100 years of participatory engagement.
In addition, many people do not take too long to be convinced about something. If, as an expert, you are cork-sure about what you want to introduce, why waste resources trying to convince everyone? For instance, why would a monetary specialist waste time and money trying to get ordinary people to understand the intricacies of financial dynamics in the economy? If you have done your homework as an expert why look for non-experts to tell you what to do? There are issues that are better left to experts with the majority happy to be consumers and adopters. If those who designed WhatsApp had tried to involve everyone from conception up to rolling out, do you think the technology could have seen the light of day?
Participatory approaches should not be embraced uncritically. As long as experts and promoters are confident about what they are introducing, communities can put their faith in something new and eventually adopt it without doubt. The world is what it is due to numerous top-down approaches and imposed technologies that have been massively adopted because they answered and continue to answer a need. Experts and designers are better off conceiving technologies in isolation and bringing them to users when the time is right. Many people do not have the time, patience and temperament to be involved in the whole journey through which a knowledge product travels from being an idea to reality. There is a place for the wisdom of the crowd and a place for experts.
Not everyone cares about nutrition research
Given the complexity of nutrition knowledge, it is rather far-fetched to expect every consumer to be knowledgeable about carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamin B6, etc. It is the role of experts to package all these important food attributes without bothering ordinary people with all the details. It is like expecting every car driver to have intimate knowledge about the engine – how pistons work inside the engine, electrical issues in the car, etc. Experts and those who have made it their mission to promote these technologies should do so without causing unnecessary cognitive over-load in ordinary people.
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