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Debunking the KM myth: Knowledge management in the peace-building sector

Debunking the KM myth: Knowledge management in the peace-building sector

| by Eva Steketee

As a sector invested in transforming conflicts by understanding the root causes of violence, the ability to manage grassroots and organisational knowledge is key to our success. Peace-building organisations rely on knowledge: knowing the conflict, knowing the community, knowing what works and knowing what is detrimental. The sustainability and impact of our work depends on being able to learn from experiences, collect knowledge from the field and build innovative ideas. In sum, it requires us to enter the “Knowledge Management” (KM) world. 

Whilst KM is a well-researched and extensively employed concept in the private sector, some might argue a hackneyed buzzword; in the non-governmental organisation (NGO) world, and especially the peace-building sector, KM remains relatively underexplored.

Applying corporate concepts to NGOs is typically contentious, as it is a sector that prides itself on its not-for-profit methods of operating. However, KM is a strategic approach that perfectly showcases why these two seemingly contradicting concepts—being business-minded and charitable—are not only complementary but also mutually indispensable to fulfilling the mandate of an NGO.

The KM Paradox: Barriers and Opportunities for Implementing KM

Implementing KM activities in this sector is hindered by several obstacles. One of the main objections is the lack of time and resources. With pressing on-the-ground needs and the priority of bringing about social change and improving the lives of beneficiaries, investing time, human and monetary resources in what is considered as “overhead administration” is deemed unjustifiable.

NGOs are often small organisations, with limited budgets, resources and technological infrastructure. A high staff turnover is common, meaning that organisational memory is quickly lost and an organisation-wide project like KM may be easily stalled. In addition, KM is often inhibited by an unwillingness or inability to share knowledge across the sector, due to competition for funding or a lack of communication outlets.


However, viewing KM as a low priority issue in relation to frontline work is inherently paradoxical, as organisations survive on knowledge and their performance is significantly improved by effective knowledge creation and transfer. So why is making tacit knowledge available in the peace-building sector so essential? The most important reason, to unravel the aforementioned paradox, is that KM is inherent to a beneficiary-focused agenda. Collecting feedback from programmes, documenting the experiences of practitioners and beneficiaries, and sharing lessons learnt allows for beneficiaries to be involved in the highest quality and most impactful programmes. When knowledge is not shared, opportunities for improvements may be lost, even where flaws seem to be evident. Leveraging external knowledge also ensures that NGOs collaborate towards shared goals without creating a concoction of competing services. In sum, as Alan Fowler (1997) wrote already 20 years ago: “Crudely put, if NGOs do not learn from their experience, they are destined for insignificance and will atrophy as agents of social change” .

Case Study: A Unique Peace-building Approach

Our innovative model at Generations For Peace (GFP), a Jordan-based global NGO, demonstrates how KM can be integrated into the core of peace-building activities, defying the KM predicament faced by the sector.

At GFP, an organisation dedicated to building sustainable peace in communities at the grassroots level by promoting youth leadership, community empowerment, active tolerance, and responsible citizenship, we work globally in a variety of cultural, social and political contexts, making KM all the more difficult yet essential.

Accordingly, methods for capturing and sharing knowledge are inherent to our organisational structure. First and foremost, we consistently develop our peace-building curriculum to train volunteers in the field, built on inputs from staff and the knowledge captured from our volunteers. We use a sustainable ‘cascading model’, whereby our volunteers, trained in the curriculum, impart their knowledge onto others in the community, generation by generation.

To create a knowledge cycle, bringing our volunteers’ experiences back into our core curriculum, different feedback mechanisms are built into the programmatic structure, collected through regular monitoring and evaluation (M&E) procedures, aimed at improving future programme design and implementation. This feedback process involves all stages of the feedback loop, and is additionally supported by the findings of participatory evaluation sessions, run after each programmatic cycle, in which both direct and indirect programme beneficiaries take part. Furthermore, the GFP Institute conducts in-depth quantitative and qualitative research on its programmes, collecting impact evidence as well as capturing acquired knowledge, lessons learnt and recommendations. 

The impacts of these KM-led activities are far-reaching and profound. As we enter the KM world and adopt a business-minded approach where we recognise the value of managing tacit knowledge, we are beginning to close the knowledge loop, making sure that our programmes and training are of the highest quality and are evidence-based. Ultimately, these activities contribute to one goal: improving the sustainability, quality, impact and innovative nature of our approach. As we start to notice the organisational benefits of KM, the central claim in this article becomes increasingly clear: that KM is essential to fulfilling the core mandate of a peace-building NGO.

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