The Answers are in us

This blog should enable us to think together and learn from each other as well as find inspiration – to collectively develop. Therefore, I would like to share an excerpt of my dissertation today about sharing knowledge.

My dissertation explores why and in what way groups of people are trying to make a positive change to the world in a different way to mainstream development. This is of relevance, because as many scholars, especially those looking at Development from an anthropological perspective, have pointed out and discussed, mainstream development is not solving global problems of poverty, injustice and unequal quality of living and opportunities. Some even suggest that matters are made more problematic by the notion of expertise and the practices of depoliticising, technicising and simplifying in mainstream development.



Mainstream development presupposes knowledge to be located with and in experts. It is hierarchical, meaning there are people and organisations with better or more knowledge. This feeds into the modernisation project so highly criticised by Arturo Escobar of the first world having the knowledge and power to solve third worlds problems.

A  process of redefining knowledge is taking place inside the alter-globalisation movement. “[T]he Zapatista woman says it best, as she asserts that Zapatista autonomy is, ‘the profound conviction that the answers are in us’” (Flores 2001). Understanding the ‘answers’ or knowledge to be in us is a rebellious act, as it “reclaims the right to know from those who have the power to sanctify knowledge” (Maeckelbergh 2009:124). This means to say that there is no privileged or superior knowledge, which is understood as oppressive by most movement actors (ibid:124). Redefining the way legitimate knowledge can be constructed is therefore part of a political struggle for the right of self-determination (Escobar 2005: 218).

Gramsci’s notion of the organic intellectual is often used to describe knowledge production inside the alter-globalisation movement. Using this notion it is possible to acknowledge “activists as agents not as subjects of discourse” (Eschle 2005: 33). In Gramsci’s radical and inclusive conception of intellectualism “he sees all individuals as intellectuals/philosophers in the sense that everyone has a fundamental conception of the world that is shaped by and may shape prevailing hegemonies” (Birchfield and Freyberg-Inan 2005: 156). It is important here to understand knowledge as “situated, finite, socially constructed and discursively mediated” (Eschle 2005: 33). In this sense the activist is an agent is the producer of her or his own knowledge (ibid: 33). The knowledge of organic intellectuals is indistinguishably linked to their political activism. They “posses a critical consciousness and a desire to question and change existing social conditions” and the “the organisers of, and advocates for, systematic change” (Birchfield and Freyberg-Inan 2005: 157). This also means that the line between theory and practice is blurred, there are “multiple sites of production and multiple mediations in the generation and production of theory” (Escobar 2005: 346).

Gramsci also stresses the need to break the divide between teachers and learners. This can also be used as a metaphor for mainstream development to propose overcoming “the conception of the developed world as furnishing ‘teachers’ for the developing South ‘learners’” (Birchfield and Freyberg-Inan 2005: 171). Instead there should be mutual learning which is “in Gramsci’s words, ‘active and reciprocal’” (ibid: 171). Understanding knowledge and learning like this could “help break the Eurocentric and neocolonial structures of knowledge production that are dominant in our world” (ibid: 171). ATTAC, one of the larger organisations inside the alter-globalisation movement has set itself the task of facilitating precisely this kind of global learning to promote a more just world for all” (ibid: 171).

One compelling example of different understanding of knowledge and learning is described by Nick Higgins and also highlighted in Maeckelbergh’s ethnography. It is from the Zapatista movement. In Sub-commandante Marco’s diary and poetry he describes his transformation from the teacher, the one with clear cut answers which just need to be communicated, to the pupil the one with open eyes and ears. When the educated, urban, non-Indian Zapatista arrived in the Chiapas jungle, they “saw themselves as the vanguard, and the Indians were simply ‘the exploited people – those that had to be organised and shown the path’” (Higgins 2005: 91-92). The ‘vanguards’ began teaching the Indians “the absurdities that we had been taught; of imperialism, social crisis, the correlation of forces and their coming together, things that nobody understands, and of course neither did they” (Higgins 2005: 89). At the point at which the non-Indians realized poor translation was not the reason for misunderstanding, they began to listen (Higgins 2005: 92). One of the elders of the Indian Zapatista community taught Subcommandante Marcos to rear away from searching answers in abstract theories on the outside, but “to look within” (Higgins 2005: 95).

To conclude, different than mainstream development this conception of knowledge enables questioning and learning as well as non-expert assertion of knowledge. I hope we can do a little of that in this blog.


Birchfield, Vicky and Freyberg-Inan, Annette. 2005. Organic Intellectuals and counter-hegemonic politics in the age of globalisation – The case of ATTAC. In Eschle, Catherine and Maiguashca, Bise. 2005. Critical Theories, International Relations and ‘the Anti-Globalisation Movement’: The Politics of Global Resistance. London : Routledge.

Eschle, Catherine. Constructing ‘the anti-globalisation movement’. In Eschle, Catherine and Maiguashca, Bise. 2005. Critical Theories, International Relations and ‘the Anti-Globalisation Movement’: The Politics of Global Resistance. London : Routledge.

Escobar, Arturo. Imagining a Post-Development Era. In Edelmann, Marc and Haugerud, Angelique. 2005. The Anthropology of Development and Globalization: From Classical Political Economy to Contempory Neoliberalism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Higgins, Nick. 2005. Lessons from the indigenous: Zapatista poetics and a cultural humanism for the twenty-first century. In Eschle, Catherine and Maiguashca, Bise. 2005. Critical Theories, International Relations and ‘the Anti-Globalisation Movement’: The Politics of Global Resistance. London : Routledge.

Mackelberg, M. 1009. The Will of the Many. How the Alterglobalisation Movement is Changing the face of Democracy. Pluto: London.


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