Creating Local Knowledge Communities (Strategies for Building Network Capacity)

Transnational coalitions also differ in the degree to which they employ strategies that enhance governance networks’ capacity to take action. When it comes to applying global ideas at the grassroots level, an important capacity-building strategy is to create local “knowledge” communities of like-minded experts and activists. A knowledge (or “epistemic”) community is a “network of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain or issue area” (Haas 1992, 3). Members come from different backgrounds, but are united by a shared “set of norms that motivate their common action, a set of beliefs about central problems in their area of expertise, shared criteria for evaluating knowledge, and a common policy enterprise” (Clunan 2013, 1).

The importance of knowledge communities for coordinating international policy is well-documented. They interpret complex problems and promote particular responses to decision makers within national governments and international organizations. I argue that local knowledge communities (comprised of local residents rather than outside experts) are equally important for institutionalizing global ideas at the local level. When global ideas first emerge, however, local knowledge communities often do not exist, particularly in rural areas of developing countries. Creating them becomes an important mechanism of network activation.

Transnational networks create local knowledge communities through both direct and indirect strategies. The experience of transnational IWM networks is illustrative. Some members work directly in communities for years to recruit and train community organizers, who in turn organize and sustain IWM programs in their communities. Another, less direct, strategy is to create environmental management programs espousing IWM principles in local universities. These two strategies, employed across the developing world in the 1990s, produced a new generation of local experts working to improve watershed management in their communities.

Local experts and activists enhance transnational networks’ capacity to govern locally by serving as important brokers between transnational networks and local stakeholder groups. They bridge the cultural divide between foreign advocates and local farmers, loggers, miners, social movements, politicians, businesses, and others. They translate global ideas, both in a linguistic and conceptual sense, and use their own social and cultural capital to build trust between community members and transnational coalitions advocating local governance reforms (Fox 2009). In this way, they facilitate the network activation process at the local level.

In some respects, members of local knowledge communities resemble Steinberg’s (2001, 10) “bilateral activists”—cosmopolitan elites from developing countries who “encounter foreign ideas by virtue of their travels, ... embrace them as a function of their worldly outlook,” and then use their knowledge of national policy culture and access to political resources to design national environmental policies. Members of local knowledge communities are similar in that they serve as bridges between the international and domestic realms and they become activists for policy change in their communities. Yet, many look very different from Steinberg’s description of bilateral activists. They are not “rooted cosmopolitans” in the usual sense (Tarrow 2005). Most are not highly educated, urban professionals accustomed to circulating in international (or even national) policy circles. Rather, they are ordinary people—smallholder farmers, craftspeople, small business owners, municipal bureaucrats, and the like. Many have never traveled to the capital city, much less gone abroad. Their exposure to global ideas comes instead from programs established in their communities by transnational networks. For reasons described later, it is precisely their rootedness in their local communities, and not a cosmopolitan outlook or experience, that makes them effective “global governors"

In one sense, creating knowledge communities is a motivation strategy. Through repeated attendance in meetings, seminars, and training events, local organizers are socialized to view IWM principles and practices as the best solution to locally identified problems (Checkel 2005). However, these local organizers also enhance a governance network’s capacity in several respects. First, they provide a reservoir of local expertise that gives continuity and a sense of embeddedness to local governance efforts. Second, their status as local community members makes them better situated than their foreign counterparts to facilitate the dissemination of global ideas, adapt them to fit local contexts, and recruit additional local support. For reasons discussed later, their ability to exploit local vulnerabilities also makes them better equipped than their foreign allies to pressure resistant stakeholders. Finally, local knowledge communities build capacity by providing transnational governance networks with access to local resources, including information, social capital, and access to local social networks, as well as to key decision makers in local government and community organizations. For these reasons, grassroots global governance theory argues that the grassroots global governance process is more likely to endure when and where transnational governance networks train local knowledge communities.

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