Community radio: A case of knowledge democracy in action

In the current system of socio-economic development around the world, knowledge has become increasingly important. The knowledge economy is seen to be rapidly integrated into the growth strategies of societies.

The dominant knowledge system of our times is the basis for educating and training the next generation of professionals. Higher education institutions produce and mobilise academic knowledge, largely based on European theories and frameworks that have evolved over a few centuries. Universal access to higher education, mostly conducted in a European language, is further alienating young people from the contexts in which their parents live and work.

Bridging the knowledge gaps

Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) and the UNESCO Co-Chair on Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, with support from the Asia Democracy Research Network, organised a seminar on “Knowledge Democracy: Bridging knowledge cultures” in February in New Delhi, India.

A total of 57 participants, from academia, grassroots organisations and civil society sectors, attended the seminar. It was an opportunity for them to share their perspectives and experiences of identifying practical ways in which authentic bridging may be practised and taught to the next generation.

Over the past decade, many experiments in community-university partnerships to co-create knowledge solutions have been gaining visibility. Yet, understanding of community knowledge systems, their rituals, literature, music, stories and artefacts has been rather limited, even amongst such innovative practices.

A recent international study of bridging knowledge cultures has produced some significant insights into how diverse knowledge systems can be synergised.

The post-COVID context is starting to raise questions about the limitations of the various knowledge economy models practised so far. Greater attention to experiential, indigenous, community knowledge is being encouraged at national and global levels to respond to these challenges.

Respectful social engagement is the essence of responsible higher education. Higher education institutions together with the communities they serve need to harvest local knowledge and co-produce sustainable solutions. Becoming responsive to local challenges requires making higher education institutions’ teaching, research and service missions locally rooted and contextually situated.

India’s National Education Policy 2020 has explicitly recommended efforts to integrate community knowledge in teaching and research in higher education. The policy acknowledges the significance of community engagement in all disciplines and courses of higher education; its objectives and operational guidelines have recommended the adaptation of all courses to engage with society for mutual learning.

Invisible exclusion

To further facilitate the process of community engagement, it is crucial that community knowledge gets acknowledged and documented. Often the knowledge produced by indigenous and local communities in their own languages is not recognised as knowledge.

One of the most invisible forms of exclusion in modern societies, therefore, is that which devalues local, experiential and indigenous knowledge systems. By excluding local knowledge systems, their democratic participation and inclusive development is obstructed.

In this light, the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science (universally ratified by all member states) in November 2021 are timely as they call for valuing a multiplicity of epistemologies and systems of community knowledge.

Many action-research scholars do not really check if their work is accessible to society, since many choose to publish in ‘prestigious’ journals or costly books published by for-profit publishers that only people linked to a university can access. Conversely, open access practitioners, most of whom are from the Global North, tend to ignore the plurality of knowledge or even the fact that some interesting and important knowledge could exist outside of mainstream science.

Challenges to knowledge democracy

There is an evident emerging movement towards ‘knowledge democracy’, which recognises and integrates the diversity of knowledge systems. At the February event, Dr Rajesh Tandon emphasised that participatory research has been PRIA’s foundational principle – it values local knowledge and enables people to systematise that knowledge to gain more knowledge.

However, Dr Budd Hall said that in the past many decades, the distribution of knowledge has become more unequal, with individuals and institutions building a “wall” and declaring knowledge their territory and people inside universities are seen as “knowers” or “experts” while those outside are seen as “non-knowers” or “ignorant”.

Thus, the research process itself must be democratised and opened up, especially to those who are usually excluded from it – non-scientists, non-academics, indigenous peoples and knowledge holders in the Global South, who thus become ‘actor-researchers’.

Knowledge democracy chimes seamlessly with participatory processes, with the fight against cognitive inequalities and injustices, with an aspiration to decolonise knowledge and with resistance against epistemicide.

Among the other challenges to knowledge democracy is the debate about ‘intellectual property rights’ and ‘paywalls’ that have exacerbated and promoted colonial racist approaches to knowledge.

All the major journals and publishing platforms are mainly Eurocentric – they do not recognise knowledge produced in indigenous or native languages, with Eurocentric views therefore monopolising the knowledge dissemination systems.

There is a greater need for bridging the diverse forms of knowledge production and dissemination through a process of co-creation – a collaborative process of knowledge production that involves theoretically and professionally equipped research teams and community members who are living the experiences being researched.

It aims to generate knowledge about local and social community realities through community members’ experiences. Furthermore, open access to publications could be considered a powerful tool in the pursuit of ‘knowledge democracy’ since its purpose is to abolish barriers between researchers and their readers.

Societal actors

Dr Sonajharia Minz told the seminar that knowledge democracy doesn’t mean just talking about multiple epistemologies. It is fundamental to research practice. In social sciences, when people work with data, they look for correlations, but in data mining we look for patterns that come out of associations which may not be correlated, but may be differently related.

Various indigenous studies could maybe answer ‘what’, ‘when’, a part of ‘how’ but not ‘why’. This is because interpersonal relationships are complex and indigenous communities have symbiotic relationships which cannot be easily understood. The ‘why’ can only be answered and validated by the community. Thus, it is important to open the processes of scientific knowledge creation, evaluation and communication to societal actors beyond the traditional scientific community.

Professor NV Varghese emphasised the need to create a demand for actionable, inclusive and transformative knowledge. The democratisation of knowledge happens at different levels, he said. Theory is nothing but the generalisation of practices and those practices do not take place in the universities and laboratories; they take place in the community.

In many parts of the world, renowned universities consider community engagement as unreliable as it results in qualitative data and not the preferable empirical data.

The biggest crisis in India is this phenomenon of ‘schooling without learning’. The public system of education can negate learning, and in this light the National Education Policy 2020 is timely as it focuses on ‘learning’ as opposed to the education process of attending schools and universities.

Even today, many of the research universities continue to be elitist in their approach and, as a result, the knowledge they produce continues to be elitist because it is not linked to the relevant communities.

Therefore, the question is – how do we generate demand for such knowledge? It is important to change the locus of knowledge production and dissemination. In this context, understanding the market and knowledge production processes becomes crucial.

Under globalisation, higher education has become a commodity to be placed in the market. In this context, in many developing countries research is promoted by funding agencies who therefore control how a particular issue is defined and the methodologies that are deployed in the process of the research and conclusions are drawn even before the research questions are framed – that is the challenge facing the current knowledge generation system.

Community radio

Knowledge democracy emphasises that the demand side of the knowledge generation system must become a priority. One example is the way, during COVID-19, researchers attempted to bridge the gap between community and university knowledge through the medium of ‘community radio’. The idea was to reach out to communities and share information ‘with’ them.

Community radio stations in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, among others, aim to serve their communities and reach the unreached, especially non-literate communities. Community radio broadcasters’ primary role remains community engagement – on different (and relevant) issues, in local languages and in an indigenous context.

In this way, local communities use their communication competencies to share information and build resilient communities that adopt sustainable lifestyles. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, community radio had a huge impact on marginalised and underprivileged groups through its various locally contextualised programmes in local vernacular languages.

It was used to stay connected with communities in various interesting ways in Gurgaon and Mysore, to generate awareness among the community and by the community on various issues. It used folklore, skits, quizzes, etc, in local languages to make the vocabulary of COVID-19 comprehensible to participants (such as physical distancing, lockdown, hygiene, quarantine and so forth).

During the lockdown, community radio helped listeners by providing verified information in local languages in a timely manner, busting rumours about the virus and offering counselling and school programmes for children who did not have access to the digital world or literacy and so on.

There are certain key characteristics of community radio:

• Its close proximity to the community;

• It is run in partnership with and with the participation of community members;

• Unlike ‘one-size-fits-all’ models of dissemination of knowledge, the content of community radio programmes is contextualised locally;

• The use of local languages (such as Bhojpuri, Haryanvi, Desia, etc) make them more accessible and relatable;

• It uses terrestrial broadcasting and distinguishes itself from online or digital (social media) which communities do not have access to.

In this way, community radio challenges the dominant knowledge hierarchies by recognising local communities as bearers of valuable community knowledge who can then become active producers of content rather than remaining passive consumers or receivers of knowledge. As such, it is a strong example of knowledge democracy in action and much can be learned from it.

Neha Chaudhry is the Indian coordinator of the UNESCO Chair on Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), India. This article is based on the recent seminar on ‘Knowledge Democracy: Bridging knowledge cultures’ in New Delhi.