Are we ready for an “academic spring”?

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Danny Burns

Danny Burns

The Wellcome Foundation recently announced that it would be taking steps towards open access to information. It is unhappy about the dominance of three academic publishers who according to the Guardian account for 42% of journal articles, and it proposes to set up its own online journal. It is also keen to ensure that research gets out within six months avoiding the absurdly long lead times of some academic publishers. Harvard University is “encouraging its faculty members to make their research freely available through open access journals and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls”.

These are important steps from large and influential institutions, and I applaud them, but this is only the start of a much bigger revolution in knowledge generation and dissemination that needs to happen. The model of knowledge that is represented by academic journals is outdated, exclusive and ineffective.

Innovative and creative thinking is most likely to emanate from diverse collaborations. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) pushes academics toward the production of single authored papers in elite journals. Stephen Curry quoted in the Guardian says that although the adjudicating panels have been instructed to ignore the impact factors of journals, no one believes that “it is remotely possible to do so”. Journals are largely disciplinary and yet most real world problems are inter-disciplinary. It is really hard to get good cross disciplinary reviews of research.

Even the idea of peer review needs to be challenged. Who are the peers? Are they affected in any way by the research? Even if we accept the legitimacy of academic ‘peers’, their insanely busy lives mean that they are usually reading these articles on the bus or the train, or crammed in between other things that they are doing. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is the elite talking to the elite.

While peer review is supposed to ensure good scientific method, the controversies over scientific climate change research clearly show how the perspectives that people bring to these analyses fundamentally impact on their assessment. When it comes to complex social issues, interpretation and sense making are critical. Knowledge that is co-generated and critiqued by those people that will be affected by it, is likely to be much more robust than knowledge extracted by external researchers; Knowledge that can pass freely across the internet can be interrogated and subjected to a much more diverse arena of scrutiny; Knowledge that is written in straightforward language that is meaningful to more diverse populations will be triangulated by a far more diverse community. Knowledge that is generated iteratively and continuously, and tested in action, is likely to make a far greater impact on complex social problems than knowledge crystallised in journals long after the event.

The internet provides other ways of validating research. As the Guardian points out downloads, numbers of bookmarks on social networking sites etc may much better indication of research quality than where it is published. Similarly initiatives like Google Scholar which can track who has cited or used work across a much wide range of outputs offer exciting possibilities. I want to know if my work appears in policy documents, books, pamphlets, films etc. I want to know how it is being used is to impact on poverty and vulnerability. I don’t want to know if an elite journal thinks that I am worthy of publication, and I don’t believe this serves society.

Academics have long assumed the position of “experts” in our society because they have had unique access to information and intellectual argument. This is no longer true. The internet makes access to information ubiquitous and opens that information up to the many different expert voices that have a right to reflect upon it. The more that we open up the knowledge that we generate the more society can benefit from the many views and perspectives which can give it meaning. It will not be an easy journey to find new models of knowledge distribution which allow real access and interaction. These will inetivably evolve rather than be constructed, but many people are starting to think about this and many initiatives are already well underway

There are clear implications for me. We should not stand on the sidelines and say that while we believe in new ideas about knowledge, we will continue to participate in the old system and legitimise it. We should stand up for a new vision of open knowledge generation. Many academics might not want to walk this road because to threaten the status quo might threaten their career progression. But if we believe in the social change that we espouse in our writings, this is exactly what we should be prepared to do.

Danny Burns is the Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

This post was originally published on Participation. Power and Social Change blog

Challenging attempts to silence civil society in Uganda

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Stephen Wood

Barely a year after the murder of gay rights activist David Kato focussed international attention on the treatment of sexual minorities within Uganda, there is a sense that renewed attacks on freedom for these citizens are growing in momentum once again.

Yesterday, a conference organised by Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), a campaign lobbying for the recognition of same sex relationships was ordered to close by the State Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Simon Lokodo, who threatened force against participants unless they dispersed. The Minister ordered the arrest of Kasha Jacqueline Nabagasera, a prominent LGBT rights activist, but she managed to escape the venue in time.

This follows at the heels of the announcement in the last couple of weeks that the “Anti-Homosexuality” Bill that prompted international revulsion last year, has now been reintroduced by backbench MP, David Bahati. Whilst details remain unclear on which elements of the Bill have been discarded aside from the headline-grabbing death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”, it remains a fierce incursion into the lives of Ugandan citizens and a grave new source of human rights violations. For me, a particularly worrying element of the bill is the potential criminal penalties for those who know of homosexual behaviour, but do not report individuals to the authorities. Medical practitioners, teachers, relatives and aid workers may find themselves under threat of arrest.

The broader implications for civil society in Uganda are exceptionally worrying and play into a wider narrative of intimidation of those threatening the hegemony of the state, such as attacks upon journalists covering the presidential and parliamentary elections and the cancellation of similar conferences of organised sex workers. FARUG and the other participants are exercising the right to organise around sexual rights and the forced cancellation of this meeting undermines the right of citizens to freedom of expression and association in Uganda, rights guaranteed under national and international law.

In many ways, the treatment of the advocates for sexual minorities mirrors the silencing of oppositional political parties by the state, making it harder for their case to be heard and distracting attention from the real problems facing Uganda – accusations of Government corruption, poverty and the painful reconstruction of northern Uganda as a result of the armed conflict by the militant Lords Resistance Army. A more authoritarian approach is emerging from the Government, one that finds strength in targeting sexual minorities as a Western imperialist “enemy within” that plays to comforting nationalist tropes. These repressive events demonstrate even more keenly that the rights of sexual minorities are as important as all other human rights and that the methods used to suppress their political freedom are as pernicious and familiar as those experienced by other parts of Ugandan civil society. Building solidarity across these movements remains as important as ever.

As a gay man, I know through experience how important the fight for equality is for those people outside normative gender and sexual identities in shaping our sense of identity and self-worth. It fuels my commitment to development and the transformative impact of international aid in building sustainable communities that possess the confidence to support all their citizens. This current existential threat to the daily lives of sexual minorities in Uganda undermines their ability to participate in their communities in that manner and could also prevent their ability to work in partnership with international aid agencies, consequently undermining the viability of valuable work around poverty alleviation, health outcomes (including, but broader than HIV/AIDS) and access to education. The IDS Sexuality and Development Programme continues to focus our attention upon the links between sexuality and poverty and how heteronormativity in aid programming reinforces these inequitable structures in outcomes for groups within society. An essential part of tackling this involves working in partnership with community organisations in countries such as Uganda to reach these vulnerable populations, work also imperilled by this renewed intrusion into civil society by the Government.

As I’ve argued previously in an earlier post, these latest events present a challenge for the international community. I believe we need to see a nuanced, collective strategy that continues to build diplomatic support internationally for the human rights of all citizens, coupled with support on the ground for those NGOs with a proven track record in working with marginalised and vulnerable communities. International pressure should be available as a tool at the disposal of southern communities and exercised as their strategic political needs dictate. Their voices and needs should lie at the heart of our development policies, not least at a time when they are under sustained threat of being silenced.

Stephen Wood is a researcher for the Sexuality and Development Programme in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and can be found on Twitter at: stephenwood_UK

This post was originally published on Participation. Power and Social Change blog

Reflecting back upon the PPSC team’s activities in 2011

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Danny Burns

Danny Burns

As 2012 begins, I want to take this opportunity to wish you a happy (and stress free) New Year. In this blog I want to talk offer a few flavours of things that members of the team have been working on; others you will see from recent contributions to the blog; more will follow over the next weeks…

An increasing area of interest for development actors at all levels, from grassroots movements to major donors, is how to better understand the complex, shifting and multi-layered social and political environments in which development and change occur. Many organisations are searching for more relevant tools of context analysis. Jethro Pettit and others have been working on new tools for power and political economy analysis. Popular frameworks like the Powercube (developed by John Gaventa)are being adapted and combined with other approaches. Recent learning partnerships on power have included Oxfam, Novib, Hivos, Christian Aid, the Swedish Cooperative Centre, and Trocaire. Work has also been carried out within the UK voluntary and philanthropic sector with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and the Carnegie UK Trust, Trust for London. This work has included three, year-long action learning processes with dozens of participants from these foundations and more than 20 of their partner organisations Training modules on power have adapted into Spanish and French and facilitated by IDS staff in universities and workshops in Spain, West Africa and Latin America.

The team’s work around “unruly politics” has been growing steadily through the “Summer of Unruly Reading” group facilitated by Akshay Khanna. We have been building a collective conceptual analysis within the team, and growing a work programme with Hivos and their partners. We have also been building connections with people in the Occupy movement. Mariz Tadros continues to be closely engaged with the emerging situation in Egypt and other parts of North Africa.

PPSC has been contracted to engage in a number of new programmes this year. These include:

  • a three year programme on gender and sexuality funded by SIDA (Sweden)
  • a three year programme with SDC (Switzerland) –on participatory methodologies and developing the resource centre as a hub for materials on participatory methodologies
  • a three year programme with SDC working with the IDS Governance team to support the work of their Decentralisation and Local Governance Network
  • an extension of Gates Foundation funding for our Community Led Total Sanitation Hub

The PPSC team played a major role in designing and delivering the Bellagio initiative on the future of international development and philanthropy in pursuit of human well being which comprised a series of global dialogues, commissioned papers and a major international summit. PPSC fellows – Danny Burns (Delhi and Kinna, Kenya), Patta Scott-Villiers (Kinna, Kenya), Alex Shankland (Sao Paulo) and Mariz Tadros (Cairo) – facilitated four of the global dialogues. Georgina Powell Stevens co-ordinated the summit participation of around 200 participants. In June of this year Alex Shankland and I, will be facilitating another Bellagio conference on Indigenous health with colleagues from KIT (Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam).

Rosemary McGee has recently carried out a major review of accountability and transparency initiatives with John Gaventa. Naomi Hossain continues her longitudinal work with Oxfam and others on food price volatility; Joanna Wheeler, Peter Clarke and I are working on a six country action research programme with VSO and the international volunteering network FORUM on the impact of volunteering on poverty; Joanna Wheeler and Tessa Lewin have been working on a range of participatory video initiatives; Marzia Fontana has been working with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce of Lao PDR on a project which has brought Lao-based women’s groups and international organisations into dialogue with each other. Rosalind Eyben has been organising The Big Push Forward – an international initiative that links practitioners and researchers to identify and share strategies and approaches for fair assessment and evaluation. Patta Scott Villiers is leading a programme of action research in Karamoja Northern Uganda funded by Irish Aid. Alex Shankland is opening up new areas of work on the role of emerging powers in reshaping development especially through civil society.

Pathways to Women‘s Empowerment in the Middle East hosted a UN Women organized conference on “Pathways for Women in Democratic Transitions: International Experiences and Lessons Learned” in Cairo. The meeting featured Michele Bachelet and others discussing legal reform, women’s movements and gender-responsive accountability systems. Mariz Tadros was a speaker on the panel “Building Strong Women’s Movements in Democratic Transitions”.

The team has recently published a number of IDS working papers and bulletins and will publish a bulletin on Action Research in International Development this spring.

Finally I want to say a huge thank you and good luck to John Gaventa and Kate Hawkins. John has been an inspiration to the PPSC team for more than a decade. He has joined the Coady Institute in Canada as their new Director. Kate Hawkins our sexuality programme convenor who has initiated and developed a great deal of exciting work within the team will be leaving IDS (but will continue to work with us as a free lancer). I would also like to welcome to the team Research Fellow Jerker Edstrom and Jas Vaghadia who will be working on our gender, masculinities and sexuality programmes. Welcome also to Naomi Vernon who is joining our CLTS team.

As I say, just a few flavours of the many different things that are happening. If you want to find out more, follow the links, or contact us directly.

Danny Burns is the Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and will be publishing IDS Bulletin

43.3 ”Action Research in Development” in May 2012

This post was originally published on Participation. Power and Social Change blog