The line between the personal and the professional is one that is more defined for some than others – what we feel versus what we think, what we love versus what we do. The line between the past and future is also held (in the present moment) differently from person to person. For some, the present is contingent on the past, seen through the eyes of, and felt through the experiences of, the past. For others, the present is made up of what is seen around you now; and is a stance that is looking towards the future, able to see it best if looking directly at it, with one’s back to the past. As I reflect on my work in international contexts, with development and sustainability related projects and partners, and in particular with my colleagues across the Sustainable Futures in Africa Network over the past weeks and years, I realise that those lines between personal and professional, and between past and future, become ever harder to make out, ever more slippery. My personal, my history and inheritance, my instincts and emotions, my profession and my expertise seem entirely entangled. It is with this recognition that I share the following statement, taken in part from an opening address to our recent symposium, and in part from a period of reflection in the immediate aftermath.
The SUSTAINABLE Futures in Africa ‘FAmily’
Our growing SFA network (that many call ‘family’) met last month, from the 12th to the 15th of February, 2018, in Lagos, Nigeria, hosted by our colleagues from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife-Ilfe. Forty of us gathered from five nations, and many of us had not been together in person since we met almost a year ago at the University of Botswana; some colleagues new to the network were introducing themselves for the first time. We gathered for a symposium titled Strengthening Connections for Sustainable Futures in Africa. We achieved this objective in many ways; and at the same time as strengthening connections, we continued to question, to push, and to resist the temptation to settle with the “business-as-usual.”
The SFA have wondered in various ways over the past couple of years what might we be missing (from our own research and practice, from the global drive that exists to make the world a better place) what we might unknowingly be doing or not doing that is contributing to (and not challenging) the ever-widening gap between those with resources and those without, between those with opposing views and values (causing extremism and intolerance). What might we be unknowingly doing that is contributing to (and not challenging) the ever-growing ecological crisis that we as humans are becoming an ever-greater cause of?
We have wondered about the ideas of development and aid as being complicit or inscribed by colonialism, paternalism, patriarchy, or fixed power dynamics working in favour of those already with privilege.
From a personal and professional position, I see and feel the injustice of a global knowledge economy, where research, teaching, and innovation is sought out everywhere, where international and development-related research and social justice is highly and substantially supported, but the Global north primarily benefits. Being based in the global north myself, and therefore benefiting from this dynamic, propels me to take accountability for my own role in that injustice. I see and feel the injustice of systems (like higher education, law, and health for example) that impose the most stringent and narrow versions of provision and support on those most marginalised already by economic, geographic and social factors; systems in which only those with stable access to resources are likely to benefit. I see and feel the consequences of nationalism, conservatism, and extremism in a world that has always been plural or diverse; has always been multiple; but now grapples with levels of inequality, along with mobility (by choice and forced), and communications that are unprecedented. We are working in relation to a world of increasing ecological vulnerability and social fragmentation. This process is happening ‘on our watch’; at the hands (in part) of our methods and practices, of our paradigms of research and professional practice.
What an amazing time in #Lagos. So many new connections, ideas, plans and enthusiasm to strengthen @SF_Africa can’t wait to see what the future holds #GCRF #partnership #friendship #nextsteps pic.twitter.com/eSb79xFKib
— UofG SciEng (@UofGSciEng) February 16, 2018
All conferences I’ve been to expect a command of expertise and dissemination of knowledge. In @SF_Africa, we have been encouraged to ‘unlearn’ our training and approach basic challenge issues with an open and enquiring mind. I suppose this is what interdisciplinarity is about.
— Nai Rui Chng (@nairuichng) February 13, 2018
We have wondered, in the SFA, what we might be able to do differently…
We have wondered, in the SFA, what we might be able to do differently: what we might be able to know and do if we found ways to genuinely communicate and collaborate with our scientific colleagues, our artist colleagues, our social science and educationalist colleagues. We have wondered what we might be able to know and do if we found ways to genuinely communicate and collaborate with the communities, often most affected by the global challenges of resource poverty, land degradation, and threats to public health.
Doing things differently in sustainability research is easy to say – and very hard to do. We’ve made a start. In order to do this work, we have experimented, taken risks, and moved out of comfort zones; we each have had to put our perspectives and our expertise in relation to other’s. We have, to different extents, been able to take ourselves out of the centre of our research and practice – to de-centre our own expertise and perspectives from our work. We might have had to risk ‘not-knowing’ what might happen next, what something means, what question might be needed, or answer might be required. To take these risks, the safety of strong connections, relationships and friendships are essential: Those relationships are ever stronger, more tangible, and visible in the SFA, since Lagos.
March 15, 2018
Dr Mia Perry
Network Coordinator, Sustainable Futures in Africa