(photos courtesy of Acacia Learning Forum '09 on flickr)
In the beginning of October (yes, I know... almost two months later!), I had a chance to participate in an extraordinary event in Dakar called the Acacia Research and Learning Forum. After nearly a year + of planning, this meeting brought together just over 150 researchers, bloggers, and other brilliant African minds. The meeting was to take stock of the incredible African research in information and communication technologies that has been produced in at least the last decade and have a look forward to the future of ICT4D research in Africa.
ARLF: an Innovative System: My thoughts
In my perspective, the Acacia research and learning forum (ARLF) had some similarities to an innovation system. In both an innovation system and the ARLF, the relevant players from different spheres (such as academic, government, entrepreneurs, civil society, etc.) of Africa’s development come together and became aware of the extent of research through which ICT4D exists in Africa. The forum raised new refreshing ideas on how different disciplinary work could complement each other. In being aware of the diverse research being conducted in Africa towards development, the participants became aligned towards the shared interest of how their African ICT4D research has helped to better understand the economic and social implications of ICTs. This alignment has helped to reinforce the joint commitment towards Africa’s development. The Forum gathered participants who are partners with IDRC and this built trust allowed researchers to express their project or research network successes as well as their fears in an open and honest space.
Forum Methodology: The forum processes were innovative and participatory particularly to encourage new thought and learning. Many participants were excited in the ever changing format of the forum, moving from styles like an Open Space format to Speed Geeking. The process however, had the risk of overwhelming participants of the vast extent of ICT4D research and may have participants feel less direction in a more vast view of development. In other words the attempt to become holistic and organic in thinking particularly in such an interdisciplinary field as ICT4D can leave one uncertain on how to ensure inclusiveness of all development aspects of their project without losing their core objective or under limited funding.
On the other hand, this new method of learning can also be transformative and help to foster refreshing, and novel ideas (such as aspects of privacy, surveillance, and security in a networked society) to the betterment of the African research networks and projects. The participants also became so absorbed in the new un-conference process that some wished to adopt similar methodologies of learning to their institution.
At the end of the day, the forum shared how our partners have attempted to tackle their research projects with different levels of contact with policymakers, communication for influence, capacity building, gender research and methodological development. The Acacia Team is at a point in their timeline to ask when does one know when there is the right mix of development outcomes for a project or research network given certain levels of capabilities as well as budget constraints?
Successes of the forum: The fear of a solely Anglophone or Francophone dominated event dissipated from the participants as the organizing committee made concerted efforts and pro-active plans for bilingual opportunities in all sessions. Besides the use of translators through out the event, the online coverage pre-event (http://acaciaforum.net) as well as during the Forum were attempted to be covered in both English and French. In response to this success, language became a topical issue even in regards to African localization and the importance of the participation of all society members by overcoming language barriers.
(Kiss Abrahams from GRACE tells us about research in Zambia)
Gender Research: The presence of at least five GRACE network members as well as the strong messaging of gender justice through GRACE’s network leader clearly generated strong interest in gender research among participants at the forum. It was certainly uplifting to find that when participants were asked to join a themed group of their interest, the gender group comprised of leaders from a Radio / ICT project, ACA2K, and PanAf, to name a few. Ramata found from her quick question of where teams fell under, “whether gender research was important in ICT4D” versus “how gender research can be conducted in ICT4D projects,” all participants chose the latter. The Forum, I believed improved the thinking of gender research among the participants however I wonder if whether we may have missed a chance to further help participants delve into the gender research questions that they for their projects and research networks.
(Martin, blogger on left)
Collaborative Tools: The combination of the African Commons Project, the selected Francophone bloggers and the web 2.0 savvy participants themselves help to populate the successful online bilingual documentation of the Learning Forum. The flexible open-source webpage platform developed and assisted by Doug Dyson and them the forum coverage through means of liveblogging, audio podcasts, flickr photos, twitter feeds, and youtube videos and other collaborative tools have helped to build capacity not only among the bloggers but the participants themselves. Such tools also assisted in ensuring partners who were not able to attend as well as others interested in the ICT4D Africa sphere could follow the forum proceedings real-time and shall remain open for use to all post Forum.
Ethics and Best Practices in ICT4D research
Lastly, a major highlight of the Forum for me was to engage in a ICT4D methodology workshop on the last day. At first, I thought it was merely going to be a review of quantitative and qualitative methods and research paradigms. Well the debate moved into further on the ethics of research and best practices of research. Major questions included how the networked society and globalization could possibly help in missing rich indigenous knowledge if not captured. How do African researchers ensure that the research initiatives that they take on board reflect on their own values and beliefs, thus ensuring production of local research.
"Today do we have enough intellectual confidence to challenges availed to us in a globalized, networked society?"
My favourite part was when one Francophone researcher brings up a quote by Khalil Gibran: “And I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.”
A researcher can risk being isolated or misunderstood if he/she attempts to research in his/her own paradigm. In the African context, the current global framework is not interested in an African ‘paradigm’. The question is: can African researchers identify where they stand in research from an African perspective?
Further debate asks how does one frame a question and identify the right question and words. Moreover, "When questions are provoked, a researcher is responsible to take action. This is our ability to take part in research as well as part of our academic responsibilities. "
Overall, Dakar was an incredible learning and musical experience for me. I can only look forward to the future in Africa.