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Positioning Academia | Decolonizing academic minds: reflecting on what academics are getting wrong (and right) by Ton Dietz

When Linda Johnson and I shared responsibilities for the Prince Claus Chair in Development and Equity, we had many discussions that were close to the leading topic of the ongoing Africa Knows! Conference for which I am co-responsible, ‘It is time to decolonize minds’. In a recent email message to all conference participants, David Ehrhardt, Marieke van Winden and I shared some preliminary thoughts about lessons learned so far. I reflect on them here.

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

“Of course Africa knows. What a self-evident title for a conference. Why did they select this title?” Those remarks have often been made since the African Studies Centre in Leiden, and its many partners, including the ISS, started the preparations for what was meant to be a three-day conference about knowledge development in Africa, and that has become a three-month virtual meeting place between 8 December 2020 and 24 February 2021 (see www.africaknows.eu). But the conference title is ‘Africa Knows!’, with an exclamation mark.

When research, higher education, and education in general are being discussed, the focus in the past has often been on problems, on lack of quality, on a brain drain, on Africa lagging behind. With the exclamation mark, the conference organizers want to show that the focus will be on the many positive developments in Africa’s knowledge sector and the need to ‘decolonize’ our minds if we (Africans and Europeans alike) think and talk about Africa.

Africa Knows! is also a wink at earlier conferences that the African Studies Centre organized (together with the Netherlands African Business Council) in 2012 and 2014: ‘Africa Works!’, also with that exclamation mark. That title was meant as a counterpoint to the book ‘Africa Works’ (Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, with as its subtitle ‘Disorder as Political Instrument’, 1999) and an emphasis on problems and disasters that so often dominated debates in the 1980s and 1990s. Things are different now; we only need to see it with different eyes, with decolonized eyes.  So let me focus in this blog on the core issue of the conference Africa Knows!: how to decolonize minds.

‘Decolonization’ has elicited a wide range of responses from those conference participants that have attended the conference online thus far. For some, the issue was, and still is, regarded as odd so many decades after most African countries have become politically independent (and some parts of Africa, such as Ethiopia, have never been colonized). Others feel that the impact of colonialism and its institutions should not be overemphasized (it was said to be “just a scratch on the surface of the long history of Africa”), or that it is being regarded as “having taken place too long ago”, or that it takes away the agency (and blame) from African leaders for their policy mistakes and behaviour after independence and places blame on ‘the past’, or on ‘colonials’.

At the same time, many participants said that, even without ever having experienced colonial overlords, colonial mindsets can be influential and long lasting, and many conference participants are convinced that ‘decolonizing (academic) minds’ really is an issue, both for Africans and for Europeans – including from countries that have never been colonizers, or have not been engaged in slavery or supporting ‘Apartheid’. Moreover, it was also raised as an issue for Asians and Americans. So let us try to summarize some of the mindset issues that have been discussed during the Africa Knows! sessions that took place in December 2020.

First of all, we discussed colonial mindsets and practices in academia. We tried to become more aware of the implicit and explicit biases we hold and how they affect our attempts to decolonize our academic practices. The following were cited as some of the main issues we face in academia:

  • Framing the relationship between partners as ‘capacity development’, ‘training’, or ‘helping out’ rather than collaboration. Hierarchies are produced in academia by claiming that partners, particularly those in the Global North, collaborate with those in the Global South in the name of ‘capacity development’, for example.
  • Preferring leadership in research consortia and in project evaluations to be taken by partners from outside Africa. This is linked to the above hierarchization of partnerships that results in the undermining of the agency and capacity of African institutes forming part of research consortia.
  • Preferring to publish in non-African journals and with non-African publishers. This is done seemingly for the sake of ‘high-quality science’, but diminishes opportunities for African journals to rise to prominence.
  • Dependence on ideas, and funding from outside Africa, so evident in many publications about Africa, where indigenous knowledge hardly plays a role, where relevant African ideas are ignored, and where ‘who pays, decides’, so often seems to determine the hierarchies in knowledge production and use.
  • Disregarding scholarly work not written in English (or French). Some journals even refuse to incorporate other languages in the bibliography.
  • Prioritising (first) authorship of non-African scholars in publications. All too often, first authorship is given to the senior, Western scientist rather than to the author(s) who did most of the work.
  • Publishing about Africa without taking note of African contributions in the same field of related fields. Just check out bibliographies of papers you have recently reviewed, and you will see for yourself.
  • Publishing in journals for which others have to pay (behind paywalls). Open access will make a large difference to scholars in Africa and many other places.

We also discussed ways in which mindsets and practices in academia are already being decolonized. Our main conclusion is that we have some way to go in view of the problems listed above. Here are some of the main things we have done or can do to help decolonize academia:

  • Co-create research and innovation in teams with equals.
  • Make use of indigenous institutional strength and experiences, and don’t rely on people and funds from elsewhere.
  • Encourage African leadership in research teams and in project evaluations.
  • Encourage Africans to be first author in cases of joint research.
  • Be aware of available local contributions to studies about African affairs, and use it in teaching and in publications.
  • Make sure that libraries about Africa contain many publications published in Africa itself.
  • Encourage students and authors in African Studies to include many references from Africa.
  • Ensure that all partners contribute financially to research projects, conferences, publications, and other forms of collaboration.
  • Encourage teaching, conversations, and publications in other languages than English, and promote bridging the language divides.
  • Highlight indigenous/endogenous ideas and practices.
  • In teaching about Africa, include more pre-colonial history and more knowledge from and about marginal areas.
  • In African Studies, give recognition to the importance of North Africa and its linkages with Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Put more emphasis on Africa’s linkages in past and present with Asia and Latin America, and within Africa.
  • In encouraging ‘African’ contributions, do not judge ‘Africans’ by their skin colour.

Although our discussions were focused on Africa, we anticipate that similar issues are faced in other contexts in the Global South. Intensified discussions are needed to ensure that no-one gets left behind, particularly as the current global COVID-19 pandemic continues.

About the author:

Ton Dietz (African Studies Centre Leiden, and former vice-chair of the Prince Claus Curatorium, with Linda Johnson as its secretary).

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

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Positioning Academia | Creating a safe haven at ISS for scholars at risk

While most academics can conduct research freely, a number of scholars around the world have been threatened due to the nature of their critical, yet crucial work in the field of development studies. Over the past decade, the ISS has provided institutional support for the Scholars at Risk (SAR) network, helping create a safe haven for five scholars whose lives were in danger. We share here our experience of the value of this programme on the occasion of the retirement of Linda Johnson, who along with her work for the Prince Claus Chair coordinated ISS support for visiting scholars, infusing the link with a special quality.

"Solidarity Mural" by Atelier Teee is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

Both of us first got to know Linda through her support for Sunila Abeysekera from Sri Lanka, a brilliant feminist scholar and internationally known women’s rights defender who was supported by the SAR programme between 2011 and 2013. She had been forced to flee following death threats and found refuge in her alma mater, the ISS. Since Sunila stayed with Amrita through the three years, it was possible to see at close quarters what Wendy immediately perceived when she visited Sunila: a feminist ally. As we sat down for tea, Linda appeared, bearing a large bouquet of flowers for Sunila. It was clear Linda was no ordinary administrator of a programme—Linda was there as a friend and as someone who was providing a rich connection to Dutch life for a woman in exile.

Providing sanctuary for an exiled person involved much more than the necessary organising of the visas, permits, and dealing with bureaucracy. As Edward Said so eloquently wrote, exile “… is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted” (Said, 2002:173). For these scholars who found their lives in limbo, Linda wove together a solidarity network among strangers based on respect, empathy, compassion, and care to create a sense of belonging and a home in another land. Most importantly, she became a friend and a confidant, engaging with their personal and professional lives. Rather than what could be a hierarchical relationship of charitable benevolence, Linda was able to forge deeper horizontal bonds of solidarity and shared responsibility for the wellbeing of others.

Reflecting on her work with SAR, Linda said, “ISS would not have been able to provide a haven for these scholars without the huge efforts of ISS colleagues and of Dutch politicians, diplomatic staff, and human rights lawyers. All of these scholars have become ‘honorary members’ of my own family, spending time at my home and becoming an integral part of the fabric of my life. My family is the richer for these friendships.” (personal communication, 2021)

It is through her generous giving of time and caring attention that it was possible to build a sanctuary at the ISS where, despite trauma and loss, the scholars could feel at home. Their overall wellbeing was paramount to her. She would not only meet them in The Hague for coffee or a glass of white wine, but also invited them to her home in Amsterdam for a quick supper or lunch before she would take them to an art gallery or a theatre. Her own travels and skills in languages made her an important conduit for the cultural and social differences the SAR scholars would encounter. Her ready ear and wide networks enabled her to connect them to services and institutions they required, an intellectual community, and Dutch cultural life.

The exceptional way Linda has built and sustained the SAR program at the ISS shows what working as a ‘professional’ requires: going beyond technical competencies, developing new practices which incorporate empathy, care, kindness, and an ability to connect with others.

As Linda observed:

“One can only stand back in awe at the resilience these individuals continue to show in spite of being cut off from contact with their friends and families at home. Working with scholars at risk is messy, it is tough, it does not fit neatly into protocols and procedures. Yet, it is vital that ISS continues to support such individuals as part of its mission to pursue greater social justice.” (personal communication, 2021)

This same dedication, care for people, and respect for the role scholars from the Global South can play in the Netherlands is equally evident in her work for the Prince Claus Chair (PCC). She has supported all 19 of the PCC holders and 12 postdocs to date, organised two PCC five-year-anniversary events, and from 2010 onwards worked with each awardee and postdoc intensively during his/her term. As Executive Secretary of the PCC, she facilitated the establishment of links between PCC holders’ work and wider networks. For instance, Stella Quimbo’s work on health insurance was connected with HM Queen Máxima of the Netherlands and UN special advocate for inclusive finance Saradindu Bhaduri’s work on ‘frugal innovation’ provided an input for the EU Horizon Europe programme. Besides all of this, she helped them navigate the Dutch milieu, got to know their families, and shared her own family with them, creating a sense of home for the PCC holders during their time in the Netherlands.

As Linda reminisced:

“I tried to create a family feeling among the PCC community members and to facilitate cooperation and collaboration among chairholders. I felt that it was important for the chairholders and postdocs to get to know something about the Netherlands during their time here and saw it as part of my role to make this possible. This led to many concerts, ballets and meals together, both at my home and in restaurants in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague.” (personal communication, 2021)

Linda’s work with the SAR scholars and Prince Claus Chair holders has contributed to bringing vibrant networks working toward social justice closer to Dutch academia. It is important that we uphold her legacy by ensuring that our university continues to participate in and cherish these small but far-reaching initiatives over the coming decades.

About the authors:

Amrita Chhachhi is Associate Professor at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, Netherlands. Her research, teaching and publications focus on gender, labour, poverty, inequality and social policy and the state, religious fundamentalisms and social movements.  She is the author of Gender and Labour in Contemporary India: Eroding Citizenship and co-editor of Engendering Human Security: Feminist Perspectives and Confronting State, Capital and Patriarchy: Women Organising in the process of Industrialisation. She is on the editorial board of the journal Development and Change. She is linked with a number of South Asian feminist, labour and peace networks.

Professor Dr Wendy Harcourt was appointed full Professor and a Westerdijk Professor together with an endowed Chair of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Hague in October 2017. She is Coordinator of the EU H2020-MSCA-ITN-2017 Marie Sklodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks (ITN) WEGO (Well-being, Ecology, Gender, and Community) awarded in May 2017. She has published widely in feminist theory with a focus on critical development, body politics, feminist political ecology. She is series editor of the Palgrave Gender, Development and Social Change and the ISS-Routledge Series on Gender, Development and Sexuality.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.