Tag Archives academia

Scholars at risk: why the Dutch system for protecting persecuted scholars is failing and why the government urgently needs to get involved

In the past, scholars facing persecution have regularly been received by Dutch universities, which have provided them with a safe space to continue conducting their research in times of adversity. In 2019, the Dutch system for providing a safe haven for such scholars collapsed – an event that went largely unnoticed at the time. Ever since, efforts to help scholars have been mostly futile, largely because the bureaucratic hurdles to providing a safe space are more or less insurmountable. In this article, Linda Johnson explains how and why the Dutch system for supporting refugee scholars has become ineffective and suggests what should be done about it.

Photo Credit: Ron Lach

The Russian invasion of Ukraine early last year galvanized universities in the Netherlands into a brief flurry of solidarity and a frantic but largely ineffectual effort to provide a safe space for Ukrainian researchers to continue their work. Working parties were set up, web pages were designed and countless meetings were held. The consternation was immense. Sadly, none of this led to much concrete assistance for imperilled scholars and students. There was simply no system in place that would allow grants to be paid out to those in dire need. It became abundantly clear that the infrastructure for supporting scholars at risk is inadequate.

The lack of an infrastructure for organizing meaningful support was systematically exposed in January this year in a report issued by a prestigious group of critical scholars (The Young Academy), who for the first time showed the deficiencies of the current system in a rigorous report that describes and analyses the situation as it is today. They have made clear that the infrastructure for supporting scholars at risk from all over the globe (Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey, Iran and the list goes on…) is woefully inadequate. But how could this have happened and what needs to be done to remedy the situation?


The early days of Scholars At Risk NL

To answer this question, it is important to first take a look at what has happened in the past few years. In around 2010, the American organization Scholars at Risk (SAR) started approaching universities in Europe with a view to expanding global provision for at-risk scholars. I had been active in university internationalization circles globally for several decades; hence, I was one of the individuals approached for initial discussions on setting up a SAR provision in The Netherlands.

I was enthusiastic about the proposal and felt that the Netherlands should get involved in this important work. The aims of SAR and the mission of ISS were in alignment and it was not difficult to gain the approval of the then ISS rector (Professor Leo de Haan) to begin receiving students at ISS. Many ISS colleagues were in favour of creating a structural provision for scholars under threat. I set up an infrastructure and little by little extended the pilot so that the whole of the Erasmus University could participate.

We managed to place one or two scholars a year at ISS and occasional placements were found in other parts of the university. Mentoring a scholar who has had to flee for his/ her life is not easy work, but there were enough excellent colleagues willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to make the system work. Similar efforts took place at most universities in the Netherlands, largely based on solidarity and relying on colleagues who were willing to spend time and effort over and above their working hours to keep the system afloat.

Between 2010 and 2015, most European countries, including the Netherlands, set up programmes to help scholars at risk. The Dutch support organization for refugee students, the UAF, coordinated Dutch efforts and fulfilled the important task of disbursing the grants made available to scholars at risk. These grants came from a variety of sources (universities, private donations, local councils, SAR and others). For some time, things went well enough.


A turn for the worse

Sadly, in 2019 the UAF decided to end its partnership with the Dutch arm of Scholars at Risk. Worries had begun to surface about possible fines being imposed by the Dutch tax authorities because of the UAF’s role in the distribution of grants. The Dutch tax authorities had indicated that the modest bursaries could be construed as salary and would hence fall under the category of ‘notional’ employment on which the recipient would need to pay tax, and over which the employer would need to pay social insurance. This would multiply the costs involved and reduce the grants to a size too small to meet living costs for the scholar in question.

The financial risk was deemed too great by the UAF – in 2020, it withdrew entirely, effectively making it impossible for Dutch universities to offer financial assistance to at-risk scholars and also bringing to an end any structured coordination of support to at-risk scholars. Expertise on how best to support scholars at risk could no longer be shared and data could no longer be collected and collated on the numbers and origins of scholars seeking assistance from Dutch universities.

In short, since 2020, Dutch universities have no longer been able to make any provision to assist scholars at risk. This situation is in sharp contrast to the generous and well-organized support structures available in many European counties, such as Poland, Germany, the UK, and others.


Ripples of concern, but no comprehensive effort

In 2021, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan led to a modest ripple of concern among Dutch universities. Small, but uncoordinated and largely unsuccessful efforts were made to offer a safe haven to a few Afghani scholars and their families. This proved to be impossible because of the lack of a grant distribution system. Very quickly, the concern ebbed away without any scholars being placed. A year later, in 2022, the onset of the war on Ukraine led to another ripple of concern within Dutch academia. The problem was closer to home this time. Most Dutch universities felt a moral imperative to get involved and to do something constructive to assist scholars and students from Ukraine. Nothing very concrete was achieved, in spite of the best efforts of some individuals.


Attempts to restart the system

A group of concerned university administrators from Dutch universities met several times throughout 2020-2022 to try finding a way to improve matters. I convened and chaired these meetings. It was agreed that Nuffic, the Dutch organization for internationalization and education, could perhaps take on the role previously fulfilled by the UAF. This seemed to be a good choice, as Nuffic has an extensive network within the Dutch higher education sector, is used to administering grants, and has considerable expertise that would be handy in helping to ensure that at risk scholars are placed in settings appropriate to their field of research.

Nuffic was keen to get involved but at the eleventh hour felt obliged to decline further involvement because of the risks involved in relation to tax authorities and the labour inspectorate. Back to square one…


An opportunity to turn the tide

At this point, the Dutch Young Academy decided to get involved. On 23 January of this year, the Young Academy’s report called ‘Support for at risk scholars in the Netherlands’ was launched. This was a tremendously important step: for the first time, a measured and reflective analysis of the support system was committed to paper in the form of a well-researched report. It showed that at-risk scholars are woefully underserved in the Netherlands. The main conclusion of the report is crystal clear: “There is currently no national infrastructure in the Netherlands for the registration and reception of at-risk scholars.”

The exposure of this embarrassing gap in provision for scholars at risk is important: it gives Dutch universities who wish to host scholars at risk the opportunity to do some repair work on a broken system. They need the assistance of the Dutch government in this endeavour. The question is whether this opportunity will be recognized and acted upon. The Young Academy has laid bare an uncomfortable truth. It is surely impossible for the government to ignore their plea for action……

I believe that the only way forward is for politicians to enter the arena to resolve the impasse. The tax authorities and the labour inspectorate understandably have little interest in ensuring that scholars at risk are supported within Dutch universities. It is hardly their core business. The ministers involved (Education, Culture & Science, and Finance) thus need to take the political initiative to remove the obstacles around the tax and labour regulations and to provide guarantees that will allow the universities in collaboration with Nuffic and UAF to fulfil their moral duty to support scholars who cannot practise their profession in freedom and/or whose very life is threatened.

“It is precisely scholars who are often the first people to pose a threat to repressive regimes, and they are therefore often among the first group who must take flight.’’ – ‘Support for scholars at risk in the Netherlands’, January 2023.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Linda Johnson was the executive secretary of ISS, but has now retired. She is particularly interested in the societal relevance of research. In addition, she has done recent work on the safety and security of researchers and co-developed a course on literature as a lens on development.

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I know what you did last summer: are destination conferences a problem?

Year in and year out, academics send themselves halfway across the world to attend conferences. In an age in which flying for leisure is fast becoming a taboo, are such conferences in which academics and their universities pay large sums of money to converge for brief moments to present their research and to network also becoming impermissible? And are they even more concerning when they take place in ‘exotic’ places at convenient moments – are destination conferences a thing, and are they a problem?

Most of us have been invited to a destination wedding – one where you travel to an unusual location where your friends/colleagues/family members choose to get married. At a safari lodge, in a forest, on an island, on a holiday farm, in the snow, or even in a different country – Thailand, Scotland, Finland, the Maldives. Anywhere that seems romantic, really.

If you’re anything like me, such invitations make you grind your teeth: you would love to go, because the locations are often idyllic and a wedding will make them even more so, but the costs of attending a wedding half the world away are astronomical. It’s not just about a plane ticket and the accommodation: meals, excursions, wedding gifts, and outfits add up to make it an expensive few hours of celebrating someone’s matrimony. And then there’s the emissions – in an age where flying is the new smoking, we’re thinking twice before hopping on a plane to visit a friend, watch a concert, or explore a new city.

Over the years, I’ve missed quite a few weddings in the country in which I was born and raised because I simply couldn’t justify flying there just for that. These weren’t even destination weddings to the couples who organised them, but to me, living at least twelve hours away by plane, they were. Those weddings that I did manage to attend took place when I was home visiting my family – over the Christmas period mostly. But I don’t fly somewhere just to attend a wedding. No matter how close I am to the couple to be wed.

This brings me to the idea of a destination conference and whether this is a thing. Are academic conferences organised in far-away places to lure academics into attending? And should we be saying no to this form of external validation?

Two things made me ponder this. First, I recall a conversation I had with a colleague some years back. We were discussing the conferences that we’d like to attend that year. Our university makes available money so that we (PhD researchers) can travel to and present our research at one or two conferences per year. My colleague suggested attending a conference in Hawaii. I was enthusiastic, of course, because who doesn’t want the chance to explore a major travel destination, mixing business with pleasure? When I asked him what the conference was on, he told me, and I realised that I in no way could attend. My research was in a totally different field and I could not adjust my proposal to fit the conference theme.

That got me thinking about why we as academics attend academic conferences and which of them are actually directly relevant to our research. If we present our work at these conferences, is it because it is good practice for becoming future academics? Are we presenting our research in area-specific sessions attended by peers that we respect and possibly want to collaborate with? Or are we presenting something vague in panels with general titles without the aim of actually using the conference to put forth new ideas and start with ground-breaking interdisciplinary work?

The second occurrence is more recent. I recently decided not to attend a large biennial conference set to take place in Portugal during this year’s summer holidays in person, even though I am co-convening a panel with a senior researcher. Fortunately, the conference is hybrid, which gives participants the option of attending online. Before the covid pandemic, this was not even an option, so we have come a long way. Meeting online is now just as acceptable, although not quite as desirable, as meeting in person. But hundreds, if not thousands, of conference participants will flock to the southern European country in July for the conference, which takes place over the course of a few days.

The decision not to attend the conference is based on the unwillingness both to fly within Europe, for whatever reason, and to attend a conference in an ‘exotic’ location just for the sake of doing so. I’d already sworn off flying within Europe for leisure – my partner and I had driven 2,000 kilometres over two days during the December holidays to visit his parents in Italy and had returned in the same way – and now I was doing the same for work. I’d always disliked conferences because of the massive expenses that have to be incurred to deliver half-hour presentations (registration fees, accommodation, travelling) and the purpose, which I sometimes feel is seldom more than ‘showing face’ and trying to remain relevant in a certain academic field.

Nevertheless, you’d think that I’d be attending a conference where I was co-convening a panel. My hesitance to do so, even with funding available to send me there, is interesting to me. It makes me wonder whether my aversion for academic conferences in general has turned into an aversion for ‘destination conferences’. Would I be just as hesitant if the conference were to take place in Portugal in the middle of the winter, or if it were to take place in a cold and dreary country, for example Ireland or Germany?

And is there anything wrong with academics going places for conferences? Is it still an unfortunate necessity if you as academic want to make your voice heard or make it in this cut-throat academic world?

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher studying how changes in urban water availability affect human-water relations. She has co-authored a book called Bron on how residents of Cape Town navigated the near-collapse of the city’s water system. She has been editor of Bliss since 2017.

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In praise of flatness. On campus protest and academic community

The response to the OccupyEUR protest and an invitation to a survey on the university as a ‘brand’ are provocations, writes professor of Social Theory; Willem Schinkel. They flatten what a university actually is.

Source: Femke Legué

Two recent events afford a clear view of what the administrative leadership of Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) thinks a university really is. More precisely, these were two provocations. They made me think of Edwin Abbott’s novella Flatland. A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884), that tells the story of A. Square, who lives in Flatland, a world in 2D in which he can only experience a 3D-shape like a sphere as circle. Analogously, at this university the capacity to see in more dimensions seems missing, and everything that does not fit in the ‘strategy’ of administrators and their bureaucratic squares is rendered flat.


First provocation: protest versus ‘academic community’

First there was the response of the university board to the occupation of the space in front of the university’s auditorium by students of OccupyEUR on February 7 and 8. They demanded an end to the university’s ties with the fossil fuel industry, to precarious labour, to student debt, and to the lack of campus accessibility. During a previous occupation in November 2022 the board immediately called the police. This time they did so after one day. This response testifies to an utter incomprehension of campus protest, and to a kind of housekeeping reflex, a neurosis of security and hygiene. When students were unwilling to, on day one, dilute their protest to a ‘dialogue’ on the administrators’ terms, the administrators’ response was, entirely in keeping with the corporate identity of the university: get the fuck out of hEUR with your attempts to make of this place something more than a factory for credentialization and a lobby lounge for suits and ties intent on doing what their daddies did before them: cashing on the planetary plunder called capitalism.

This response testifies to an utter incomprehension of campus protest, and to a kind of housekeeping reflex, a neurosis of security and hygiene


Whoever seeks to return to normal this quickly, rests on shaky foundations. In a decretal dripping with childish frustration, the occupation was dubbed ‘illegal’, and not a protest. What is more, it was declared not befitting an ‘academic community’, which, after all, cannot be disturbed ‘just because a small group has a certain opinion’. As the board said: “In no way have you shown an openness to dialogue. This attitude does not suit an academic community and Erasmian values, nor does it contribute to real solutions.” What a spoiled habituation to being found important. And what a pathetic impatience when, for once, you don’t immediately get your way. Apparently, administrators fail to recognize protest unless it is flattened to ‘having a certain opinion’ and expressing it in a format they determine (a ‘dialogue’). And with a historical and political-theoretical amateurism that is almost touching, they believe a protest is something that doesn’t disturb anything. Finally, and this is an important yield, it turns out they cannot conceive of the climate catastrophe in anything but technocratic terms, as if it were a ‘problem’ requiring a ‘solution’. Of course, that solution could never be anything that changes existing relations of power. Anything else would be ‘a certain opinion’. ‘Leadership’ is a generous concept if all roads automatically lead to the same order-hugging technocracy.


Second provocation: the university as ‘brand’

And then came the question, by email, to partake in a ‘reputation survey’. That went as follows:

Give your opinion on Erasmus University Rotterdam


What is already going well? What could be better? We are curious about your vision. This will help us further develop our brand and better meet the wishes and needs of future and current students and staff.”

Right. So this is the kind of opinion about the university we are encouraged to express: what do we think of the university as ‘brand’? There’s a flattening going on here as well. As a brand the university is reduced to an image of the university, a marketing image, flat like a 2D-picture. Despite the anti-intellectual stink such invitations give off, here too there is a housekeeping neurosis at work. In replacing the university by a branding image, the university in all its complexity, multiplicity and beautiful messiness is ironed out, whitewashed like so often. And nobody seems to have figured out that such a message – the university as brand – is a provocation and an insult to anyone with some inkling of the history of universities.

These two provocations – the reduction to ‘opinion’ and to ‘brand’ – deserve an answer. Actually, they really don’t, but there is a certain need to answer them for whoever advocates another idea of the university. Or rather for whoever has an idea of the university at all. How to understand the buzz about ‘Erasmian values’ and ‘positive societal impact’ in light of these two provocations? If administrators feel free to unload their anti-intellectual bullshit on students and staff, then it is time to face the flatness of their favorite kind of newspeak.


‘Erasmian values’ and the academic community

Let’s first note that the history of academic communities is not written by vice-deans coordinating a new procedure for exam evaluation with program directors and exam administration. That history is written by precisely the thing administrators think is incompatible with it: protest. Feel free to mail me if you want reading tips (but not for a ‘dialogue’!).

The history of academic communities is written by precisely the thing administrators think is incompatible with it: protest.


The values a university has are better uncovered by looking at its actions than at what it decides to print in glossy magazines and flyers. And it would seem that Erasmus University’s actions bespeak the following ‘Erasmian value’: whatever isn’t recognized as ‘academic community’ in the anti-intellectual and ahistorical narrow-mindedness of the administrative frames is repressed by police violence.

In terms of its intellectual contribution to the history of campus protest and the conceptual development of the concept of ‘academic community’, this administrative Flatland reflex has the quality of a fart. The scattered whining that the students did something illegal because university buildings are ‘private property’ is part of one and the same genre of anti-intellectual ghastliness. But that is saying too little. For this anti-intellectualism has a reason, and it produces something. In We Demand. The University and Student Protests (2017), the American scholar Roderick Ferguson illustrates that universities have been a crucial site for social struggle and change throughout the 20th century, and that university administrators have simultaneously worked hard to trivialize and securitize student protests, and to surround them with suspicion rather than to see them as chances for change. As he says:

“(…) anti-intellectualism, not an accident but the intention of certain social projects, is the mature and defensive expression of dominant institutions, one that retaliates against past and present political and intellectual uprisings.” (p. 87)

Historian Howard Zinn already spoke of the ‘danger’ of students for university administrators: students disturb things and make connections that cannot be registered as valuable in bureaucratic academic accounting logics. This, in the case of Erasmus University, despite the Erasmian value ‘connecting’ (marketing icon in the Strategy 2024 document: four puzzle pieces).

What happens in Rotterdam is thus not at all unique, and its predictability makes it exhausting, but also makes it possible to differentiate between person and position, between the administrator and the academic that can be more than administrative executive of a script elaborately recorded in research on campus protest.

Meanwhile, there appear to be suggestions of making it mandatory to announce campus protest, and to then allocate a designated room for it, rendering it part of the logistics of the academic business corporation rather than a disruption and an actual protest. Protest then becomes flattened to every other lecture on ‘fiscal economics’, ‘law and finance’ or ‘art and market’. I suggest the Erasmian value of ‘no protest’ here (icon: muzzle).

Erasmian values appear to be the latest form of flattening the university. Last year I and many others were asked to participate in the process of drafting a new ‘educational strategy’. The idea was that the previous one was not yet informed by ‘Erasmian values’, as it was five years old and the world has changed, according to Creating the Education vision 2023. Working together on world-class education. Makes sense to then takes one’s cue from the ‘values’ of someone who lived five hundred years ago. By the way, in what relevant respects had the world changed in the last five years? Well, the document makes clear that that change mainly lies in the normalization of ‘online education’ (posh name for bullshit on a screen that is conveniently cheap, flexible and – not unimportant – hygienic). Teaching on a screen, nicely flat. Let’s no longer talk about ‘online’ and ‘on campus’ education, but about 2D and 3D. To miss an entire dimension and call it teaching; you don’t survive in the university without a heavy dose of resistance to the absurd.

Talk of ‘values’ is, in fact, always a poor substitute for something substantial, at most it’s the pinning of marketing labels after the fact. The real question is what happens in the case of value conflict. Erasmian value ‘engaged with society’ (icon: three people with their heads in the clouds) doesn’t necessarily go well with ‘entrepreneurial’ (icon: light bulb). Read: OccupyEUR doesn’t go together with Shell. And that was precisely the point. And don’t be fooled by the board’s claim that its ideas aren’t that far apart from those of OccupyEUR. The strategy documents for the ‘convergence’ with the Technical University Delft mention as first future corporate connection (icon: four puzzle pieces): Shell.

Thankfully, the values of the antisemite Desiderius Erasmus were never the reason this university got ‘Erasmus’ as semiofficial name. How that did go about is recounted in the book Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam 1973-1993 [Erasmus University Rotterdam 1973-1993] (1993) by the historians Davids and van Herwaarden. If you open it, you will see in the colophon on page IV a brand logo at least as strong as that of the university, namely a shell, with the caption: “This publication is made possible in part by the financial support of Shell Netherlands Ltd.” Two years later financial support by Shell helped make the hanging of the Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa possible. He led the nonviolent  ‘Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People’ (MOSOP), but his protest disrupted the Erasmian value ‘entrepreneurial’ (icon: light bulb).


‘Positive societal impact’

It is clear that university administrators want the university to be an integral part of the contemporary order, the order of the planetary plunder euphemistically called ‘climate change’ – indeed, that euphemism, which comes out of the climate skeptical lobby, issues from the infrastructure of that plunder. ‘Positive societal impact’ is a name for the compulsive desire to do whatever the established order expects and deems proper. The yardstick for ‘positive’ lies with that order. The possibility that this established order itself – including the university – is a case of catastrophic impact cannot be registered in the repertoire of ‘positive societal impact’. But whoever sends the police to students connecting their engagement with the earth with their bodies, makes clear that ‘positive societal impact’ is an all-too fluffy name for nihilism.

The possibility that the established order itself – including the university – is a case of catastrophic impact cannot be registered in the repertoire of ‘positive societal impact’.


Strategies such as Creating Positive Societal Impact: The Erasmian Way assume consensus about the state of the world – there are ‘complex challenges’ – but they forego the fact that ideally, as Julia Schleck writes in Dirty Knowledge. Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism (2022), universities themselves are arenas of struggle. Struggle over what the world looks like, and struggle about change and about the language we use to position ourselves. That struggle is hygienically removed in flattened notions of ‘positive societal impact, the Erasmian way’. The fancy flyer of that strategy can sell this with a picture of – oh, the irony – a climate protest, but the entire thing is an exercise in anti-intellectualism exemplary for the structure of complicity that the university is for its administrators.

Someone taking a critical look at EUR might just surmise that it is an institution in which young people are mostly taught to manage, pathologize, and exploit other people. A production machine with minds as raw material, graduates as semi-finished products and as end product their participation in a thanatological order. Thank god for activist students falsifying such a horrendous image of the university!

Source: Femke Legué

The hollow phrase ‘impact’ appears by now to have replaced the tautologous ‘excellence’. Last year an invitation came to take part in ‘A dialogue on a vision of impact learning’. Another dialogue. This time, significantly, at the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship (icon: light bulb). Those who wanted to go there from campus could take the ‘Impact Tour Bus’. You would have to go to the ‘Student Wellbeing Tent’ to assemble under the banner ‘World Class Education’. I heard afterwards that you could have speed date conversations with an ‘impact coach’ on board the bus (they wore vests saying so). But if it looks like satire, sounds like satire, and behaves like satire, it’s got to be satire, right? Yet as the Strategy 2024 document mentions: “Dialogue at all levels will be a vital part of measuring our success.” Vertical measurement dialogues is one I’m throwing in for free for the consideration of the strategic strategy strategists.



In at least one respect the university cannot be reproached for its flatness: it is indeed a vertically oriented organization. An extremely hierarchical bureaucracy, based largely on autocratic government, delegated or not, in which self-government by students and staff is a joke no one finds funny. The Dutch university is archaically hierarchical, were it not for the fact that the differentiation in assistant professors, associate professors and professors in the Netherlands dates back to the early 1960s. What was then a temporary measure to deal with rising student numbers became permanent, and is taken seriously down to the most ridiculous details by means of what is fittingly called ‘UFO profiles’: detailed descriptions (in fact mostly lists) of what professors can do more than assistant and associate professors. Of course it is clear to anyone that’s been in a room with a professor for more than a few minutes that this is a fiction (UFO’s: these professors fly so high it cannot be identified what makes them so brilliant). This was the reason for a recent plea to abolish this hierarchy by the dean of law in Maastricht.

Once more, rising student numbers have been the reason for creating a new category of laborer at the bottom of the hierarchy: tutors and other flexible staff in precarious positions


But what happened in the sixties is being repeated. Once more, rising student numbers have been the reason for creating a new category of laborer at the bottom of the hierarchy: tutors and other flexible staff in precarious positions. A reserve army of academic laborers has been created to lower the production costs of teaching even further by way of exploitation and an even more uneven distribution of protections and privileges. As serious scholars in the field of academic freedom show (mail for references, not for dialogue), this Uberfication of teaching is the greatest threat to academic freedom.

Guess who are the only ones in this university, apart from tutors themselves, to have recently spoken up for this cause? The activists of OccupyEUR, who demanded abolishment of precarious positions. The fact that their protest was thus also a fundamental defense of academic freedom is entirely lost on the bureaucratic squares who believe the university is first and foremost a ‘brand’. Yet that protest can be of peripheral interest to no one who thinks academic freedom matters. Next time, look up from your tenth paper this year, walk out on your meeting.


Walking tall

On the second day of the occupation by OccupyEUR I read an article by Nobel prize winner Annie Ernaux in Le Monde diplomatique, titled ‘Walking tall again’. She describes how the French 1995 strikes and protests against neoliberalization ignited her enthusiasm and made her proud, despite her working-class background, to walk tall again. I envisage the administrators of Erasmus University Rotterdam writing her a letter to teach her that such protest is illegal because it disrupts things, and that she’d be better off engaging in a ‘dialogue’. Walking tall? Flatten it down, madame Ernaux!

Thankfully the university still provides space for much more than the square suits and ties on its boards would have us believe. Space for activist students, for instance, despite everything. If you weren’t there: you should have seen the books they brought with them. Inspiration is what you get from students that refuse to waste time in chatter sessions with university power a brand. I am thankful to these students for the reminder that the knowledge we produce and the relations we engage in are inseparable from the struggle for our lives. They may be, in the words of the university board, ‘a small group’, but they are walking tall. And they lead the way in the experimentation with what an ‘academic community’ can be beyond the brand of an anti-intellectual impact rental shack.


This article was first published in Erasmus Magazine.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Willem Schinkel is Professor of Social Theory at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

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Transformative Methodologies | Using a caring approach to equalise research relationships

Collaboration between researchers and those they engage with for their research is increasingly promoted as a way to address some of the epistemic injustices arising from the process of producing knowledge. Stepping back and allowing those we work with to shape research agendas and become intimately involved in the research process is an act of care, and the effects and benefits are tangible, writes Marina Cadaval Narezo. Care can be a thread that weaves together multiple and diverse actors, helping create a dense fabric of experiences through which researchers and those they work with can collectively, and in more equitable ways, make sense of the creative process.

Uncomfortable questions

Before starting my PhD at the ISS, I was working in Mexico for an initiative that provided grant scholarships to indigenous people to pursue graduate studies. During the 15 years I was involved in operational and executive activities for this initiative, I got to know many inspiring women whose stories to obtain a university degree filled me with uncomfortable questions. Most of them were the first in their families or in their communities to go to university; most of them had attended boarding schools since they were children or had to migrate as teenagers to continue their education. Most of them had full-time jobs to cover their university expenses; those who did not face these challenges were considered privileged. Their academic trajectories were at times the result of collective efforts and at others that of solitary struggles. Nevertheless, they were generally painful, complex processes.

I felt that a better understanding of their paths was needed, so I decided to explore and highlight their stories through my PhD research. I wanted to know what had happened to some of the women who received a scholarship after they graduated and how their master’s or doctorate degrees affected their professional – and personal – development. I was puzzled about what changed and what remained in their lives as women, as indigenous people, and as professionals. Given my closeness to many of them due the long journeys together at the scholarships program called IFP-Probepi[1] but also as a researcher committed to anti-oppressive (Brown and Strega 2005), feminist (Haraway 1988; Harding 1991), and indigenous methodologies (Wilson 2008; Smith 2012), I thought that the most appropriate thing to do was to ask them directly. To talk it over.

‘Reflective conversations’: bridging times and spaces[2]

At the end of 2019, I contacted 36 indigenous women who had obtained master’s or PhD degrees between 2004 and 2014. Of those I contacted, 17 participated in the research. They were from different indigenous groups, states, ages, and areas of specialisation. Diversity was intentionally considered in order to identify those changes and continuities I was looking for, as well as the intersections of gender, race, and class that inform educational policies in Mexico. Originally, I was exclusively paying attention to their exclusion in terms of racism, sexism, classism, and tokenism.

I went to the towns or cities where they lived, including Yucatán, Chihuahua, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Chiapas, and Veracruz. We had long talks, or what I call ‘reflective conversations’, which I understand as dialogues that start from previous common and mutual understandings – such as the IFP-Probepi scholarship, the graduate courses, our feminisms, our families, and our health – that allowed us to meet and examine ourselves across multiple times and spaces. While sharing a meal, a drink, or a walk, we conversed, reflecting on the experience of studying abroad, on our current jobs, on how much or how little life had changed. We connected those we were when we first met through IFP-Probepi with those we had become.

Shifting centers – from ‘victims’ to social and political change agents

After organising, systematising and analysing the information obtained, in the summer of 2020 I shared the preliminary findings with them. The meetings were online which allowed us to connect our multiple geographies: Oaxaca, Chiapas, Yucatán, Veracruz, Chihuahua, Mexico City, The Hague (The Netherlands). Sharing and discussing these findings and listening to their responses led me to shift the focus of my research -initially centered in their exclusion of the education system- to their processes and strategies of resistance. “We do not want to be the victims nor being seen only as beneficiaries of educational programs and social schemes,” some stated. “We must be recognised as the social and political actors that we are.”

Our encounters allowed me personally to understand in a much clearer way their paths and to address my research questions considering their gazes, but also to build networks and take action that goes beyond the very objective of writing a doctoral thesis and is more closely linked to the reality we want to transform. Thus, in 2020, we participated in a campaign to help eradicate racism in higher education promoted by Cátedra UNESCO Educación Superior y Pueblos Indígenas y Afrodescendientes en América Latina (UNESCO Chair in Higher Education and Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples in Latin America). Through the ISS Research Innovation Facility (RIF), we then set up an independent and collective blog called Resistencias y Mujeres Profesionistas Indígenas (Resistances and Indigenous Professional Women) that we are using to share our stories of racism and the strategies that each of us has developed to face it.

A transformative methodology?

Was the methodology I developed and used transformative? For the way academia produces knowledge, I think so. I am doing research showing how collaboration, reciprocity, and recognition can work together to create caring processes in which different voices can be woven together into one fabric of experiences. For the women I am working with, I think it also does. It has created synergies and coalitions necessary to challenge stereotypes and transform not just how knowledge is produced, but how we want to walk in this world. For me, for sure. It has allowed me to reconnect with those women who have made me confront my own privileges and prompted me to use my position to continue exposing some of the still-existing structural exclusions. The way is long, but it is important to keep sharing, discussing, and resisting.


Brown L. and S. Strega (2005), Research as Resistance. Critical, indigenous and anti-oppressive approaches, Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Cadaval Narezo, M. (2022), “Methodologies for collaborative, respectful and caring research. Conversations with professional indigenous women from Mexico”, in W. Harcourt, C. Dupuis, J. Gaybor & K. van den Berg (eds.), Experiments and Reflections in Feminist Methodologies, Series: Gender, Development and Social Change. Switzerland: Palgrave.

Haraway, D. (1988) “Situated knowledges: The Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14(3): 575-599.

Harding, S. (1991), Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Smith, L. T. (2012), Decolonizing Methodologies. Research and Indigenous Peoples, New Zealand: Zed Books/Otago University Press.

Wilson S. (2008), Research Is Ceremony Indigenous Research Methods, Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

[1] The initiative was financed from 2001 to 2012 by the Ford Foundation as the International Fellowships Program (IFP), and from 2013 until present (2022) by the Mexican government through the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) as the Fellowships Program for Indigenous People (Probepi). In both cases, it has been administered by the Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology (CIESAS).

[2] For a more in-depth discussion of the methodology I used, see Cadaval Narezo (2022).

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Marina Cadaval Narezo is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies.

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Transformative Methodologies | On ‘being with’ and ‘holding space’ as transformative research tools in anthropology

Despite advances made in the field of anthropology to address some of its problematic practices, anthropologists still conduct research in the same ways as they always have, their comings and goings based on the amount of data they have acquired. The decolonisation of anthropological studies may benefit from a different approach in which researchers spend time ‘being with’ studied groups, hold space for their stories, and are responsible for the stories they as researchers then put forth, writes Aminata Cairo.

Helicopter anthropologists

“For every Indian, there was an anthropologist.” So joked the Native population with me as I was visiting the Navajo reservation to conduct research. There were plenty more jokes about the scientists who, in the name of science, came and went and excavated their stories, only to misrepresent them and never be heard from again. Similarly, when I went to my first national anthropological conference in the US as a graduate student, I attended a session with the Native American cohort where I learned about the concept of ‘helicopter anthropologist’ – those who come and ‘hover’ to extract what they need and then leave without a trace.

Those jokes and lessons have stayed with me. As an anthropologist, I have always felt strongly that in order to do right, we should heed the guidance of those that have been affected the most by these practices. In American anthropology, that would be the Native American population.

I have been trained as an American anthropologist, and as much as I love the discipline, something never felt right. I switched from clinical psychology to anthropology because it was a different way of dealing with people’s stories. Anthropology allowed me to help people give voice to their own stories.  And yet there was something about it…

Anthropology was born out of a very specific colonial history,[1] after all. Yes, it was about people’s stories, but those stories were studied so people could be dominated, exploited, or classified as ‘less than’ in support of white supremacy. I am well aware of its past. The approach has changed since its early beginnings, but the means to extract the stories have basically remained the same. We are still helicopter anthropologists.

Yet things could be different. At that same anthropology conference, I met a Native American elder who told me that “the community should be better off for the anthropologists having been there.” It is the teaching that has stayed with me and set me on my path to study indigenous approaches to knowledge.

Researchers as stewards of knowledge

After reading the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith[2] and Shawn Wilson,[3] my approach to knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge changed forever. According to Wilson, we can never be owners of knowledge. Knowledge is all around us, and we stand in relationship to it. Ultimately, we can only be stewards of knowledge. This approach brings with it a certain humility, an understanding that engagement with indigenous peoples and the gaining of insights is a privilege, not an entitlement.  Tuhiwai Smith acknowledges the colonial foundation of research practices and advocates for an approach to research that is decolonising and treats research populations with respect.

Reliable accountability and holding space

My approach to research now is totally different from how I was initially trained. Now, I start with the premise that we are all connected and that for a short period of time, I would ‘be with’ and join a community in order to unearth a story or stories that can be a benefit for all of us. I follow Wilson’s mandate of ‘relational accountability’ represented in the three ‘R’s’: respect, responsibility, and reciprocity. In addition, I use my own concept of ‘holding space’ in which I am not entitled to the story or stories, but must earn the right to experience those stories through being with, displaying care, and building trust. Through joining and collectively being touched and transformed by the story or stories, they will come to light.

The key is that this journey is a respectful collaboration, rather than the standard data extraction pursuit of traditional research. Even in anthropology’s method of participant observation, the ultimate goal is for the researcher to walk away informed and enriched. In this endeavour, the goal is for the researcher and the (research) community to have learned something that will be of benefit to both and potentially useful to transform the space.

In our most recent research project, where we joined a marginalised community within The Hague to explore solidarity in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic, we engaged in a journey with the community. What started as a pursuit for counternarratives to the existing negative public stories shifted and became an exercise in holding space for all the stories that existed in this community, whether positive or negative. It was the community members, after all, that reminded us that they didn’t have anything to prove, and that in fact they had earned the right to just be. Through joining and ‘being with’, we then shifted course and learned about how people hold space for each other – a far more valuable lesson.

I understand that some of my colleagues might frown upon my approach to research. However, in my world of inclusion, there are many different approaches to knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge. My way of doing knowledge is just fine. What matters is that I can contribute to knowledge and communities and feel good about what I do. All of it. That is the best reward and my incentive to keep going.

[1] Lews, D. (1973) ‘Anthropology and Colonialism’, Current Anthropology 14(5): 581-602.

[2] Tuhiwai Smith, L. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London and New York: Zed Books Ltd.

[3] Wilson, S. (2008). Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Winnipeg: Fernwood.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Aminata Cairo is the chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Team at the International Institute of Social Studies.

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17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

The chasm that separates the different scientific disciplines remains deep as ever despite the evident need to address pressing global problems through transdisciplinary collaboration. C. Sathyamala and Peter A.G. van Bergeijk in this article show how close and intensive cooperation across the artificial borders between the sciences can be made possible and argue for a methodology acknowledging that only a combination of qualitative and quantitative research can create the type of knowledge that’s required to move forward together.

Hans-Peter Gauster (unsplash)

We start with a proposition: that both social and natural sciences are good at boxing, but not as good at wrestling. They ‘box’ by telling themselves stories about where they and researchers in the respective fields ‘fit’ into the scaffolding erected around the supposedly chiasmic divide of natural and social sciences. We all seem to know what side of this divide we want to be on, and a lot of time is invested in delineation, often drawing distinctions without differences. For too long, specialisation and deeper knowledge, both applied and theoretical, have been seen as the royal road to academic success.

But there are limits to what any science can do on its own. We’ve seen this during the current pandemic. As in any context, COVID-19-related health problems cannot be tackled from a purely medical angle; the exploitative social and economic structures that make people sick must also be challenged. Indeed, the validity of medical solutions to a large extent depends on social and economic conditions of time and place. The pandemic does not provide a new insight – it simply makes it clearer.

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that by boxing in the disciplines and keeping them apart, we fail in a monumental way to ‘wrestle’ with multi-faceted problems, like global pandemics. We avoid the intellectual battle inherent in engaging with what the other side thinks. To deal with COVID-19 or to understand what is happening, we need less boxing and more wrestling! A mono-disciplinary perspective, however sophisticated, cannot help us design and evaluate policy interventions, or grasp the wider meaning and significance of COVID-19 in specific contexts. A lot of time is now being invested in delineation with other strands and lines of thought based on high principles of epistemology and ontology. Our point is that that energy would be better spend on truly working together.

A physician and an economist…

We write from different sides of a supposedly chiasmic divide, a divide we each try to bridge and straddle in our own ways. C. Sathyamala is a public health physician with a Master’s degree in Epidemiology who opted to do her PhD in development studies at the ISS. In the process, she developed a strong interest in class and state power and in the history of the biopolitics of food and hunger. As a medical doctor concerned with action for social justice, the Bhopal gas leak disaster proved a crucial turning point in her life as corporate interests in collusion with the state effaced people’s lives. The COVID-19 pandemic created similar tendency, displacing the migrant working class across India and subjecting them to what Giorgio Agamben has called ‘bare life’.

As an agnostic Dutch economist, Peter van Bergeijk is the first academic in a family of South Holland-based bakers, carpenters, and farmers. As a policy maker at the OECD, he was frustrated by the impossibility to engage major developing countries in discussions on environment and health. This motivated his move to the ISS, where he is equally happy to employ a neo-Marxist or a ‘empiricist’ framework as a toolkit, depending on what analytical toolbox is most suitable for the problem at hand.

…together critically examining the COVID-19 pandemic

Each of us has written on COVID-19 – on the urgency of communicating our concerns – in the form of  books or a range of Working Papers. Writing from different social and professional positions, we now also write…together. A common interest around COVID-19 has bridged our science-social science divide.

Primarily, we agree that if at all a silver lining is to be found in the COVID-19 situation, it is that we can learn a great deal, especially with mixed disciplinary backgrounds, with science, social sciences, and the arts (we have also worked together artistically: you will find Sathya’s poetry and Peter’s lithography alongside at the exhibition Broken Links).

And we both agree that we will only truly understand pandemics and their consequences, and what to do about protecting human societies from their fallout once social scientists and natural scientists stop practicing social and intellectual distancing by boxing themselves into their own disciplines.

This is more urgent than often recognised: the next pandemic is a certainty, only its timing is uncertain.

The WHO hopes to forge solidarity and encourage the sharing of knowledge across disciplinary and global divides. The purpose is to generate greater consensus around COVID-19.

But while lip service is paid to medical opinion, it is powerful political and economic elites that continue to call the shots.  State interventions provide selective care in the matter of making live and letting die, and even in making die in the Foucauldian biopolitical sense. Academics find themselves struggling to keep up in real time with the pace of the pandemic, with its spread, recurrence, changing pattern, and often its gross mismanagement.

Huge as the problem is, we are pleased to have started our own dialogue, right here at the ISS, and based on our own published and ongoing research on the subject. How COVID-19 affects us now, and what kinds of ‘pandemic futures’ we face, are questions all of us can contribute to answering once we learn to wrestle across our disciplinary divides.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

C. Sathyamala is a public health physician and epidemiologist with a PhD in Development Studies. She is currently a postdoc academic researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies, Den Haag, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her areas of interest include food security and politics of food, political economy of health, medical ethics, reproductive rights, and environmental justice. She has been active in both the health and women’s movement in India for some decades. She has authored and co-authored books and published in journals, peer-reviewed and otherwise, and in newspapers on wide-ranging topics. 

Peter van Bergeijk is professor of international economics and macroeconomics at the ISS.

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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).

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Positioning Academia | Development must change in the face of injustice and inequality

Inequality is growing in most countries and deep-seated injustices continue to pervade our world—from the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority ethnic groups and the tragic death of George Floyd in the US, to reports of the collapse of the health system in Yemen. In the face of such embedded inequalities and injustices, what must we, as engaged academics, do to make our commitment to a more equitable and sustainable world real?

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.

Changing how we ‘understand’ and ‘do’ development

As shown by contributors to the World Social Science Report on Challenging Inequalities, which the IDS led in 2016, multiple forms of inequality intersect to drive marginalisation and discrimination. In 2020, injustices and inequalities have been exposed and exacerbated in different ways through the disruptions and shocks that are shaping our era—from COVID-19, climate change and financial crises to conflicts, new technologies and closing political spaces.

These disruptions, which share many underlying causes, are both threatening collective futures and sharpening the vulnerabilities felt by particular people and groups. Long-dominant development models, such as those promoting economic growth, market liberalisation, globalisation, carbon-intensive industries and command-and-control planning regimes, are now under unprecedented challenge. But while these disruptions pose threats and challenges, they also offer opportunities to do things differently:  to ‘build forward differently’ and to rethink development as transformative change.

At IDS, we have identified three key areas in which a collective endeavour within, across and beyond the development sector is urgently needed. Each provides a valuable opportunity to develop our thinking with global partners, including colleagues at ISS, on how we can best collaborate to co-generate and mobilise evidence in ways that ultimately make a difference to people’s lives, and especially tackle the most extreme forms of inequity and injustice. We wish to:

1. Build and connect solidarities for collective action, locally and globally.

Responses to interlinked global challenges such as inequality, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate that knowledge, action, and leadership can emerge at local levels, as well as, or often in the absence of, action at state, national, and global levels. Neighbourhood quarantines, initiatives to provide food to the most vulnerablecommunity gardens, and local actions to eradicate plastic waste are just a few amongst myriad recent examples across the world.

More concerted efforts need to be undertaken to connect such local initiatives with national and global collective action, whether through building national and transnational alliances between social movements, encouraging government recognition and support, strengthening international financial, economic, health and environmental governance, or sharing science and data. For example, the World Health Organization’s repeated calls for global solidarity in relation to COVID-19 have been heeded by many, but international collaboration is still limited. Global partnership is an essential part of the equation in tackling global challenges—whether that’s finding treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, tackling climate and environmental vulnerabilities, or understanding and addressing institutional and systemic racism—and pressure needs to be applied to governments worldwide not to retreat behind borders.

ISS and IDS share a commitment to a universalist approach to development; we recognise that the time is right to look within Europe, to apply our frameworks, tools, and praxis of international development to new development trends in the Global North, including climate change, the global rise in populism, inequalities of many kinds, and health crises. A working group within IDS is developing partnerships and thinking around this through our European Engagement Approach.

2. Value diverse knowledge and expertise.

IDS and ISS are both committed to ensuring the representation of social sciences in responses to global shocks, and we advocate the need for expertise from across disciplines, countries, sectors and communities, and better ways of facilitating the collaborative generation and sharing of this knowledge and learning. Again, the COVID-19 response, and its interconnections with inequalities, is salutary. The mantra of ‘led by the science’ misleadingly presents science as a singular, uncontested, unbiased thing operating outside of politics and social norms. The range of disciplines drawn on in most national responses has been narrow, dominated by epidemiology and biomedicine.

Bringing wider forms of expertise to bear means, for example, challenging assumptions underpinning scientific modelling; drawing on social sciences to understand how the virus is spreading, between whom, and who is vulnerable and why; and complementing formal science with the knowledge and learning of local populations —as occurred so effectively in countries such as Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak.

But taking inequalities and injustices seriously means we also need to go further. We need to invest in equitable and sustainable research partnerships that value and strengthen the knowledge and expertise produced by institutions, universities, and communities in low- and middle-income countries, and to support moves to ‘decolonise’ development knowledge and practice, and foster cognitive justice.

3. Understand, address and challenge power imbalances.

Most important in changing the way we think about and do development is to understand, address, and challenge deep-seated power imbalances. Power relations underlie the causes of and vulnerabilities linked to health, climate, and economic disruptions. They lie at the heart of inequalities and injustices. Whether progressive economic, social, and environmental change takes place ultimately depends on political choice and mobilisation, involving citizens, states, and other actors in processes that will often be highly charged. Development can no longer be imagined as a technical matter, but must be treated as thoroughly political.

We must also move beyond limited applications of ‘thinking and working politically’ in aid programmes, to embedding understandings of politics and power, including the politics of knowledge, more widely and deeply in attempts to influence change and transformation. In doing so, we must look within our own organisations and institutions at how we create and prop up, consciously or sub-consciously, entrenched power relations, injustices, and inequalities.

And as academics and scholar-activists, we also need to reflect on and be humble about our own assumptions and positions. Whether through the ways in which we approach partnership, in relation to where and who we choose to engage with, in how we frame and teach development, or in how far we reflect equality and diversity across all that we do, it is time to match our commitments to a more equitable and sustainable external world with commitments to justice in our personal and institutional practices.

As academics and knowledge professionals committed to a more equal and sustainable world, staff at the Institute of Development Studies and the International Institute for Social Studies share the goal of collaborating across sciences, sectors, and communities to do research, learning and teaching that brings progressive change. Our institutes have a long history of collaboration, including through the Journal of Peasant Studies, the Land Deals Politics Initiative, the Wellbeing, Ecology, Gender and Community Innovation Training Network (WEGO-ITN), Robert Chambers’s and Richard Jolly’s Honorary Fellowships at ISS, and more. We look forward to collaborating with ISS and others in this vision of development. Read more about our commitments and priorities, and join us in solidarity around a search for social and cognitive justice in meeting challenges that affect us all.

About the author:

Melissa Leach is Director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

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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.

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COVID-19 | How COVID-19 exacerbates inequalities in academia

The COVID-19 crisis has brought to the fore gendered and racialised aspects of precarity that were steeping in academia long before the virus emerged. The increased burden of unpaid care work, still mostly borne by female academics, has skewed research output. Casualised staff, many of them early-career and/or international researchers, are expected to withstand the worst of the crisis, with their job security under threat. What action can academics take to challenge these negative developments? We need a post-pandemic vision, writes María Gabriela Palacio.

Man with laptop in the dark

COVID-19 has illuminated deep-seated inequalities overlooked during ‘normal’ times. As we grapple with the extent and severity of the outbreak, we have been required to isolate and contemplate the cessation of economic activities. The fragility of our systems has been thrown into sharp relief, evincing that it is not necessarily the virus, but the lack of regulation and protection that amplifies inequalities among us.

What is work? What is essential?

COVID-19 gave us a new grammar to talk about what we do and how it is valued: essential and non-essential work. What we now consider essential work is the kind of work that our economies have systematically devalued. Health workers have been at the forefront of the response, with many women and minority ethnic communities at the lower tier of the healthcare system, working in underfunded systems without the necessary compensation and protective equipment. Many do work that is neither considered essential nor ‘work’.

Women’s unpaid work has increased as lockdown measures disrupted childcare provision and increased other care obligations. School and daycare closures have created new forms of stress and anxieties among caregivers (predominantly women), with a sizeable social gradient in the extent to which families feel able to support their children and provide home schooling. Within the academe, the drop in the number of papers submitted by female academics and the skewed distribution of research grants illustrate the increased burden of unpaid care work that women shoulder.

What work is valued? What is disposable?

This crisis intersects not only with gendered but also with racialised aspects of precarity in academia. As the pandemic rages across diverse geographies and international students defer entry for a year, higher-education centres face operational challenges, resulting in recruitment freezes, contracts not being extended, or the scrapping of research projects. Early-career academics on temporary contracts—many scheduled to expire this year—are anxious about their job security. International staff members are more likely to participate in casual employment, often unable to make any long-term commitments as their residency is attached to their work status. The experiences of international and ethnic minorities often go unheard in academia as they are less likely to participate in decision-making: non-white female academics are heavily under-represented in professorial positions across the Netherlands.

These elements show that diversity in higher education has not been accompanied by a change in normativity, with tangible consequences in terms of career prospects. Academics of diverse backgrounds encounter themselves having to working harder to be accommodated in their work environment (to fit in), for example by doing more service work and being less protective of their research time (if any), thus hindering their chances in the labour market. One could consider this a sign of an increasingly fragmented and market-driven academia that fails to recognise differences.

Doing what you love is still work

Most jobs that involve ‘doing what you love’ make it more difficult to assert one’s position and demand better conditions. It is often expected of academics to be intrinsically motivated and concerned about the wellbeing of students—and the vast majority indeed are. Yet, this expectation makes it difficult for us to demand better work conditions, particularly during a crisis like the one we face today. Support and care for students have become central to our online teaching. It is assumed that in the next academic year, most teaching will continue online, supplemented with some on-campus activities.

Though new forms of work are highly welcomed, they need to be accompanied by a reflection on how these new forms of work would be valued and compensated. We need a post-pandemic vision of our institutional setting while we respond to the immediate challenges of online education, casualised employment, and intensified work demands. This is a crucial moment to reflect and raise awareness about how our experience in academia is affected by who we are (e.g. gender, race/ethnicity, citizenship) and the challenges to measure and capture the value we create. What can we do to take action and tackle the privileges and systemic inequalities that this pandemic has illuminated? A first step would be to openly appreciate academics, as an online campaign at Leiden University using the hashtags #staffshouldstay and #koesterdedocent (‘treasure the lecturer’) is doing.

Another thing you can do is to engage in discussions within your faculty and/or programme to discuss how new forms of work derived from the COVID-19 crisis, e.g. mentor programmes, will be valued and compensated. Inclusion is central to such discussions: where would this work come from? Who will be asked? How would they be compensated? Because we as academics genuinely care for students, the conditions of and compensation for this type of work tend to become afterthoughts—and they shouldn’t.

This article was originally published on the Leiden Inclusion Blog and has been written by the author in her capacity of Assistant Professor in Development Studies at the Faculty of Humanities and Chair of LUDEN: Leiden University Diversity and Equality Network. This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the author:

María Gabriela Palacio holds a PhD in Development Studies by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). Her research contributes to interdisciplinary work on critical social policy and it seeks to understand how state interventions shape social and political identities. Increasingly, her research interests have expanded to include the study of processes of exclusion within academia. She is the chair of the network LUDEN, tackling racism and other forms of exclusion at Leiden University’s working and learning environment.