Activist Research for Sustainability

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The reflections below were written while I was attending various meetings and discussions in Beijing in November 2009. These discussions helped me reflect on research within the African context, and more particularly within Stellenbosch. The reflections below were sent to all the students who were completing their Bphil in 2009 and were preparing to write research proposals for their Mphil theses in 2010. These reflections were aimed at stimulating ideas and research methods for activist research – research that was actively driven by the need to make sure things change.

“I am currently in Beijing attending meetings where Chinese Government officials and researchers are discussing the implementation of China’s Green Economy policy, plus meetings of the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management. Two things strike me about these discussions:

• Due to extremely limited capacity for research in Africa, African issues are virtually absent from the global change agenda – this is both tragic, but also an opportunity for research. The hottest issue when it comes to Africa is the fact that global economic recovery is dependent on a continued supply of cheap primary materials out of Africa, including fossil fuels, metals, minerals (in particular rock phosphate for agriculture which is running out globally but not in China, but China has decided to import what it can before using its own stocks), what is called ‘virtual water’ and ‘virtual soils’ (i.e. the water and nutrients embodied in exported biomass via export food and forest products), etc. Even the export of large quantities of organically grown produce is causing problems because to eat Africans spend the money they get selling organic produce to import non-organic food  (often processed and canned) from elsewhere at several hundred times the cost. Hence the export out of Africa of primary resources and the import back into Africa of processed and manufactured goods is a key cause of increasing poverty, but it works for elites who gain from their share of the transactions.  China has pledged $10 billion for investment in Africa this week, but this is mainly for infrastructure to transport resources out of Africa (rail, energy and ports), but also to relocate dirty low wage energy intensive industries from China into Africa (hence the reason why China has bought 25% of Standard Bank). So Africa’s place in the global economy is changing, but with little indication that it will benefit. To respond, one of my fellow Panel Members (Dr. Kevin Urama) is the coordinator of an Africa-wide Conference taking place in Abuja from 24 November hosted by the President of Nigeria to discuss the global financial crisis, climate change and poverty. Kevin is a renowned critical intellectual who has taken on AGRA head on (the Rockerfeller-Gates initiative to promote green revolution technologies and GM in Africa). He and I will table a one page proposal for an Africa-wide research effort to document the outward flows of resources, the impacts of climate change on Africa and why Africa needs to respond differently if it really is serious about reversing poverty. This will involve digging into all sorts of databases to capture and track resource flows, but it might have to start by trying to conceptualise what resource flows are all about and what is going on here via a synthesis of different bodies of literature. This will not be easy and is probably a long-term 10 year project involving lots of bits and pieces that slowly over time start to make sense. Unless Africa can demonstrate how it is losing, nothing will be done to change things in its favour. Instead, investments in Africa are seen as benign and positive, with no thought given to the underlying depletion of resources that this entails. Hopefully as we grow our Africa networks we will be able to develop this research agenda.

• The second thing that strikes me about these discussions is that there is very little sense anywhere in the world of what system change really entails, and in particular what alternatives really look like. Almost all discussion of the Green Economy is about ‘minimising damage’ (i.e. that things will get better if they are less bad) – very little is about redefining development to mean restoration of social and natural life (a la Ostrom, Birkeland etc). But the Panel interacted with Achim Steiner, head of UNEP. Steiner criticised the IMF/WB for focussing purely on how to return to growth with no regard to the need for change, and he criticised the ‘green revolution for Africa’ initiative because this will destroy  Africa’s agricultural resources. But, he argued, whereas the c.20th was the ‘century of incrementalism’, the c.21st must be the ‘century of transformations’. He argued that we now face ‘peak everything’, not just ‘peak oil’. Linking these two thoughts about the need for transformation and ‘peak everything’, this is where I think the Stellenbosch research could play a role. Although I flesh out the idea for Stellenbosch in greater detail below, what the world needs is a language that makes system change a real practical possibility. There is a growing awareness that there is something badly wrong, and a growing acceptance that things will have to change, but very little actually happens because there seems to be a mixed bag of weakly developed ideas about system change and innovations for catalysing system change. Almost all research funding is for assessments and analysis, but very little for developing ideas about what is changing, how is it changing, what can be done to promote change, and what are the dynamics of different change processes. What would make a real impact is a body of ideas that have been clearly articulated that are, in turn, deeply rooted in really substantive primary research that spans the socio-cultural, institutional/governance, technological and eco-system/biodiversity issues. Maybe we can use Stellenbosch as a socioecological system as a kind of laboratory for developing ways of thinking about change. In other words, the aim is not to explain why Stellenbosch is unsustainable (as if this and this alone will trigger a rational response by decision-makers to introduce changes). Rather, the aim is to take unsustainability as a point of departure, and to identify connections and processes (actors, flows and networks if you like) that could become the focus of action and interventions that result in changes. So for me the stakeholder interactions that the SI has initiated as part of the Science and Society programme are exactly the processes that lead to change. But what is needed to support these processes? Who is involved? What do they need to be more effectively involved? What do they need to understand in order to think of solutions? Who is NOT involved and why not? How can the uninvolved be identified and reached? What do they need to get involved? What, indeed, does involvement mean? Can we find a way of involving not just human actors, but also non-human ones like soils and rivers? What about institutions that are obstacles to change, like corrupt municipal officials and politicians and the big developers that corrupt them? What is corruption and how does it work? What kind of knowledge flows reinforce or undermine what is needed? In other words, this is not about analysis of what is wrong, or modelling a perfect outcome, it is research that brings into relief the actors, flows and networks that are the elements in motion in change processes.

Before saying more about what all this means for our practical research agenda, let me just say a few words about what is distinctive about research and the research process. Things change for many reasons: because of a change in belief systems, political power relations, business conditions, environmental changes, etc. In every case there are actors who are locked into networks that understand things in certain ways and express the alternatives they favour in certain ways. These ideas, in turn, are most often traceable in one way or another to a body of systematic thought – this can be a theory, or a policy statement, or body of evidence, or whatever. Usually, though, in the rough and tumble of everyday life actors grab what they can and blend them into a mishmash of ideas that can be internally coherent, but most often are not. So, for example, every municipality must prepare a Spatial Development Framework (SDF). This quite simply is a spatially mapped vision of what should happen to the town in future. The need for this is derived from a long tradition of planning theory that has gradually been translated into policy and then legislation and finally into the everyday management task of commissioning a consultant to write the SDF who, in turn, is the product of his/her own intellectual traditions. What gets done, in the end, is a reflection of the mishmash of interpretations of the intent to create a rational vision of the future. Then, to complicate things even further, you have politicians who advocate on behalf of developers who have professional planners on the payroll to develop plans that do not fit into the SDF but derive their intellectual legitimacy from appeals to theoretical texts about urban planning – quite often the same ones used to validate the SDF in the first place!

In my view, the job of the researcher is different to all the other actors because it is his/her job to do the following:

• to dig down deep to reveal the underlying conceptual origins of the ideas that are being used by actors to understand the problems and the solutions;
• this, then opens up two avenues of research: (a) whether the originating conceptual ideas are still valid by examining the literature for research that may question, modify or reinforce the conceptual approaches being deployed; and (b) whether the problems and solutions identified are adequately depicted or not, or whether some have been ignored and if so why, or whether the problems/solutions have been articulated in a way that does justice to what is really going on – this kind of research is, of course, empirical, i.e. using quantitative and/or qualitative research techniques the researcher goes out to test whether the problems/solutions make sense or not;
• so what starts off as a seemingly simple statement (“the purpose of the SDF is to make sure the future is well planned in accordance with sustainable development principles”) may turn into something much more complex and problematic; e.g. the SDF may be rooted in theoretical constructs that have been thoroughly critiqued, and/or the problems/solutions identified may have failed completely to take into account the concerns of key stakeholders or may have ignored a whole lot of things that only quantitative research could reveal or the language used to express the problems may be such that key aspects of the solution are ignored (e.g. if domestic violence or soil degradation are major problems in a particular area and the problem statements talk about households as if they are homogenous units or land reform as if soils are ok, then solutions will emerge that will assume that domestic violence is not undermining the viability of households and that land will be productive because the soils are ok).
• Once the above is done, to then offer new conceptual frameworks of understanding that could result in a different language that is more fruitful and productive when it  comes to defining a particular set of problems and solutions. In other words, whereas most actors have too little time to systematically  arrange their ideas into logically coherent frameworks of understanding, the job of the researcher is the opposite, i.e. to thoughtfully, mindfully and ethically build up a systematic argument that is conceptually coherent and empirically valid. There is no objective definition of what this means and is, therefore, tested in each case through review by supervisors, fellow researchers and peer reviewers. However, it needs to be said that not all research contains both in equal measure. Some research is just an interrogation of the conceptual foundations of a way of thinking with suggestions of an alternative, with no substantial empirical work. For example, the Minister of Finance said in his budget speech that he has drawn his economic theory from the Growth Commission Report – what is the economic theory expressed in this Report? What are the critiques of this theory? What are the implications of this theory? What if the critiques of it are valid? Other research is about empirically testing the validity of a particular set of claims, e.g. is poverty going down in countries that apply the theories of the Growth Commission? If not, why not? Does this make the theory invalid or not? And then some research is both conceptual and empirical. (Of course, there is a third strand not addressed here, namely methodological research, i.e. the interrogation of how certain things are researched and whether different research methods would have generated different results to answer the same research questions – but this is another discussion.)
• The final product that the researcher delivers is not just a good idea or a great strategy for changing things, but rather something that is thoughtfully, mindfully and ethically formulated as a systematic argument that deploys a particular conceptual framework and addresses a particular set of empirical problems (using a particular set of research methods and methodologies).  When  a researcher contributes to a particular process in his/her capacity as a researcher, then s/he needs to make clear what the underlying logic of the argument is about. In other words, the researcher is held accountable for his/her conclusions with reference to the way the research was done. Other actors are not expected to be accountable in this way.
• One final word: there is no fixed recipe for any of the above. There is, however, one golden rule: make explicit what you think you are doing, and then demonstrate how you have applied this in a consistent manner.

So, coming now to the Stellenbosch research. In my view we need to think of a set of inter-linked research projects that reinforce the change processes that lead to more sustainable outcomes/futures. We need to make sure that this is not limited to ecological sustainability – if poverty persists, it will ultimately undermine ecological sustainability. Similarly, if ecological sustainability is ignored the poor will (to use the words from the Stern Report) suffer first and most although they have contributed least to the problem. Hence the need to make sure that sustainability is both about restoration of eco-systems and livability for all (all these terms, of course, have theoretical origins and  therefore consequences, and may need to be modified depending on the focus of the research). With this over-arching theme in mind, we can tackle the issues raised in the attachment by seeing them as potential “issues for research” (or, to use Bruno Latour’s words, “matters of concern”). In other words, all of them are issues that are understood in certain ways by a particular set of actors who are, in turn, networked in particular ways. Who are the key actors? What networks are in place and how do they work? How are the issues understood? What conceptual frameworks are used to understand the issues in certain ways? Do all the actors understand the issues in the same way? If not, what are the differences? Why, most importantly, do these differences exist? What technologies are used to manage flows? Why are they being used? What are the alternatives? What institutional arrangements are in place within which actors and technologies are embedded? What are the different economic interests at play? What are the key resource flows?

All these questions are, in fact, research questions of one sort or another. Imagine, for a minute, different researchers working with these questions on different issues (food, SACCO members, waste, water, energy flows, cultural associations, municipal governance, plans and planning systems, investment flows, poverty and inequality, the embeddedness of the Stellenbosch local system within wider regional, national and global systems, Boschendal as an eco-disaster/succss?, Spier as an eco-disaster/success? Corruption as a social virus, domestic violence and youth, etc.). Our aim would be to use research to instigate change by both enhancing improved understanding and mobilising people via the Science and Society programme to develop a shared understanding of how things could change and what needs to be done. Someone could even do research on the processes themselves. We would, of course, also need a definition of change and clarity on “change for what”? And ways of assessing whether progress is being made. If researchers worked as a group, they would gradually feed off each other’s work, and build up a shared understanding of the wider systems dynamics at play (i.e. how the actors, networks and flows interact over time). This can only work if the entire process kicks off with a 2 day workshop to build up a shared language for conducting the research and for connecting the research activities.

Let me emphasize, before ending off, that this is not just about Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch becomes the laboratory for research-based knowledge that can then feed into the wider discussions and debates through publications, conference papers and publishing in academic journals. In other words, we will develop a way of thinking about change for restoration and livability that hopefully will have much wider applications over the longer-term.

So I hope this has stimulated some thoughts and ideas. I look forward to the concept notes by mid- to late-November.”

Written on 11 November 2009