In the name of “development,” in the name of “aid,” in the name of “international research and innovation,” billions of pounds and dollars have been spent from the Global North on challenges materialising in the Global South: from poverty, to environmental protection, from gender equality to health. Countless academics and administrators have focused innovation, invention, programmes, and practices on supporting development in the “developing world.” I question how much longer we might fund and focus resource and expertise from the global north to help to “fix” the problems of the Global South.

This flow of aid money, resources, and increasing global morality and mobility is building ever broader pipelines between the Global North and South, and yet there seems to be a terribly unsettling consistent characteristic of this development (of this globality). The reality is that the Global North (and to be fair an ever-decreasing section of the Global North) becomes ever more powerful and prosperous, ever more resilient to climate change; and the Global South addresses an ever-decreasing area of fertile land, an ever-growing population of people living in poverty, and an ever-increasing threat of food security. For all of our good intention, and all of the promises of funding and expertise, our “global challenges” persist and increase.

Something surely is going wrong. Something fundamental is missing. And it is not good intention that’s missing, it is not intelligence, and it is not funding resources. Last year, the UK Government committed 1.5 billion pounds to research into Global Challenges. Much of this money has been taken directly from budget previously held by the Department for International Development. The investment has moved from resourcing initiatives on the ground through charities and regional projects in Development Assistant Category (DAC) Countries to resourcing research into challenges in these same places. To spend this money, many clever, ambitious, and well-intentioned academics will design, propose, and articulate research and innovation that promises to make the world a better place. Many of them will do this from their office or with a group of colleagues in and around their office. Some of them will travel and have conversations with partners “in-country” – all of them will be racing to prove their capacity to spend this money wisely and productively. It is this same Global Challenge Fund that motivated me and resourced me to facilitate and report on the first meeting of the Sustainable Futures in Africa Network.

I proceed with a determination: That this network, that this recipient project of UK Research Council funding, works differently, and works with difference.

I believe that unless we make decisive changes to the methodologies of collaboration that we are used to, across the vastly different settings of our homes, cultures and disciplines then this money (all £1.5 billion of it) will be spent (in the next 5 years); but the trajectory of change and development in the world will remain consistent with that of the past 50 years – that is, the north gets richer, the south gets poorer. Why would we expect anything different if we continue as normal?

Our First Sustainable Futures in Africa Network Meeting

On this note, the first meeting of our newly formed Sustainable Futures in Africa Network commenced at the University of Botswana in Gaborone, Botswana, on March 27th, 2017. Hosted by the Department of Adult Education, 30 of us arrived from Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, and Scotland, and joined our Botswanan colleagues – all of us bringing with us a curiosity, as well as eager anticipation, of this event.

We didn’t bring titles or fixed designated roles to this event, but being the Principle Investigator on the main grant that initiated our collaboration, I worked closely with our hosts to co-chair the event and lead in the organisation and design of our time together. After welcoming speeches by the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Botswana, Prof. Mokgwathi, and Acting Head of the Department of Adult Education, Prof Lekoko, I framed our meeting with an impassioned proposition that our emerging project not follow neatly in the footsteps of over 50 years of research in the name of “International Development.”

I had known no one in this auditorium for any longer than 18 months, and yet what we had already achieved in that time was substantial. Many of us, until that day, had met only via e-mail and skype; only collaborated over shared drafts of grant proposals and “Network-Objectives.” With all of my colleagues in the room, I had approached them over the past year, with a vague proposal: That in the face of increasing bio-diversity degradation in sub-Saharan Africa, and increasing social disconnection and apathy, we need to bring people from different disciplines together, from different global contexts, to try and work out how to genuinely communicate and collaborate, to work across our differences. Rather than environmental sustainability, we need to address socio-environmental sustainability. The people in the auditorium that morning had agreed, if only in principle, that this was worth exploring. Considering the relative lack of history between us, the lack of familiarity, and to be honest, the relative lack of clear or familiar objectives of our collaboration, it was inspiring to me, and also a little overwhelming, that we had gathered here from all over the world, to engage in what was a journey into methodologies, into collaborations and working relations that are new and unpredictable. In this way, our commitment at this point to our process was largely dependent on our imaginations, our faith, and our mutual trust and respect.

I have spent the past year developing my understanding of the space of socio-ecological sustainability, and I have spent the past 20 years developing my capacity to be outside of my comfort zone and work across spaces of difference – through the arts, through education, and through research methodologies. This event (with ecologists, geologists, geographers, educationalists, artists, zoologists and sociologists; with Eastern Africans, Western Africans, Southern Africans, North Americans, and Europeans) required jumping into these spaces of difference with both feet.

Global Challenges and the Global South

It is well documented that global challenges relating to environmental sustainability in the Global South require the attention and engagement of multiple disciplines, knowledges, and stakeholders. This is a big challenge, and a difficult one if we are to do it beyond a superficial level. But it is more than the challenge of working across disciplines. It is also a challenge of working across very different epistemologies and ontologies. We experience the world in different ways, we believe in different fundamental principles, our lives are structured by different systems. We cannot genuinely come together to support positive change or sustainability without ways to communicate and collaborate across these differences.

Our goal then, is to work hard to resist becoming another project within this trajectory of North to South research and development, to resist “practice as normal.” We have an obligation to take a long view of this global dynamic, to take a broad view of our individual capacities and agencies in this (we are all implicated in the unequal dynamics of this world). And in this light, we proceeded in two days of workshops, discussions, experiments, and action planning. As I sit now in the departure lounge at Gaborone airport, the journey is just beginning.

Mia Perry, March 31st, 2017

Featured Image: World map showing countries above and below the world GDP (PPP) per capita, currently $10,700. Source: IMF (International Monetary Fund).