Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A Response from the Global South On “Negotiations of Engaged Scholarship and Equity through a Global Network of Refugee Scholars”

- Paula Banerjee

Since I have been part of RRN activities for over half a decade now I endorse a lot that has been said in this paper. However, I would like to make some additions to this discussion. My response would be as a scholar/activist from the global South. Also in no way am I suggesting that my critique is towards RRN but I am speaking of transnational projects in general.

In a North-South collaborative project on forced migration researchers from the global South go through a gamut of emotions. I will try to analyse them as objectively as possible below:

1.From the beginning Southern researchers feel wary and constrained because most of these grants come from the global North and project leadership is also in the hands of scholars from the North. No matter how egalitarian the researchers are from the global North they are also bound structurally as the terms of the project are framed in such a way that from the beginning a hierarchy is established. Most of the researchers of the global South do not categorise themselves as merely scholars but proudly call themselves as activist too, no matter how solid their credentials are as a scholar. However, within the framework of Northern research structure a scholar is more privileged than an activist and so from the initial stages they feel disadvantaged. Yet there is this feeling among many of scholars from the South that without first-hand experiences of dealing with displacement they cannot comment on forced migration. Therefore, they feel this grassroots work is their social capital. Yet in the echelons of higher learning in the North this aspect make them particularly suitable for grassroots research because this is what the South can uniquely contribute as theories are in plethora in the global North already. So in this way roles are delineated and hierarchies are established. The scholars from the global North remain baffled at this change in behavior of those they thought as compatriots and the scholars from the South feel that their abilities are not properly utilised affecting the teamwork that is so essential in transnational projects.

2.As has been reported in the paper in cross-cultural research things get lost in translation. I would like to expand a little on this theme. In transnational research it is very essential to have interlocutors from the South who are in contact with the forced migrant populations themselves. Because what ultimately comes to fore is a product of double translation. The first time researchers from the global South translate the life stories of the displaced for their own use and then it is retranslated for the consumption of the policymakers of the North. In this double translation, and here I am not talking of language alone, there is a lot that gets lost. Sometimes researchers are selected from the centres of power in the global South, little islands of North in the South. These researchers often might not have first-hand experiences in peripheral areas where forced migration is happening therefore, the number of translations increase to the detriment of scholarship.

3.This brings us to the third problem of transnational research. Often institutions of the North collaborate with their mirror images in the South. There is a little comfort in working with people that we are familiar in our daily lives. Therefore, there are many organisations in global South that have so many projects that they often end up producing tardy research and in continuation of certain myths. Yet there might be groups that can produce excellent research yet their politics might seem too critical. Often these voices of criticality are drowned at the altar of comfort and camaraderie. Unless there is space made for these critical voices that is often considered “undesirable” much of the objectivity of the research will be lost and honesty jeopardised. Even if these voices are acerbic we should have the courage to take it on board.

4.In the report it has been stated that culture or misunderstandings emanating from culture is often an impediment in transnational research. I completely endorse this view. I was aghast that only three researchers from the South responded to the survey conducted by RRN. Then I realised the great apathy that much of the global South has of responding to surveys. Much of African researchers and researchers from South Asia would prefer if such surveys are conducted face to face. Our cultures are based on communal (kith-kin) networks and so impersonal surveys are still regarded as unwanted impediments to every day work. However, if this survey was tied to a program where one extra day could have been allotted for survey I am sure most of the respondents would have participated in it. Telephone surveys, Facebook, Twitter are still seldom used by scholars of the present generation of the global South for purposes of research. These methods are still considered suspect yet in the global North it is accepted. In the global South these cannot replace interpersonal face to face contact even now. Probably we still have to wait for a future group of transnational citizens from the global South sans the memory of the colonial past, who would be enthusiastic about these methods.

5.Last but not the least to the global South there is no global South. This is considered as northern vision. Those who form the South think of their own regions as unique, there might be commonalities but these commonalities are also predicated on massive differences. It would be naive to think that because there is forced migration in Africa and South Asia the solutions would be similar. Scholars from the South are particularly proud of their individuality. This can be seen as a post-colonial by product and they want their problems to be worthy of singular attention, which becomes difficult in transnational projects based on North/South comparisons.

The possible way-out:

a.Joint leadership of projects. This will increase trust among the southern scholars.
b.Relationship with groups that has established contact with the forced migrants themselves.
c.Accepting that even the South has some unique theoretical interventions to offer.
d.More stress on qualitative rather than quantitative research.
e.Understanding and accepting uniqueness of each region and then formulating projects.
f.Partners should be taken on board from the stage of formulation of the project and made equal stakeholders
g.They should be consulted, informed, engaged face to face whenever possible. There should be built in costs for holding meetings not just in the global North but also in the global South.

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