Research, Activism/Advocacy, Consultancies: Dilemmas and Challenges

Accra, Ghana, October 2003

This project is an offspring of the workshop (2002) on Contexts of Gender in Africa. Among the three sections in the workshop call for papers—1) Research, Activism, Consultancies: Dilemmas and Challenges, 2) Conceptualizing Gender: Reflections on Concepts and Methods of Research, and 3) Thinking Sexualities in Contexts of Gender—most of the papers presented focused on section three. Therefore, Re-thinking Sexualities is the title of the book which is presently under preparation. In section one only one paper was presented. Throughout the meeting, however, both overt discussions as well as less specific observations made it clear that this is an important area for analysis and sharing. Several if not all of the participants had experienced the tensions of the triple identity as researcher, consultant and activist/advocate—not to speak of family-related identities, for the women as wives and mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts etc.

Thus some of us decided to go ahead with a second book with a particular focus on the research/activism/consultancies dilemmas and challences. The book will be jointly edited by Akosua Adomako Ampofo, Inst of African Studies, University of Ghana, and myself. The call for papers (below) was issued in June 2002:

Call for papers

The Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala runs a research programme on Sexuality, Gender and Society in Africa, co-ordinated by Signe Arnfred. The goals of the programme are a) to promote and develop research on sexuality and gender in Africa in a context of social science informed by gender theory and knowledge of gender relations, and b) to create a space for conceptual and methodological discussions, based on empirical investigations as well as on activist work. A further aim of the programme is to establish contacts and relations between Nordic and African gender researchers, facilitating two-way flows of information and inspiration.

By this call for papers the programme wants to initiate work on a volume that deals with the ways in which research, activism/advocacy and consultancy work challenge and/or reinforce each other. Papers should focus on the actual situation of gender researchers, based in or outside Africa, but focused on Africa in their work, and often posed between identities as academics and researchers on the one hand, and dependence on donor funding on the other. Somewhere in the mix are sometimes also ideological commitments to activism and advocacy work that may be in conflict with the philosophies of particular funding agencies.

In a situation where much work on gender in Africa is commissioned by donor agencies and following donor agendas, it is not always easy for the researchers involved to strike the delicate balance between autonomous research on one hand and servicing the agendas of donors and/or governments on the other. As far as Africa-based researchers are concerned the situation is often aggravated by the fact that most African countries and/or universities don't have their own funds for research, and that in general university teachers' salaries are not very high. Thus in order to survive, or simply in order to have funds for academic research, university employees in Africa take on consultancy work as a complementary activity. The dilemma in this context is the terms of reference for the research and consulting: who decides the research agenda, the focus of the study, the lines of thinking, the concepts to be used? Concretizing this dilemma and discussing possible solutions to it are important tasks for many African and Africa-based feminist researchers.

Another dilemma, complementary to and co-existing with the first one, is the double identity—felt and experienced by many feminists— as academic researchers on one hand, and as activists/advocates for women's issues on the other. How are these dilemmas between academic and activist concerns being worked out and solved in practice? Gender research rooted in activist work, informed by women’s struggles on the ground, is often an ideal of politically oriented feminist research. But through which institutions can this work in practice? Do they exist at all?

Finally, to which extent are feminist researchers also involved in the third dilemma of the triangle: researcher/activist/consultant—the relationship between political activism on one hand and donor-driven projects, programmes and agendas on the other? Sometimes donor initiatives may be taken up and taken over by feminists, donor money being used for autonomous agendas. Sometimes donor agendas will absorb it all. For feminists from the North but working in Africa often there are tensions created by being an “outsider” perceived as having an agenda which is incompatible with local interests.

We see it as important to give words to these tensions and dilemmas, lived by many gender researchers in the North as well as in the South (although often most acutely in the South, because of greater scarcity of alternative funding). These dilemmas are lived by many —but they are not often spoken about, and they are even more rarely put into writing.

The aim of this initiative thus is twofold:

a) to share experiences of feminist manoeuvring in the diverse and troubled waters of donor agencies, university institutions and Governmental and Non Governmental Organizations of multiple kinds. Papers may be written from the writer's own lived experience, and stories of successes and failures are equally welcome, such as, for example, stories about how groups of researchers in spite of consultancy work, by mutual support have managed to maintain their own agendas. Or simply accounts of how individuals or groups straddle these multiple roles and identities. There may also be more painful accounts of how competition for the best and most rewarding donor contacts have split up groups of colleagues, creating envy and distrust.

b) to embark on doing some highly needed analytical work in this field, showing the possibilities, but also the limits of donor approaches and cross-cultural collaborations.

The volume will be co-edited by Akosua Adomako Ampofo, University of Ghana, and Signe Arnfred, the Nordic Africa Institute.

A workshop based on submitted papers will take place at the University of Ghana, Accra, Oct 12-13, 2003.

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