Last week I took part in the Geographical Perspectives on “Development” summer school at the University of Bonn, Germany. Taking advantage of an Erasmus link between the Geography departments of Royal Holloway and University of Bonn, I was invited to contribute to the teaching of the summer school and use the opportunity to showcase my research and network with researchers based in Germany. The objective of the four day event was to engage in critically examining conventional approaches and supposedly well-established truths within the field of development geography using current research findings and approaches. Aimed at Masters and PhD students, as well as early career researchers, the summer school focused on providing space to exchange views on a variety of topics linked to “development” and/or research in the “Global South”. This included global chain governance, nature and capitalism, migration, economic entanglements, decolonisation, risk and disasters and ICT for development, with overarching questions on what constitutes this area of research, what theoretical approaches are suitable to generate meaningful results, and how research in this field can be conducted in both a critical and constructive way.
My main contributions to the summer school involved two workshops centred on the topic of participation. The first was on ‘community owned solutions for sustainability’, an emerging approach for engaging communities in identifying and sharing their own solutions to sustainability challenges such as climate change adaptation, naturalresource management, governance, health emergencies and cultural loss. Sharing results and approaches tested in a recent EU-funded project, Project Cobra, the workshop began by asking the thirty participants to reflect on the concept of community owned solutions from a theoretical and experiential perspective. We then discussed the use of participatory visual methods, such as participatory video, for local people to themselves identify and share local solutions, to reflect on their situation, learn from others and engender action. Participants then had the challenge to develop a two minute film of a community owned solution within the timeframe of one hour! Tablets were used to film and edit, and role playing and local props (one group went to the nearby botanical gardens to the use the lake to represent Lake Naivasha in Kenya, another used one participant’s crutches to depict farmers hoeing fields), provided a good dose of fun and laughter. The discussion following the screening of the films highlighted the potential positive outcomes of using participatory video for strengthening community owned solutions as well as concerns about participant selection, data ownership and facilitator influence, amongst others.
The second workshop, entitled “Participation in times of/for societal transformation – socio-political and methodological challenges intertwined!”, aimed to question the assumed power stabilising effects of participatory toolboxes such as Participatory Rural Appraisal, and thus to discuss to what extent participatory methods can facilitate transformative impacts of ‘empowerment’. Two examples were provided to encourage discussion: the different forms of relationships set up in participatory work, their power structures and impacts; and a critique of the use of ‘committees’ by governments and NGOs to channel participation in supposed predictable and positive ways. Participants were given the opportunity to discuss what empowerment through participation involved, and how a ‘radical democracy’ perspective might better respect community heterogeneity and the power of discourse.
All in all, the summer school was a great learning experience. As well as sharing my experiences of participatory work, I was able to exchange with others working in diverse Global South and Global North contexts on methods and approaches. The many conversations had in both the workshops and in the communal spaces gave me a fresh perspective on participation, whilst making new friends and enhancing opportunities for collaboration.
Professor of Geography, RHUL