Transformative Engagement Network: working together to create a sustainable future

Written By: Anne Ryan

Professor Anne Ryan writes about our involvement with colleagues in Malawi and Zambia since 2008 in the Transformative Engagement Network to address issues of climate justice from the standpoint of smallholder farmers.

I need to wind the clock back more than a few decades to set the scene for this project…

I first went to Zambia in 1974 when I was twenty-one.  I taught maths, history and English in a very rural secondary school in Chivuna. It was only when I returned to Ireland in 1977 that I fully realised the depth of the economic divide between rural Africa and the west. What shocked me most was not the poverty I’d witnessed but the affluence and waste I saw on my return. I’d grown up in rural Ireland. I was seventeen and in digs in Dublin before I experienced the luxury of having running water and all the amenities that go with that. Adjustment to living in Zambia was easy for me. I loved staying in the villages where my colleagues’ parents or grandparents lived. It was usual to leave the village laden with eggs, a chicken and whatever was in season. It reminded me of my childhood and how my father always farewelled visitors with whatever could be picked or dug up from the garden.  Zambia felt like home to me in the 1970s and has done ever since. Whenever I read or hear about subsistence farmers, I always recall particular individuals and families in Southern Province, Zambia. 

In the intervening decades I never lost contact with Zambia and was very aware that climate change was exacerbating poverty and taking a very heavy toll on subsistence farmers right across Africa. Between 2012 and 2015 along with colleagues in Maynooth University I was fortunate enough to lead a project that linked us to small scale farmers in Zambia and Malawi.  The aim of the project called TEN – Transformative Engagement Network – was to model a process that would transform the nature of the engagement between the various stakeholders impacted by or concerned with climate change. Those of us involved in TEN believed that inequalities between and within countries was getting worse not better and therefore our thinking about development and our actions to promote development needed to change. We also believed that to make meaningful changes in our thinking and actions we needed to create opportunities that would allow information flows and dialogue between all the stakeholders.  These stakeholders included scientists, researchers, subsistence farmers and all the agencies that work with them. Four universities were involved – one in Ireland, two in Zambia and one in Malawi. Each university had an interdisciplinary project team, including climatologists, plant and animal scientists, and community educators. We wanted a two way exchanges between these stakeholders. Universities and other agencies would not just disseminate information but would also position themselves as learners. We wanted accountability to be two ways. Instead of only upward accountability whereby those who are funded account for their spending we also wanted those who fund to be accountable to meeting the most pressing needs / concerns of vulnerable communities.

The Zambian and Malawian Universities drew on their links to local and national government, local rural communities and agencies working in these communities. We knew that within the academic world scientists easily and effectively engage with each other. Within TEN we wanted to build a network that would allow scientists to also dialogue with those who are most effected by climate change in their everyday lives. For example traditionally research in universities tends to be driven by the concerns of the discipline. Within TEN we hoped that the concerns of communities and those who work directly with them would play a role in formulating each university’s research agenda. In doing this we also hoped that research findings would become available to communities.   We also wanted to enhance the capacity of universities and policymakers to recognize and make use of community knowledge. We wanted to combine the western scientific knowledge that dominates our education systems with the lived knowledge of subsistence farmers whose very existence is testimony to their resilience and capacity to adapt.

 The networking aspect of the project necessitated layers of collaboration between entities that are frequently separated by issues of power and status. We learned a lot over the lifetime of TEN. In particular we learned that power and status are everywhere – between the disciplines in universities, between agencies working in rural communities, between individuals, families and groups in communities, within national and local governments and of course between all these different stakeholders.  We learned that although disciplinary specialisation has led to great advances in the natural and social sciences, it alone is often not sufficient to address complex problems such as poverty and climate change. We learned that traditional structures within universities prefer discipline-bound knowledge making it difficult to bring together the expertise to address these complex challenges. We learned that the key to an inclusive participatory process is to acknowledge the existence of power and status even when that power and status is not immediately evident and or is not easy to address.

Perhaps most importantly of all we learned that when invited to participate small-holder farmers eagerly responded. They appreciated the reciprocity of knowledge flows between the stakeholders.  They were keen to know the findings of the research conducted in their communities and throughout the project they were as generous in sharing their knowledge, expertise, experiences and concerns as they had been in sharing their homes with me many decades ago.

TEN had many outputs. The most surprising is that it didn’t really end. Sure the funded aspects ended but many of the activities carried on and there are plans for the partner universities to work together on another venture where small-holders will again play a lead role.

Anne Ryan is Emeritus Professor at Maynooth University.  She was chair of the Department of Adult and Community Education from 2005 to 2018. Anne has worked in developing countries that experience extreme poverty (such as Bangladesh and Central Africa) and those that are war-torn (such as Afghanistan) and she has worked with disadvantaged communities in Australia and Ireland.  These experiences convince her of the potential of adult and community education to empower communities to respond to the critical challenges facing twenty-first century societies in ways that ensure their voice is heard by decision-makers. 

By DACE Maynooth

This is the new blog for students, colleagues and friends of the Department of Adult and Community Education, Maynooth University. We aim to promote diversity and inclusion in education using our online platform. Guest bloggers and friends of the Department will post about their research and experiences in Education. The views expressed by the authors of individual posts do not reflect the views of the Department of Adult and Community Education Maynooth University.

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