Knowledge for The World We Want: The Emergence of the Global Alliance for Community Engaged Research (GACER)
Over the past decade global development agendas and civil societies' initiatives have increasingly challenged institutions of higher education to reshape their relationships with society to develop effective, sustainable partnerships to co-create knowledge for societal change and development. At this critical moment of humanity’s survival and continuity, it is imperative that research be harnessed to enable people to solve their problems and improve their lives. To make this happen we need a new paradigm of research in academia where academes ‘research with’ and not ‘research on’ so as to engage with communities in the design, implementation and use of research to address people’s needs. As well academes have to use their resources and expertise, and harness the knowledge, experiences and capacities of communities for communities’ benefit. The goals of academic research are therefore not merely to advance scientific understanding but to “put people first”, to ensure that knowledge produced contributes to making a concrete and constructive difference in people’s lives and to our world, and that this knowledge is built on and from people’s knowledge and lived wisdom. This is community-based engaged research, research that is conducted by, for and/or with the participation of community members: an emergent paradigm of really useful research for the 21st century. Engaged research is known to yield knowledge less likely to be identified in more traditional research approaches that often leave communities feeling exploited and not benefiting directly from the findings of the research.
Engaged research has taken various forms and names in different parts of the world. A variety of terms (with subtle differences) exist (scientific collaborative research as per science shops, community-based health-care, participatory research, community-based research, participatory action research, co-operative inquiry, empowering research, conscientising research etc). These various forms of socially committed, engaged research foster mutually respectful partnerships to generate usable, really useful knowledge for people to create the world they want. Though fragmented and encountering numerous challenges, these research partnerships offer a more collaborative alternative that offer academes the opportunity to restore their relevance and to address local and global needs. These research partnerships are increasingly being recognized as important in yielding concrete knowledge and understanding that can guide policies and programs to reduce the various disparities and unsustainabilities of our turbulent, troubled world. Indeed such forms of university-community engagement has emerged to be a powerful means for higher education to refocus and strengthen its mission amid conflicting demands for commercialization and privatization. It has enabled higher education to return to its humanistic roots, benefiting academy and society.
A Troubling Global Context: Importance, Timing and the Need for New Knowledge
In 2000, amid great fanfare and optimism, the UN World Assembly endorsed a set of Millennium Development Goals to eliminate world poverty by 2015. In 2008, the scene is more somber: the World Bank says, “no developing country is likely to meet the Millennium Development Goals” (Tandon, 2008). The persistence of violence and armed struggle continues and terrorizes and kills large numbers of people. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nearly a decade of violence in the 1990s led to over five million deaths, due directly to conflict-related casualties, as well as to disease and malnutrition exacerbated by conflict. (UNDP: 2008, xvii) In dealing with post-conflict areas, new research strategies and kinds of knowledge are needed, since “post-conflict recovery policy must begin with a robust understanding of the indigenous drivers of recovery” (UNDP, 2008, xix).
In effect, a new knowledge strategy and networking capacity is urgently called for. “In a globalized world, in which public issues and social problems stretch across wide spaces, affecting ever larger numbers of people, it becomes increasingly important for individuals and communities to learn together” (Gurstein & Angeles, 2007: 3). Knowledge must be mobilized and activated by all social actors, in new and creative ways. In alliance with the communities in which they are based, and through the use of community-based research strategies, higher education institutions need to align and focus their considerable capacities on promoting innovative and effective government policies and civic action. Community-university research partnerships are emerging as an important strategy mobilizing just such research and action (Global Alliance on Community-Engaged Research, 2008).
Strategic Emergence of Community-University Research Partnerships Internationally
In the 1970s in the Netherlands, a structure for linking academic research to communities needs was created called Science Shop (http://www.livingknowledge.org). In Tanzania, India, Latin America and elsewhere in the south, a new research approach called “participatory research”, which recognized the knowledge creating capacities of community, organizations and social movements, was also gaining visibility (Hall, 1975). Flash forward 40 years, and we have the emergence of a second or third wave of research and knowledge mobilization initiatives that build on the early work of the Science Shops and the Participatory Research practitioners and others. It is promoted and supported by a new set of networks and structures such as Sciences Citoyennes in France (http://sciencescitoyennes.org); the Living Knowledge Network based in Germany (http://www.scienceshops.org); The Popular Education Network based in Scotland (Crowther, 1999); Community-Based Research Canada (http://uvic.ca/ocbr); Community-University Partnerships for Health in the United States (http://depts.washington.edu/ccph/); as well as the National CBR Networking Initiative (http://www.bonner.org/campus/cbr/home.htm) and the University-Community Partnership for Social Action Network (http://www.igloo.org/ucpsarnet).
Additional networks and structures include the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (http://www.pria.org); the Academe Civil Society Network in ASEAN, the Global University Network for Innovation (http://www.guninetwork.net); the Sub-Saharan African Participatory Research Network in Senegal; the Developing Research on Citizenship network based at the University of Sussex (http://www.drc-citizenship.org); Observatory PASCAL on Place Management, Community Engagement and Learning Regions (http://www.obs-pascal.com); the Australian University Community Engagement Association (Temple et al, 2005), and there are many other emerging networks.. In July, 2009 at the UNESCO-World Conference of Higher Education in Paris, GACER, among other concerned organisations and networks like GUNI was successful in influencing the formulation of a Communiqué that addresses the social responsibility of universities to underscore the importance and recognition of people’s knowledge: “indigenous knowledge systems (that) can expand our understanding of emerging challenges, and higher education should create beneficial partnerships with communities and civil societies to facilitate the sharing and transmission of appropriate knowledge”. We now have a recognized and legitimate space for the systematic sharing, deepening, and theorising of experiences that did not exist in earlier years.
The Global Alliance for Community Engaged Research was born in Victoria, British Columbia Canada in May of 2008. The International Development Research Centre funded representatives of developing countries to attend a meeting Community University Exposition 2008. They agreed on a statement of principles about the need for community-engaged research. Among other things, the statement noted that, "The right to learn, the right to know, the right to produce knowledge, and the right to access knowledge are inalienable rights for all". (www.communityresearchcanada.ca/gacer).
A structure to support an evolving programme of activities emerged shortly afterwords. Rajesh Tandon, President of PRIA agreed to serve as Chair of GACER and the responsibility for the functions of GACER were agreed upon to be shared between the University of Victoria, the International Contact point of the Living Knowledge Network and the Society for Participatory Research in Asia. GACER is a loose structure which sees itself as a 'network of networks'. It's focus is on carrying out advocacy and policy development within international higher education, development and funding circles. It has been active at the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education in July of 2009, in partnership with the Universiti Sains Malaysia's International Conference on Civic Education, with both the 2008 and 2010 GUNI Barcelona World Higher Education conferences, the International Living Knowledge Conference in Belfast in August of 2009, the national conference on Public Engagement and Higher Education in the United Kingdom in November of 2010 and the OECD conference on Regional Development and Higher Education is Seville, Spain in February of 2011. The next meeting of GACER will take place at CUExpo 2011 in Waterloo, Canada in May of 2011 (http://www.cuexpo2011.ca)
Call for North-South Collaboration in Community University Engagement
In September of 2010, eight of the major global networks in community university engagement held a global video dialogue on how to move the community-university policy agenda forward to better support and lend visibility to the CU engagement activities in the majority world. The Global Dialogue project, referred to as the "Big Tent" process as it sought, not to create a new organisation, but facilitate a conversation that would be owned by all who took part was the result of 18 months of dialogue and consultation. The GUNI Newsletter number 62 of November 22, 2010 provided a full report of the global dialogue (http://www.guni-rmies.net/newsletter/history.php).
What is happening where you are living and working?
GACER would love to learn more about what the policy situation is in your university, in your community, your national structures or in the field of work that you are involved in. We have a web-site and a GACER News service that you could receive. Tell us what is going on with you? How can GACER be of value to you?