Category Archives: Events | Conferences

Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA), Cape Town, September 2017

By now everyone in my family including my nieces who are 3 years old have heard of Amartya Sen. I love his work and the empathy with which he approaches issues… I vividly remember a conversation with my supervisor in 2007 at Wellesley (Prof Lindauer) where I told him that I must quit economics because it was for selfish crooked individuals who would do anything to maximise monetary gains. After a two-hour long conversation, it dawned on me that Economics (as a field) had much to offer and that we, as humans, were just beginning to scratch the surface of its potential for changing lives positively including for the most marginalised. Later, when I read Amartya Sen, it all made sense.

It was therefore with great anticipation and a bit of fear that I joined the HDCA conference in Cape Town. Why fear? Most of the people I quote and read at 3am were to attend the conference from Sabina Alkire to Elaine Unterhalter to Caroline Haart to Mario Biggeri and more. It was like the Oscars for academics working on the Capability Approach (CA)! And I was going to present there – and secretly wished no one (except the chair and co-panellists) would show up for my presentation. To my great surprise, many came and the comments I got were so encouraging. My thematic panel was entitled, “Challenging inequalities of identity” and engaged the audience on cases from Sri Landa, India, and Niger on how differential access to quality education may occur in context where people define their identities as being distinctly different from the established norm(s).

What are three keys points I like about the conference?

Point1: The summer school was so well-organised

Two days before the conference, a small group of young scholars attended the Summer School. It started on a Sunday at 8am with topic as deep as Capability Approach and Education Systems… and people stayed awake. It was an opportunity to learn with more depth about the CA as applied to health and education in particular but also share our insights on how we are approaching our own research. One point that I will remember is Prof Sridhar Venkatapuram’s introduction to the talk “Capability Approach & Health Justice”: he talked about the great famine 1877-1878 that claimed over 6 to 10 million deaths. When he asked us why and how the state watched on as the famine enfolded… my response was, the colonial powers had come to view the indigenous populations as less than human – that it was “easier” and “acceptable” to watch people they have de-humanised die. It turns out, one of the theories driving the silence and lack of action to save these human lives was…. Malthus. To this regard, Amartya Sen writes, “a misconceived theory can kill, and the Malthusian perspective of food-to-population ratio has much blood on its hands.” This, to me, speaks to the great responsibility we have as scholars because theories could have serious and real life implications for people who often may not have the means to contest that theory.

Point2: The people I quote are real and so human 

The panels were all of an exceptional quality. Every panel left me with new insights – some for empirical applications and others for their theoretical contributions. Most importantly, I appreciated the size of the conference – small with a high-intensity of relevant speakers. Most of the mega-stars in the field are so down-to-earth and approachable – the set-up of the conference made it easy to interact with speakers during sessions but also during tea breaks. I still marvel at how much the conference managed to fit without the whole experience being overwhelming. One of the most important encounters I made was that with Elaine Unterhalter… Why? First, when I started my PhD we were asked to think of a role model, a scholar that we admire and would want to look up to. I naturally searched for African women economists… I could not find many, and the few I found did not particularly speak to my heart and mind. (If you know any non-known names African women economists, please share). So Elaine Unterhalter, even if she is not an economist, came close to write about issues I cared about and in a way that spoke to questions I had been struggling with. I was star-struck when I met her and asked for a photo (as I did when I met Seguino in July in Seoul at the feminist economics conference). Most importantly, I came convinced that I must publish – all the authors I read and quote do not write out of certainty of having writing a perfect draft. They write to further the discourse and make contribution.

Point3: The breath of perspectives and countries 

I bonded with a participant from Bangladesh who does her PhD in Australia on children, learning outcomes, and the capability approach… She used participatory approach to assess her findings. Others were using this approach to analyse the telecom industry. I realised that the strength of this theory could also be its Achilles tendon: the theory is broad enough to encompass many things but in its broadness, it could be misused to justify approaches that would serve the very outcomes that this approach sought to tackle… issues about injustice, inequality, and freedom. The roundtable with Solava Ibrahim (a dear friend and affiliated lecturer at Cambridge), Sabina Alkire,  Richardson, and Robeyns spoke to some of these issues.

One of the keynotes’ panellists was particularly provocative. In my understanding of the CA and what it means, fighting inequality remains a core tenant of this approach. Therefore, any talks of progress based on averages could be so misleading. I was shocked to hear leading experts of international organisations speak of ‘progress although pockets of inequality remain’. Could we speak of progress when inequity prevails and so starkly demarcates life opportunities based on variables the person has no control over? Progress often lags where it is most needed, so where it occurs where it is to be expected, should we still call it ‘progress’? At times, in an attempt to ‘leave no one behind’ on targets, so many are left behind in reality. My research looks into some of these aspects where the targets become the end goal rather than the very change they are intended to bring.

Point *Bonus*: South Africa, you aren’t a rainbow if you aren’t complex

Thanks to the presence of two South African friends, I believe I have experienced a deeper South Africa than our conference bubble could have offered – the participants and organisers themselves did not miss the irony that a conference on inequality was being held at a 5* hotel… In our journeys across South Africa, from Cape Town to Robben Island to Jozie (Johannesburg), one of the things that stayed with me was the ongoing questioning of this nation struggling, shaping, and striving for so many things – the struggle is real. With all its protruding contradictions, South Africa is building itself. I was left with many wonderful memories with friends and family (yes Nigerien aunt and cousin in South Africa), a book, and an album by a young South African who speaks unapologetically about where his country is, what progress means (if any), and sings his heart out about Sizwe, the Nation.

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African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) in Accra, Ghana, October 2017

In terms of the pertinence of the debates, this was probably one of the best conferences I have attended thus far. In an era where discourse on decolonising academia is rightfully ever-present, this conference held at the University of Ghana, Legon in Accra does just that. Delocalising an African Studies conference back to the continent is in itself a revolutionary act. The field of African Studies had historically been (re)invented to look at Africa using a socio-anthropological and ethnographic lens to benefit and further the colonial agenda – sometimes distorting, ignoring, silencing, or simply failing to understand local knowledge systems. Scholars have contested this view by adding their voices to the field but also by questioning its very premises and redefining what it means to engage in ‘African Studies’. Africans writing about Africa and global affairs from gender issues to geopolitics predates the reinvention of the field of ‘African Studies’ as evidenced by the writings of Nana Asma’u Fodio, for example.

This 2nd biennal’s theme was “African Studies and Global Politics“. The panel I sat on was entitled “Challenging, Deconstructing and Reimagining Educational Systems: cases from Ghana, Niger, Nigeria and South Africa”. Our panel proposes to explore the past and ongoing shifts in educational systems across the African continent. Who gets access to formal education? Who gets excluded and why? In what ways are new forms of knowledge being generated, contested, or recognised? What policies affect the dynamics of social and economic change in a manner that (de)center theory towards contextualised practices that favour learning? In grappling with these questions, this panel has invited reflections on the idea of quality education, power and privilege in education and by extension engages with the politics of knowledge production.

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Here are three key points that I found particularly interesting during this two-day conference:

Point 1: Active participation with engaged conversations

All the panels I attended were followed with really insightful conversations. In one panel entitled “Politicising debates on gender and gender”, two speakers (both PhD candidates) gave talks on respectively gender & early childhood in Rwanda and women & electoral politics in Nigeria. The discussion that ensued gave insights into how accounting for contextual epistemologies could expand the field with novel theory.

If Nigerian women, as the presenter suggests, were not ascending to “high-level” electoral positions, why couldn’t their form of participation be theorised as valid participation? Why does the participation need to be perceived in a one specific lens in order to be valid? On the case with early childhood in Rwanda, it became clear, by the end of the discussions, that unless economic structures changed, gender roles in child care would remain unchanged and static. An interesting twist that the conversation took was the expression of love as a culturally-driven phenomenon… How many African parents tell their children, ‘I love you’? I would guess not many. Does that mean that they don’t love their children? Of course, not. One participant (a social worker in Norway) spoke about how a check-list approach to measuring affection has led to many crises within families: some African families that had migrated to Western Europe had had serious issues with childcare services because their expression of love did not match that of the context they had migrated to.

When panels ranging from justice to feminism leave you thinking days after the conference has ended, then you know it has been worth it. It was refreshing to be in a space where seminal scholars such as Oyewumi, Alidou, Steady, and Nnaemeka were firmly seated in the theoretical space that they deserve.

Point 2: Focus on publishing 

I very much appreciate the conference’s sessions on publishing including the roundtable on the Journal of African Affairs. Dr. Peace Medie of the University of Ghana is the first African editor of this highly-ranked journal. In her presentation, she encouraged participants, specially based on the African continent, to submit papers. She highlighted rightfully so that the relative underrepresentation of Africa-based scholars in top tier journals has little to do with lack of talent or originality but rather with the limited access to information about processes for publishing and other logistical matters that could be dealt with. Even the best articles rarely pass the review process without some readjustments and changes – knowing what to expect when one decides to submit an article is also a step toward persevering until that article gets published. There were further issues raised about access to journals, power, and the politics of funding… a whole other issue.

Point 3: A celebration of Ghanaian creativity

The conference ended with a gala with live music – the apex of the night was this old couple (probably 80+) dancing and swinging solo as if they were just 18 and in love. At the end, all participants including top scholars and those of us still struggling with PhDs joined in and danced away the night. It was a beautiful way to end what was a rich and enriching conference where I have made valuable links with fellow PhDs in universities across Africa (such as University of Ibadan) and worldwide!

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And talking about creativity, one of the participants and organisers (Abena) wore this gorgeous dress that looked like it was made in heaven before it descended on earth to fit her and no one else. My friends and I asked her, “please sistah, you look divine. Where can we get that dress?” Before we knew it, Abena had called an ankara aunty and connected us with Mary, the woman with golden-hands. Mary makes dresses that seat harmoniously with the body – she said it herself, “this is what I was born to do, and I am happy when I make dresses.” What a talented woman. With all said and done, the most memorable part of the conference was how Ghana felt right like home, no need for artifices or code switching or masks – a place where I shared moments with Cantab friends and colleagues from Cape Coast to Elmina to Shitor Ave, connected with new people and old friends now living in Ghana, met with friends’ family members, and engaged in lively conversations with strangers in taxis with in the background, the always-loud and nice Gospel songs on the radio.

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Point *bonus*: No sandwiches or finger food, real food (jollof, yam, palm oil stew, plantains, and more) every single day

 

I am grateful to the Centre for African Studies at Cambridge University that made my participation at this conference possible and to the organisers for such a remarkable gathering.

 

One Young World – All Bar None Scholarship

It was an immense honour to represent my country Niger at One Young World Summit 2016 in Ottawa (Canada). I left that gathering inspired, with new connections, but most importantly solidified bonds with some people that I already knew or met in the past. One of most favourite moments was probably when a group of us surprised the Gambian delegate because it was her birthday. We ended up talking about what it would take for us to change our countries and to contribute more and better not only in the future but today. Further, having small group outings with local families was definitely a reminder that in a world that is increasingly afraid of anyone who looks or thinks differently, there are people who are willing to open their doors to strangers for a sumptuous home-made dinner in the middle of winter in Canada.

I found the Summit particularly inspiring: OYW counsellors such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Koffi Anan and Dambisa Moyo engaged with us on various issues and with an energy that was truly contagious. Most importantly, with every discussion with other delegates, I saw young people who have risen above their conditions and have committed to a cause. There were thousands of people… and not enough time to meet all. You may be one of them this year. 116 countries (including Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Angola, Chad, Mauritania, South Sudan, and many more) are part of the “All Bar None” scholarship scheme. All Bar None provides sponsorship for one young person from each of these 116 countries to attend this year’s Summit in Bogota (Colombia), 4-7 October 2017.

Application deadline: 18 April 2017

More information: https://www.oneyoungworld.com/attend-summit-2017

If you are from #Niger and would like to attend, feel free to connect directly. I am happy to meet up and discuss.