How would you define the concept of “sustainable development” in the context of African communities?
For a lot of the things we’re trying to achieve throughout the continent, the technology is there. The greatest challenge is often ensuring the project suits the local context. We define sustainable community development very broadly; we’re not only talking about basic needs, such as water and electricity. It’s about the entire life of a community.
Why did decide to set up the new program?
In terms of African studies, Ben-Gurion is the leading university in Israel. On top of the regular academic programs, the Tamar Golan Africa Center promotes all kinds of activities and initiatives related to Africa on campus. Here — and around the world more in general — a lot of energy’s being invested in finding ways to achieve sustainable community development, but from an African studies perspective, we felt there was room for a new, original approach that combines these two fields of knowledge.
To achieve any successful initiative in a local community, you need to consider governmental institutions, ethnic narratives, religious beliefs and gender roles. We’re encouraging students to think in a specific epistemological framework — which is African communities, not just any community — because sustainability requires being sensitive to a specific historical, political, economic and cultural context. Africa has thousands of different communities, but there are still a lot of common denominators that people who want to engage in an effective way should consider.
It’s not only about how you can install water pumps in a village. How can you engage the women? How can you ensure long-term economic commitment? These questions are connected to a whole lot of wider considerations that aren’t just related to the technological innovation.
What does the cohort look like?
We have about 10 different countries represented in our in our cohort, and there’s also a range of professional backgrounds: we have a lawyer, architects and people who’ve been engaged in culture. Some students are interested in agriculture, others in youth unemployment, financial literacy or accessible architecture. Everyone learns about and from each other.
When everybody comes around the table, you become aware of the range of issues that need to be tackled. In a lot of ways, we’re bringing to life the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which consider various facets of life, all interlinked: if you don’t have clean water, you’re not going to have high-quality education, which means you won’t have women’s empowerment, which means you’re not going to have good governance. You can’t do it any other way. In the past, when people have only looked at one slice of the pie, it has failed.
As part of the program, after studying on campus for a year, students must spend a semester working on a local project in Africa. How do you prepare them for this time?
Every project begins with a student’s personal interests. Some have a very clear idea of their passions, some were working in a specific area before joining the program and want to leverage their studies to do it in a different way, others have come with a vague notion of what they want to work on.
Throughout the course of the first year, we have a project workshop that helps everyone crystallize around an idea and finalise the logistics, reaching out to an organization, government office or community. We then spend an entire semester helping them come up with a plan that’s as organized as possible before they leave. We definitely do a lot of theoretical study, but we also do a lot of practical planning. That goes from writing the proposal to forming the budget, as well as other aspects of their project that will later become important, like social media, working with stakeholders or dealing with conflict resolution. For example, we have a program where students learn to do podcasts to get the word out about some of the work they’re doing.
What are some of examples of projects?
Somebody’s working on solid waste management for her local community in northern Kenya. Someone is looking at LGBTQ refugees — the ways they’ve advocated for their needs and the issues facing them — while someone else is looking at how social media can help with youth unemployment. We have a Ugandan student who wants to return to Kampala and set up community gardens in low-income urban neighbourhoods, while another student wants to intern with a Zambian organization that addresses the issue of teenage pregnancy. It’s a whole range, it’s really exciting.
How long do these projects tend to last?
They last for at least three months, which we feel is the absolute minimum to do anything with any kind of impact, but we’re not trying to come with a one-size-fits-all plan. Some students are doing evaluation assessments, maybe helping consult an initiative about areas that can be improved, expanded or changed, so their projects are more limited. Some are beginning a specific project within the larger framework of an existing organization, and that organization will define what they want or need. Others initiate something from ground zero or work with their community, and we hope they’ll continue way past the three months.
What’s life on campus like?
We take a holistic view of the cohort as a makeshift community for the year, implementing a lot of the principles we expect students to take away, which becomes a learning experience in and of itself. We try to make our program participatory and empowering, making sure everyone has a voice and a role. It’s about the entirety of the experience, not just the classroom. It’s the study tours, semester breaks, weekends, all kinds of activities and initiatives that build really strong relationships among the students. This will continue to be a support network well beyond the years of their study together.