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The AHRC International Development Summit: Mobilising Global Voices


There was an underlying sense of excitement and energy at the International Development Summit on Wednesday 7 June as delegates were exposed to the breadth of arts and humanities research projects which are helping to address international development challenges. This, together with the speeches from policymakers and not-for-profit organisations, emphasised the fundamental role of arts and humanities research in adding a human dimension to many of the global challenges of our time.

Delegates gather in the British Library Knowledge Centre before the International Development Summit
Delegates gather in the British Library Knowledge Centre before the International Development Summit

220 academics and policymakers attended the Summit at The British Library Knowledge Centre where the core theme was ‘Mobilising Global Voices.’

For many, the event also presented an opportunity to begin new collaborations and learn about other projects during the many breakout workshops.

Linda Kemoli, an illustrator and volunteer for a road safety NGO in Nairobi, Kenya said: “Sustainable transport is a very big issue that we are facing [in Nairobi] and it is a deep interest of mine.

“I wanted to come to the event because it combines arts and humanities, areas that I am also very interested in.

“I’ve learnt so much about communities outside my own so it’s broadened my scope of thinking and about the issues that people around the world face.”

Dr Irina Kuznetsova who works in the school of geography at the University of Birmingham, said: “I wanted to learn about different experiences in terms of collaborations with artists, academics, humanities and social sciences. I’ve met some wonderful colleagues from different universities as well as brilliant artists. For my new project I also noted some ideas and ways to collaborate with art organisations.”

Challenging times ahead

Professor Peter Piot, Chair of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Global Health Group, began by addressing the fact that these are indeed challenging times, and of the unique opportunity that we (as funders and researchers) have to get this right rather than just doing more of the same.

Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS University of London
Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS University of London, delivers her keynote speech

The first keynote speech delivered by Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS University of London, relayed some of her experience as a Former Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the UN. Baroness Amos talked of how she believes we are living through a momentous part of our history.

“Today’s global challenges cannot be solved by leaders and nations that turn in on themselves,” she explained, while discussing the need to look outwards rather than inwards, and to get under the skin of societies.

Baroness Amos also spoke about the importance of using data more wisely and how the art of deep cultural listening in development has been lost. “We have more data and information in real time than ever before but we don’t necessarily have more knowledge.”

The importance of research and collaboration was expressed not just in the keynote speech, but throughout the event, and it was also emphasised that the end result must be transformative.

And as Professor Michael Wilson, from the University of Loughborough explained when talking about his project on Sustainable Transport Planning, one of the key outcomes of his research project is to collect different perspectives and knowledge with a view to better policy making.

The need to work across disciplines was another recurrent theme and Professor Stuart Taberner, Director of International and Interdisciplinary Research at the Research Councils UK, discussed the need for the art and humanities to ‘step outside of their interdisciplinary comfort zones’.

The question of power was raised numerous times during the talks; power over who publishes these voices and if there is potential for a new voice to emerge.

It was also acknowledged that while it isn’t always easy to engage in other cultures due to laws and other restrictions; research still ought to be provoking and challenging and one request made by Markus Geisser from the International Committee of the Red Cross was that researchers need to get closer to the conflict – whether that’s to the victims or those who cause it.

Sir Mark Lowcock, recently appointed Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Emergency Relief Coordinator at the UN and Former Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Development pointed out that it was actually the arts and humanities rather than the hard sciences which helped to identify how Ebola was being spread at burials thanks to the study of human behaviour and interaction.

International development funding opportunities

During the final panel discussion Dame Judith Macgregor, the Former British High Commissioner to South Africa, spoke of how the Newton fund and GCRF has already been transformational, with 730 activities having already taken place in one year of the Newton Fund.

Judith added that it is so much harder for the government to ignore what is being said when it’s being outlaid to a wider audience. And this is one of the key strengths of arts and humanities research – it helps to empower local voices.

There was a focus on two particular funding opportunities – the Newton Fund (designed to strengthen research and innovation partnerships between the UK and emerging knowledge economies) and The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) which will help address a wide range of the issues highlighted in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

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