Time to learn from the South – and that includes Brighton!

Published on 28 June 2016

Richard Longhurst

Research Associate

We all agree that learning from each other is a ‘good thing’. We will pay a lot to learn. We go abroad on holiday or work and say; ‘that’s a good idea, why can’t we do it that way back home’. And of course we also say, ‘we do this a lot better back home, why don’t they do it that way here’.

‘Lots of people think that learning is a ‘good thing’, but behind these casual statements, all kinds of other significant issues are lurking: impact on peoples’ jobs, not wanting to do things differently, upsetting and fear about changing the way things have always been done, how people learn, questioning authority, who will support new ideas if they are proposed and so on. Learning can be a disruptive thing.’

Traditionally, the learning efforts have flowed from the richer countries to the poorer, from the ‘developed’ to the ‘developing’. ‘We’ teach and ‘you’ learn. However, this model of ‘you have the problems, and we have the solutions’ is now dead.  We all have problems, such as climate change, youth unemployment, and urban renewal, for example, which are increasingly common and collective, and we all have the solutions, and more and more these solutions are being proposed from outside western countries. So we have heard about North-South, South-South but this is South-North.

Earlier this month, a panel discussion sponsored by the Royal Society of Arts, Brighton University and IDS addressed some of these issues. The approach was to look to poorer countries in the South to help richer countries in the North with their problems, and this could be regarded as an intriguing new and contemporary approach in this era of rapid communication, globalisation and universality, and even the advent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which are designed to apply to all nations. But not at all, it has been talked about and acted upon for the last 40 years, and debated in the IDS: I remember as an IDS student in the 1970s, this was an active topic.

IDS was then also a training institute, working primarily with government officials from developing countries and many felt it odd that there was expected to only be a one-way flow of information. Some of the teachers at IDS did expose those on training courses to UK problems and seek their advice.

What was most stimulating about the panel discussions was that Brighton-based examples were described, drawn from learning from the South.

Exploring mutual learning – home and away

The panel comprised of four researchers and practitioners chaired by Alia Aghajanian, a doctoral student at IDS. I introduced the topic. Vicky Johnson of the Education Research Centre of Brighton University talked about her experiences in applying lessons in the global south to community development, regeneration programmes and young people’s participation in decision-making and programming in the global north. Alex Shankland of the Centre for Rising Powers and Development of IDS discussed the many factors in enabling or blocking mutual learning, and the challenge for the UK of adapting to development as a universal set of issues. He brought out a very local issue: mutual learning between Brazil and Brighton and Hove in health services.

Jennifer Constantine, an independent research consultant talked about a mutual learning programme between Brazil and the UK on food and nutrition policy. The UK’s growing problems with food poverty have much to learn from Brazil’s experience of managing food and nutritional security issues. She also talked about the cooperation activities of two Brazilian municipalities as a local issue: the growing interest from abroad in Brighton & Hove’s food-related programmes. Finally, Kerrie Howard, a United Nations consultant with 25 years’ experience in social justice and convenor for the Brighton and Hove group of the Royal Society of Arts, discussed what we could learn about gender relations in Bolivia and the experience of Truth Commissions, now more than twenty having been set up.

What stood out?

For me, what stood out from the presentations and the discussions afterwards with the audience were:

  • Attention to the role of the community by bringing people into decision making, using participatory action methods, finding out what communities want, and then ensuring they are brought into decision making and building voice. Action mechanisms can include participatory budgeting, care in the community (mental health, youth violence, violence on women) and the role of truth commissions.
  • The value of a three part framework: technical (exchange of know-how) – process (how knowledge is exchanged: the cultural part) and – politics (advocates, both legitimising some mutual learning and disabling of previous mind-sets), as shown by programmes on child immunisation in Baltimore using a Kenya model, and Brazil health care/Brighton NHS.
  • The SDGs have a universal content and message – ‘we all are developing’ – and have to be incorporated into planning. Reducing poverty is at the heart of the SDGs. Brazil has done this. People-to-people processes can be an extra dimension, but relationships between actors need to change with changes in labelling (e.g. donors, beneficiaries). This will require mutual learning and unlearning.
  • Parliamentary exchanges have been a good vehicle to promote mutual learning. Countries facing the same problems but from different perspectives, can reach for solutions: e.g. India and the UK over resolving flooding by reinstating flood plains, and Brazil and UK for obesity, by assessing regulations for food, school feeding programmes and national breast feeding policies
  • The role of truth commissions – recent reviews of their work in many different situations shows a means of re-asserting human rights and re-setting social contracts in a non-judicial situation. They have potential to support social movements and bring stability into disputes, including enhancing scope for better collaboration between North and South.
  • The Lessons without Borders Programme in the US of the mid-1990s, which applied child survival lessons from Kenya and Bangladesh to some US cities, showed that this ‘reverse development’ could work if programmes were cost effective and technically sound, met a need for action, showed results, and had strong advocates at local and national level. Programmes in other areas that have worked include micro credit, role of sport and lessons from gang violence.

Finally and perhaps most important, many of the problems we face will have to be dealt with by the next generation – so let’s do as much as we can to encourage unbiased learning by children and open views on what is development. This is even more important after the Brexit vote in the UK and some of the sentiments expressed during the campaign.

This is the second in a reflective series of blog posts on development to celebrate IDS’ 50th anniversary