Partnerships for development in Africa

Prof. Tim Unwin

Tim Unwin (born 1955) is Professor of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Programme Director of the World Economic Forum’s Partnerships for Education initiative with UNESCO. From 2001-2004 he led the UK Prime Minister’s Imfundo: Partnership for IT in Education initiative based within the UK’s Department for International Development. In 2004 he established an ICT4D collective (http://www.ict4d.org.uk) at Royal Holloway, University of London, and he has recently been awarded the status of a UNESCO Chair in ICT4D in connection with this work.


eLA: Your academic background is Geography. How did you become interested in development issues?

Tim Unwin: This is an interesting and important question that can be answered in a rather theoretical way but also in a very personal and practical sense. Broadly defined “development” issues have lain at the heart of geographical enquiry for many years. Geographers are concerned with the interaction between people and the physical environment in which they live, and also with the ways in which these interactions vary in different parts of the world. Put simply, Geography is about understanding “place”.

Geographers therefore study issues such as the ways in which global economic processes rely on the creation of relative poverty in some places, or the effects of climate change on agricultural practices in particular places in Africa and Asia. Such issues lie at the heart of “development”.

On a more personal level, I have always believed that academics have a particular responsibility for the sorts of research that they do and the ways that this is used more widely within society. While I was doing my doctoral thesis in the 1970s on medieval settlement and society in an area of central England, I also had the opportunity to work with a colleague, Sudhir Wanmali, whose research was on periodic markets in what was then South Bihar in India.

Here, I encountered real poverty, and my experiences then and subsequently have made me determined to use whatever skills and expertise I have to try to make a difference to the lives of poor and marginalised people and communities. In a more intellectual vein, this is the way in which I seek to resolve some of the contradictions about which Jürgen Habermas wrote so eloquently in his books “Theory and Practice”1 and “Knowledge and Human Interest”2.

eLA: What is the ICT4D Collective? Could you tell us what the main aims of the initiative are and how your work has evolved so far?

Tim Unwin: Between 2001 and 2004, I had the privilege of leading Tony Blair’s “Imfundo: Partnership for IT in Education” initiative based within the Department for International Development. This not only provided me with a very practical opportunity to put into practice some of the academic research I had been doing on development issues, but it also brought me face to face with the enormous challenges that continue to beset those seeking to enhance the livelihoods of the poor.

In particular, I felt that there was a remarkable dearth of high quality research on ICT4D, and so when the time came for me to leave DFID, I chose to return to my university, the Royal Holloway, University of London, and set up a group with the specific remit of rectifying this situation.

Our mission is to undertake the highest quality research in the field of ICT4D, focusing explicitly on how this can be used in the interests of poor people and marginalised communities. I very specifically wanted this to be called a Collective, in the sense that we are people from many different backgrounds who are all committed to working collectively to serve these interests.

I was also determined to use this opportunity to help train a number of outstanding PhD students drawn from diverse backgrounds so that they could drive forward this important research field. It is great that we now have twelve doctoral students working on subjects as diverse as the ways in which people with low levels of literacy interact with ICTS, the use of mobile technologies for health in Peru, and gender empowerment through ICTs in the Muslim world.

I also believe in freely sharing whatever expertise we have among those who are interested in using it. Our undergraduate course materials on ICT4D are thus freely available globally through our website, and anyone can also participate in our online ICT4D discussion environments. It was great to see that this course won a University award for innovative teaching!

We are also particularly interested in working collaboratively with colleagues in other parts of the world and are delighted to be part of the ICT4D network for African Higher Education Institutes funded by the UK’s DelPHE programme and including colleagues from Senegal, Ghana, Kenya,and Mozambique. Together, we are involved in a number of sessions this year at eLearning Africa, and we would be very pleased to talk with other institutions and individuals interested in helping us to develop this network.

We have also recently submitted a proposal to create a UNESCO Chair in ICT4D based within the Collective, and we look forward to hearing whether this has been successful. If so, it will provide added impetus to our work and an opportunity to attract greater funding, which will be necessary to build up our Collective into a true world leader in ICT4D research and practice. To find out more, do look at our site at http://www.ict4d.org.uk!

[callout title=More about Tim Unwin]He has written or edited 13 books, and over 170 papers and other publications, including “Wine and the Vine” (Routledge, 1991; translated into three languages), “The Place of Geography” (Longman, 1992), as well as his edited “Atlas of World Development” (Wiley, 1994) and “A European Geography” (Longman, 1998). He is founding editor of the journals Ethics, Place and Environment, and Journal of Wine Research. His research has taken him to more than 25 countries across the world, and he has worked on subjects as diverse as the role of banknotes as expressions of national identity, and rural change in central and eastern Europe during the 1990s. His recent research has focused in particular on the use of ICTs for teacher training in Africa, on a critique of budget support mechanisms in international aid, and on the use of partnerships in development practice, again focusing specifically on ICT4D partnerships. He is currently editing a major new book on ICT4D for publication by Cambridge University Press (http://www.gg.rhul.ac.uk/ict4d/ict4dbook.html). He is a High Level Advisor for the UN’s Global Alliance on ICT and Development (GAID), and the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development appointed him as one of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commissioners in 2004.  He also serves as External Examiner and Academic Advisor for the Institute of Masters of Wine.[/callout]

eLA: On what topics should research in ICT4D focus currently and why?

Tim Unwin: This is another huge question! I feel passionately that the research we do should be driven primarily by the needs and interests of poor and marginalised people and communities. Only then can we truly claim to be working in their interests. Therefore, at a personal level, two of my main areas of research are working with street children and people with disabilities to help identify ways in which they can use ICT to transform their lives.

There are, though, many, many areas where more research is needed. In this context, I am very concerned about how few good baseline surveys are undertaken when ICT4D projects are introduced. One of my PhD students is therefore doing some really important work on identifying ways in which effective monitoring and evaluation can be undertaken in such circumstances, focusing specifically on education in Africa.

Another challenge is to build up our theoretical understanding of ICT4D, and members of the Collective are currently working on a major book simply called ICT4D, to be published by Cambridge University Press. Again, in our determination to share our work, copies of draft chapters are available from our site at http://www.gg.rhul.ac.uk/ict4d/ict4dbook.html.

eLA: In your speech at eLA 2006, you said that you believe in partnerships as the basis of development work, for partnerships “are the only way we can make the things we dream about happening here (in Africa) work”. Many partnerships have been established in the last decades, with diverse results. What are the lessons learnt from the last few years, and how would you define a good partnership in education?

Tim Unwin: I guess you can already imagine how I am going to respond to this from the answer that I gave to your previous question! We must listen to the teachers, the children, and the educational administrators more if we are to ensure that we deliver good partnerships.

A couple of years ago, I wrote something for UNESCO that provided a framework for understanding and implementing ICT4D partnerships in education. In brief, this highlighted four main points: the need to combine supply and demand effectively; the need for a diversity of partners, including governments, the private sector, civil society, donors, teachers and learners, to be involved if such initiatives are to be effective and sustainable; the importance of recognising that partnership is a two way process, with partners wanting to be involved in delivering resources in the expectation that they will gain some benefit for so doing; and the critical importance of beginning with effective teacher training.

Above all, though, we need to shift from “education for ICT” to “ICT for education”. What I mean by this is that far too many initiatives have focused merely on educating people to use ICTs, rather than on using the enormous potential of ICTs to help transform the learning experiences of people, be they schoolchildren or unemployed people wishing to gain entrepreneurial skills. I don’t yet have a definitive answer to the question of what makes a good partnership for education, but I am working hard on this!

I have, for example, recently gone part-time at my university to take on the exciting role of Programme Director for the World Economic Forum’s Partnerships for Education initiative with UNESCO. This is specifically designed to work together with a range of stakeholders in this field to provide advice and support for those wishing to implement such initiatives.

One of the things we are starting to do is collating evidence of good practices across the world into a database that will be readily accessible through our portal. From this, we are developing a series of publications that will provide clear and easy-to-use principles and practices that the private sector and governments can use to resolve the very important question that you pose.

eLA: Where do you see the main challenges for future partnerships in education for both sides?

Tim Unwin: Again, there are many challenges in this work. Let me draw attention to just three.

First, I think we all need to be a little more humble! We need to be open to learning from other people and initiatives, and not necessarily believe that we always have the right answers.

This is why I specifically used the phrase “good practices” rather than “best practice” in answering your previous question. For too long, the private sector has been driving many of these initiatives forward in an externally supply-driven and top-down manner, and it is scarcely surprising that many of them have therefore not been sustainable once their initial impetus has gone.

Second, we need to identify exactly how different kinds of partners can best contribute in different circumstances and within a rigorously defined implementation structure. This remains a huge challenge. Far too many initiatives still adopt a learn-by-doing approach, and we fail to draw sufficiently on existing understandings.

Third, and related to this, we must stop reinventing the wheel and instead actually learn to work together more effectively. It is amazing how difficult it can be to work with some organisations that claim to be good at partnership! If we could resolve these three challenges, I think we would begin to see some exciting developments in delivering the Education for All goals.

eLA: Dear Tim, many thanks for your time.

One Comment

  1. jayalakshmi chittoor

    Good interview, and very proud to have also published Tim’s articles in i4d magazine which used to be published from India, by CSDMS. I am once again deeply involved in implementation of large scale rural e-learning programmes in india. I have benefitted from very good resources on this website as well.

    Congratulations Tim and others in eLearning Africa New Portal.


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