All posts by Job Akuni

Academic-NGO Collaboration in International Development Research: a reflection on the issues

This  Working Paper published in September 2012 focuses on Academic-NGO collaboration in international development and is one of the outputs of a project funded by the Development Studies Association (UK and Ireland) and implemented by the International NGO Training  and Research Centre (INTRAC), the John and Elnora Ferguson Centre for African Studies (JEFCAS) at the University of Bradford and World Vision UK. The project title was ‘Cracking Collaboration – a new look at partnerships in international development research’.

To access the Working Paper file (in pdf ), please click and follow this LINK.


Do the African political gods really have a naughty sense of humour?

Since 2008, there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of African head of states who have passed on while in their offices. Below are some analyses of the reasons why  the problem seems to be more common to Africa (with 10 out of 13 fallen head of states being from the continent).

Why do so many African leaders die in office?
Why Africa’s Dictators Live Long While Its Democrats Die Off Quickly: The Political Gods Have A Naughty Sense Of Humour

“Unholy trinity”? Human migration, smuggling and trafficking.

To prevent a desperate person with nothing to lose from making a desperate decision, we need to ensure that such a person has something to lose. This is a strong statement considering the fact that there are enormous risks that some desperate people brave – wittingly or unwittingly – in trying to better their lives, but in the end get trapped in conditions of exploitation or bondage labour, if they ever survive other risks during transportation. Several people across the globe have been victimised by human traffickers and smugglers.

Sensational stories about desperate migrants perishing as they struggle to flee adverse conditions at their source countries or regions are very familiar. Recently (on 27 June 2012), the BBC published an intriguing online story with the headline, Tanzania: Migrants die in truck”. This is a sad story of 42 Ethiopian migrants who, destined to Malawi (perhaps South Africa?), perished in a truck as result of asphyxiation. Asphyxiation is death resulting from deprivation from oxygen or as a result of suffocation.

The BBC news article is a story symptomatic of deeper problems in society: ingrained systemic conditions which trigger people migration at source regions as well as those factors creating ‘demand’ for exploiting cheap and malleable labour at destinations.

There is no doubt that there could be several unreported or unnoticed cases of people who are ‘wasted’ away in a similar manner. Perhaps, if we are to extrapolate, the number of unreported immigrant deaths could be even much higher than what we know. Deaths of migrants usually result from the callousness of human smugglers and/or traffickers who, wittingly lure or use ‘other means’ to gain full control of their victims, and lead and/or expose them to extreme danger, most of which can be fatal.

If these death incidences or exploitation are easily available in the public domain, why is the problem of human trafficking and smuggling still persistent? What do we know and need to know about human migration, smuggling or trafficking? Though many people agree that it does not require rocket science to conceptualise people movement or exploitation, however, issues relating to the “unholy trinity” of human ‘smuggling’, ‘trafficking’ and ‘migration’ have oftentimes been confused.

Put simply, human smuggling is an ‘immigration crime’: it involves a business transaction between consenting parties regarding illegal movement across borders. The smuggled person is, therefore, a party to the act of smuggling itself. As an offence, human smuggling has an end. Human trafficking on the other hand is a “crime of crimes”: it takes place within a country (or even within a house – consider a brothel owner who recruits his/her child into prostitution and moves him/her from the family rooms into a ‘business’ cubicle for exploitation) internally or internationally (across international boundaries), with the victim not a party to the act. Trafficking offence is a continuum and infinite. It is also possible for a smuggled person to be trafficked, although the reverse is not possible. In human migration, a migrant has the agency of travelling from one area to the other for any reason. Unlike in smuggling and trafficking, migration is a voluntary act.

Why, then, are people disposable? Why is it difficult to curb the danger that smugglers and traffickers pose to humanity? How can the complicity of state and no-state actors (police officers, immigration and border control officers, the private sector that benefits from cheap and malleable labour, financial institutions that facilitate transfer of profits, legitimate businesses that benefit indirectly from exploited labour, restrictive immigration policies, or anti-trafficking NGOs economy that thrives because of human trafficking) involved in the trafficking process be addressed? The trafficking process involves investors, recruiters, transporters, corrupt public official or protectors, informers, guides and crew members, enforcers, debt collectors, money launderers and supporting personnel and specialists. Given this level of sophistication, can we assume therefore, that human trafficking and smuggling are careers? While you ponder over these questions, we should also ask ourselves about the practicality of how to measure human trafficking and smuggling in circumstances where the customers who trigger the demand are equally invisible and invincible.

As highlighted above, the challenges in addressing human trafficking immensely abound: the culture of silence on the victims; low visibility of exploitation; poor data recording, collation, collection and documentation; attitudinal challenge in data collection; sensationalism by the media; lack of coordination to address the problem, among others. The existence of these challenges should not in any way relegate us into the state of lamentation.

Finally, I argue that until such a time when state and non-state actors are willing and able to adequately address structural issues that trigger people’s desperation (from the ‘supply’ side) through making the citizens ‘have something to lose’ if they migrate, people will continue to disregard unknown risks posed by smugglers or traffickers provided they perceive that there are better opportunities elsewhere.

Academic-practitioner research collaborations: co-producers, co-conspirators or opportunists?

Partnerships and collaborations between academics and their respective institutions is not something new and so is the long tradition of NGO practitioners in collaborating with like-minded civil society organisations in implementing joint programmes across the globe. What is new, however, is the emerging academic-practitioner collaboration in generation of new knowledge – a field that has long been reserved for academic researchers.

Whereas the emerging collaboration by academics and practitioners in generating knowledge may present ‘new ideas’ worth celebrating, some commentators are hesitant to join the trendy ‘academic-practitioner bandwagons’. Part of the reasons which critics give is that it is very difficult for the wider public to access contemporary research outputs as academic peer-reviewed journal publications are not free, even to the academic community. The limited access to ‘public’ knowledge characterising ‘academic elitism’ is not atypical to academic circles per se. Publications and field reports from some NGO sectors oftentimes are also ‘invisible’, archived  or locked up safely in donors’ file cabinets. Besides, cross-institutional sharing of research knowledge experiences between academic institutions and NGO practitioners still remain inadequate, partly because of possible institutional and individual biases and scepticism.

In spite of the perceived problematic divides between academics and practitioners rooted in mutual biases and scepticism as highlighted above, efforts to bridge these gaps have become fashionable and trendy in recent times. Severally, individual academics and NGOs continue to interact: there is active staff mobility between the two spheres as well as in disseminating and making contemporary research knowledge relevant to the wider public. Academics and NGOs/practitioner are also increasingly getting involved beyond their institutional ‘likeness’ in research collaborations. Although this may be perceived as good news, critics question the motives behind academic-practitioner collaboration – whether it provides space for complimentarity, co-conspirators or it is just another form of economic opportunism. Or could it be externally (donor) driven?

In seeking to explore why and how academics and NGOs collaborate, the skills required for successful research collaboration and how they could work better, the John and Elnora Ferguson Centre for African Studies (JEFCAS) at the University of Bradford, INTRAC and World Vision co-organised a two-day workshop in London from 3 – 4 May 2012. This workshop, sponsored by the Development Studies Association’s (DSA) New Ideas Initiative, also explored different categories (CORE Group, 2008) and typologies of academic-practitioners research collaboration models (Roper, 2002).

Several lessons emerged from the case studies that we conducted and the discussions which ensued during the Academic-NGO practitioners’ workshop. Through collaborations, institutions compliment each other’s skills and resource gaps in co-production of knowledge and can also be better placed as co-conspirators in responding to emerging opportunities that only require consortia. Nevertheless, one of the most critical challenges to joint academic-practitioners research collaboration is on how broad research outputs can be easily made available to the general public. We argued that publishing in an open-access type journal offers a user-friendly pathway of addressing the cancer of academic ‘capitalism’ and hawking away of knowledge. Carefully planned cross-professional research collaborations have the potentials of addressing structural and cultural issues inherent between academics and practitioners.


CORE Group (2008) CORE Group Members Discuss NGO Roles in Global Health Research: A summary statement by the CORE Secretariat following CORE Group’s Annual Spring Membership Meeting   Atlanta, Georgia, April 14-18.

Laura Roper (2002): Achieving successful academic-practitioner research collaborations, Development in Practice, 12:3-4, 338-345.

NGO ‘campaign’ gone wrong? Lessons from “Kony2012” viral video

By now, some of you might have  already watched a youtube ‘campaign’ video, ‘KONY2012’, released on 5 March 2012 by Invisible Children (IC), a Southern California and northern Uganda based NGO. The IC’s  ‘campaign’ video quickly won the attention and emotions of millions of people in the world including international celebrities and children including Gavin – Jason Russell’s son who featured in it. Russell is one of the founders of IC.

As people from northern Uganda who are familiar with the LRA conflict and post-conflict contexts, we are compelled to add our voices, to many others, to clarify on some issues and analyse the implication of  launching and publicising the IC’s video to the audience in the global North.

Our contribution to the ongoing debate that IC has generated is available here: Kony2012, Looking Beyond the Battlefield: The Hi-Child Soldiers”

Institutionalised and decentralised ‘copycats’? Exploring the implication of entrenched political and bureaucratic corruption in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Why is political and bureaucratic corruption so entrenched in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)? Does corruption have a social functional value as its perpetrators, promoters and mediators may purport? Can ‘legalisation’ of corruption makes it distasteful and lose its social function and hence generate a meaningful debate on  how it can be abated?

In the JEFCAS Working Paper 3 which we announced in February, I argue that political and bureaucratic corruption in SSA are ‘copycats’ which have been institutionalized and decentralized with a social functional value.

Although corruption covers diverse practices, political and bureaucratic corruption in SSA are more visible and entrenched in state institutions. The vice constitutes an interplay of the forces of demand and supply – a situation that involves complicit actors from ‘outside’ the continent whose demand are met by the supply of stolen wealth by complicit African poliiticians and bureaucrats.

The paper argues that corruption may be significantly reduced by ‘legalising’ it. It is through legalization of corrupt practices when the vice may reach a ‘hurting stalemate’ state and will result in its loss of utility. Perhaps it only then that ‘everybody’ may condemn the vice and initiate conversations aimed at ending it once and for all.

Volunteer Tourism

Does ‘voluntourism’ signify a shift from informal to formal volunteering?

Globally, as travelers of all ages search for unique personal, exciting opportunities and experiences, there is also an increasing demand for volunteer experiences. There is no doubt that traveling and volunteering will continue to grow. For instance, between 1990 and 2007 alone, the overall market of voluntourists grew to a total of 1.6 million a year, with a value of between £832m and £1.3bn ($1.7bn – $2.6bn)[1]. The growing demand for volunteering is paralleled by the emergence and growth of volunteer service organisations (sending and/or host and profit and non-profit making organisations). The fact that majority of the sending organisations have their headquarters located in the developed world raises eyebrows.

I use the term ‘voluntourism’ loosely to refer to volunteer tourism. But what do we know about the voluntary sector in the first place? The existence of various preconceptions and stereotypes of volunteerism has made it a complex subject to conceptualise and is beset by a thorny definitional problem. Volunteering may be understood as a helping action aimed at a valued individual(s) without any (in) direct material gain or mandate or coercion. In addition, I also traced the origin of the concept of volunteerism in Britain to its preindustrial society in which I found two important views– volunteerism was viewed either as a responsibility undertaken by privileged individuals with superfluous leisure time ‘to support worthy causes’ or as a pursuit to further enhance privilege and social status. Also, the actions which volunteers undertake range from their ‘gifts’ of time, skills and financial resources. The emerging sets of literature on volunteerism also attest to ‘wholesome’ or benevolent volunteering as one of the most documented and longest-surviving volunteer traditions.

However, drawing your attention to today’s presentation by Dr Anna Mdee on Volunteer Tourism, the growth in the volunteer sector is in itself problematic. The paper notes that voluntourism can be transformational; it can shape global citizens who are against global inequalities and also has potentials of benefitting communities and organisations that engage with them. However, the utility derived from volunteerism (socially and economically), their sustainability and impact are questionable. On the flip side and besides tourism, whatever volunteers gain from short-term placement overseas is under-documented. Perhaps a glorified holiday to be added to the volunteer’s CV, delivering development to the people who want to be saved, the existence of people who need pity or a volunteer is the only personally who can change the world?

With the above questions in mind, Anna challenges the rationale of the current unidirectional dichotomised transmission of north-south, developed-developing ‘voluntourism’ which appear to: perpetuate ‘development tourism’; manifest neo-colonial attributes; embed individual centred and ‘consumer’ oriented attitudes; and reinforce uneven and unregulated modes of operations. Volunteer destinations being Latin America, Asia and Africa is no secret. Anna’s paper further notes that economic and political freedoms to travel are the salient determinants of the patterns of voluntourism. However, the paper warns that voluntourism in some cases results into inappropriate and ineffective projects, cultural misunderstandings and patronage. In light of the above, Anna provides a checklist for effective voluntourism – having positive personal attitudes; providing long-term pro-tourism routes which support the local economy; and willingness and readiness of the volunteers to serve other than be served, among others. All these can be possible when voluntourism is situated within the long-term goal of a host organisation’s activities.

To advance further the conversations initiated by Anna, I find solace in using Stebbins’ (2001) marginal versus mainstream volunteering debate to explain why the one-dimensional pattern of voluntourism seems to persist. To Stebbins, mainstream volunteering should be a motivation-driven or ‘freely chosen’ activity that is a ‘satisfying and enjoyable’ leisure experience. On the other hand, marginal volunteering is causal and the obligation of the volunteer is not morally coercive. Whether Stebbins suggests that the motives of mainstream ‘voluntourists’ are informal or volunteers should not be controlled in the same way as full-time or paid staff is not new to controversy. Perhaps this question generates perceived stereotypical images of volunteers and ideological assumptions which have been reproduced and continue to paint perceptions about them and consequently prohibiting them from being fully understood. Or, are we just witnessing a growing tension between formal and informal volunteering?

I contend that the moral panic within the spheres of the voluntary sector suggests that the future of voluntourism is doomed. The fate of future voluntourism will be determined by lack of interest among younger generation, volunteer fatigue or excessive inflexible work obligations in the formal voluntourism sector. However, there is a window of opportunity to reverse the perils. Any progress in the voluntourism must not lose sight of the history of volunteering, the significant contributions it has made in the past, the challenges associated with it and the realities it encounters.

[1] ATLAS (2008) Volunteer tourism: A global analysis. Tourism Research and Marketing.