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Open Impact Conference - Kampala, Dec 2019

Last year, on 13 – 14th December 2019, I got a chance to participate in the first Open Impact Conference organized by The Open University in Kampala, Uganda. The conference was a celebration of The Open University’s 50 years of transforming lives through education and an opportunity to enrich others on the potential of online distance learning in Africa. I attended the conference on behalf of the African Migration and Development Policy Centre (AMADPOC) based in Nairobi, Kenya which has been working with The Open University on the Migration for Inclusive African Growth (MIAG) project and Inclusive Migration Policy through Evidence Cafés (IMPEC).

The participants were drawn from Makerere University, Open University and other international and regional institutions. Their wealth of knowledge and experience with online distance learning (ODL) enriched the discussions and debates on how ODL can be leveraged to impact the Sustainable Development Goals. One point that stood out for me during the open session was the potential power that technology holds, particularly the internet, in helping to improve equality of access to educational opportunities for everyone in society. It got me thinking of what implications this might hold for migrants – if they migrate, why they migrate and where.

Attending the conference was an opportunity to interact with a wide range of education experts to create awareness about AMADPOC and the MIAG network. This point is particularly important because the network aims to design an open badged course on how Evidence Cafés can be used for migration policy making.

My colleague and I presented a MIAG poster during the conference and participants had an opportunity to read about the project and ask us questions. Most were interested in Evidence Cafés and wanted to know how they could be involved in the course as well as talk through its relevance to what they were doing. One visitor to our stand spoke of the Café methodology as a fitting platform for migrants to air their views, to give voice to how they might be incorporated into the economies of their destination countries. This could help harness their skills and knowledge to the benefit of local economies, for example.

He expressed a hope that migrants would be actively included in research processes so that their needs, suggestions, and concerns would reach the ears of the policymakers who form a core part of MIAG’s stakeholder engagement. Notably, AMADPOC, as an organisation that seeks to highlight and provide empirical evidence on migration and development related issues has always engaged with migration institutions through its various projects. For example, during the launch workshop for MIAG that was held in Nairobi in August 2019, participants included representatives from a range of different sectors. The round table conversations we had with this diverse group highlighted a variety of issues affecting migrants. Attendees included people from  organisations such as: Cytonn Investment, Forum Syd, Growth Africa, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Department of Diaspora and Consular Affairs, to name but a few. Their contributions and perspectives on inclusive growth unearthed more issues that the project needs to focus on and provided some really useful insights that have helped shape how the project has been developing. 

Additionally, he noted that in most places, migrants are involved in the informal economy. Here, he argued, their contribution is negligible and fraught with inequalities conflated by challenges such as obtaining formal business licenses, lacking access to credit facilities and animosity from host communities who see them as rivals and not as potential business partners. “With the inclusion of migrants in MIAG dialogues, all stakeholders will be enlightened on the benefits of integrating migrants into the formal economy. This is a good strategy in ensuring inclusive growth and an equal society,” he said.

Another participant was stressing that the course should offer a general explanation of what Evidence Cafés are and asked if they can be used in other academic disciplines. It was a really good question, so I replied that the course is still being designed in collaboration with MIAG team members based in several of the project focus countries. The intent is that the course will explain the Evidence Café methodology and weave multiple learning points through the materials, aiming to cultivate curiosity regardless of which area, discipline or field one is in. Our hope for the course in relation to MIAG, is that it will be of benefit to both migrants and those working with migrants, to use Evidence Cafés to affect how evidence can be better leveraged to inform policy interventions that will help migrant communities in different ways.

Although some people I spoke with expressed indifference towards the project, there were other participants, particularly from Makerere University, who had been to the UK on Commonwealth Scholarships and were finding it very interesting. Having returned to Uganda, or other parts of Africa, they were able to see a real connection between their migratory movements, contributions and its impact on economic growth once returned.

For example, one scholarship student spoke of how his time in the UK had broadened his thinking – not just in terms of his studies but interactions with different people. “One thing I have learnt is that the informal economy has so much potential to improve the urban economy if only local planners and authorities can develop inclusive policies that allow such businesses access credit facilities easily and harness their potential,” he said. His comments resonate with the situation in many urban centres in Kenya where informal economies – in which many migrants are employed, have not been prioritised. In Nairobi, for instance, informal traders (e.g. hawkers) are often engaged in running battles with county government security officers.

In line with the comments of this participant, creating policies that reduce the cost of business for such traders would create more equality and inclusive urban growth by enabling such businesses to compete on equitable grounds with larger businesses.

The conference was not just a chance to share the project with others but I also learnt a lot about other projects that the Open University is doing around the globe. There is an intriguing range of programmes run by different departments in the University. Those that really got my attention, included:

  • Research and Training Collaboration for Internalization of African Universities: Makerere University; which advised different collaborators to increase partnership in order to make a project run.
  • Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL) – PEBL is helping universities across East Africa sharing teaching resources through the development of credit bearing courses. During the session students reported that online courses were good but needed more cultural integration.
  • Future Learn; an online platform for education course owned by SEEK and Open University

The MIAG network could learn a lot from what these other programmes have done by delving deeper into the design of materials, their impacts and how these could be beneficial to the project. Overall this was a wonderful experience and I look forward to designing the course. The feedback & comments that were shared with me during the Open Impact Conference were really constructive so I hope to use this and feed the knowledge into both IMEC and MIAG as the projects develop. Notably, sentiments that IMPEC is narrowly focused on migration highlights the responsibility that the wider MIAG research bears in highlighting the positive side of migration. Migration – especially internal migration – has been perceived negatively, stacking the odds against migrants even before they depart their country of origin.  As MIAG explores and highlights the extent to which migration can enhance inclusive growth and the wider economic development, the hope is that more host communities and local authorities will receive migrants into their vicinities with wide, open arms.