An African connection at Queen’s

Since 2001, the Southern African Research Centre has co-ordinated multidisciplinary research in development of the volatile region

Jonathan Crush, director of the Southern African Research Centre, works to secure funding and implement development projects for the centre.
Jonathan Crush, director of the Southern African Research Centre, works to secure funding and implement development projects for the centre.

Southern Africa is a region comprising of 14 countries, more than 40 languages and a population of more than 184 million. And this population is on the move.

At Queen’s, the Southern African Research Centre (SARC) works with various faculties and international agencies and institutions to do research and implement development projects in Southern Africa.

The SARC offices fill an unassuming red brick house at 152 Albert St. Inside is bright and inviting, with a large conference room that opens into a cozy sitting room. Large maps of Southern Africa and pieces of African art line the walls and suggest that the region really is alive in Kingston. Currently, there are 10 faculty associates, 11 graduate students and four administrative staff affiliated with the centre.

Jonathan Crush, SARC director, said the change Southern Africa is undergoing makes it an interesting and important region to study.

“I think it’s hugely important really, because it’s been going through tremendous change. … Many good stories are coming out of Southern Africa,” Crush said.

“Political transformation and the democratization that has taken place in Southern Africa in the last decade [is huge]. They all have democratic situations in place,” he said Crush. “There’s been a real crumbling of the kind of racism we used to see.”

“The collapse of apartheid has totally transformed the region. We as a centre have tried to situate ourselves within that collapse.” The centre opened in 2001 as a way to co-ordinate research that was being done in various departments, including political studies, education, community health and epidemiology, development studies, women’s studies, sociology, engineering, environmental sciences, English and medicine.

“Everyone who was sort of involved always felt there was need for a cross-faculty centre,” Crush said.

Since opening, SARC has been involved in numerous projects and programs. The largest is the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP), an international network of organizations conducting research on migration and development. Started in 1996, the project runs in eight of the 14 countries as well as Canada. The migration project involves research done at Queen’s and other institutes worldwide, such as Wits University in South Africa, the University of Zambia and the University of Swaziland.

Migration is a major factor in development, Crush said. The migration project looks at both the internal and international migration of people in the Southern African Development Community. The project then uses this information to affect policy making and management, as well as to educate the public on migration-related issues.

Crush said internal and international migration in Southern Africa is a very positive development. However, the “brain-drain” phenomenon of Southern Africans migrating to developed countries is devastating.

“It’s a very serious problem. If you look at the figures, there is a significant brain drain going on, particularly in the health sector, which is perhaps the most serious.” he said. “For many countries in Southern Africa there are more doctors from those countries practising outside those countries than inside.

“It’s a very difficult, highly politicized issue.”

The migration project’s goal is to maximize the developmental outcomes of migration through research and public education campaigns in the Southern African region. In partnership with the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, the project offers courses on migration-related issues for government and civil society managers.

“How you manage migration is a big question,” Crush said. “Increasingly, the project is speaking to an international audience.”

In September 2006, the United Nations held a High-level Dialogue on Migration and Development, a conference and roundtable discussion at the UN General Assembly, in which both Southern African Migration Project and the centre played major roles in the planning and background for the discussion. Crush also addressed the General Assembly in New York on migration and development issues.

This past July, the program was part of the Global Forum on Migration and Development in Brussels. It also had an important role in the G77 summit last year.

“I’m interested in the way in which the region is being integrated into the global flow,” Crush said.

In addition to researching and working with international organizations, Crush works to get financial support for the centre’s activities. “[One of my] major activities is to secure funding … and then to implement development projects,” he said.

The migration project was funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for its first six years; it is now funded by the British government.

The approach taken by the team at SARC and their greater network has become a model other researchers and institutions doing development research.

“[SARC is a] significant, important player on the research front,” said David McDonald, head of the Development Studies program.

McDonald has sat on SARC’s board since its inception, and has run research programs through the centre. One example was his municipal services project, which was started in 2000. The municipal services project, run by McDonald, has sent several students from several different North American universities including Queen’s, to Argentina, Ghana and Cuba to research the privatization of municipal services.

The project, which McDonald is running through SARC, has received more than $1.5 million in funding from the International Development Research Centre, a Crown corporation that works with researchers from the developing world.

Although the centre also runs smaller development projects and research programs, they prefer large, multi-partner projects and have become a model of research sharing and networking, McDonald said.

McDonald cites SARC’s networking ability as one of its biggest assets.

“For people who are based here in Canada, it’s important to have a Centre,” McDonald said. “It’s a nice opportunity for Southern Africans to come, to study, research and write. Clearly it’s not a substitute for the important institutions in Southern Africa; it is part of that network.”

At Queen’s, SARC acts as a resource for both faculty and students interested in Southern African research and development projects. One of SARC’s biggest roles in this regard is as an administrative body.

“[SARC] offers an administrative place to run a project because you just can’t run them without serious administrative support,” McDonald said. “It creates a kind of intellectual hub for people on campus, as well as bringing in people from other places. … We’ve had a number of scholars and graduate students who have come here [because of SARC].” “It [also] raises Queen’s profile outside the university. … [Queen’s] has been recognized as the premier university on Southern African research in Canada,” he said.

“To the same extent that it’s recognized in Canada as the premier institute for research on Southern Africa, it’s recognized on an international level as a focal point. … [SARC] helps to attract students to Queen’s who are interested in Southern Africa, particularly foreign students … and faculty members as well,” McDonald said.

Although SARC doesn’t have its own graduate program, it attracts a lot of interest because of its interdisciplinary nature.

“There has been both graduate and undergraduate student involvement,” McDonald said.

Most of the work done by students is research-based, however, there are opportunities for international study and research on a project-to-project basis, he said.

“SARC is fairly consistent with the University’s push for internationalization and international programming and so it raises the visibility of Queen’s internationally,” Crush said.

Other research and study opportunities are co-ordinated departmentally, rather than through SARC.

“It’s at a kind of individual level that [SARC] draws together that interdisciplinary [base].”

McDonald also stressed the centre’s desire to have students come by and check out their selection of weekly South African newspapers.

“Students are encouraged to come by … there’s a nice physical space there,” he said.

SARC’s big focus for the next five years is going to be food security and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa, which will involve nine of the 14 countries in the region.

Crush said that by taking two highly important issues and combining them into a study, the project will be able to examine the urban population’s struggle for food security and how this relates to HIV/AIDS.

Crush also said that in the past, studies on HIV/AIDS and food security have focused more on the agricultural side of the issue than on the urban situation.

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