The Rift Valley Institute’s tagline is making local knowledge work in the Horn of Africa. The Rift Valley Forum has over 4,000 development professionals subscribed and hosts face to face discussions on policy issues in the region. On Think Tank’s Africa Editor, Ruthpearl Ng’ang’a sat down with their new director Mark Bradbury who speaks candidly on his recent appointment and what keeps him up at night.
Ruthpearl Ng’ang’a: Tell us about the Rift Valley Institute.
Mark Bradbury: RVI was formed in 2001 to research abduction and slavery in South Sudan. The three founders – John Rile who until last year was the executive director, Phillip Winter who has lived in South Sudan and Kenya for 25-30 years and a South Sudanese anthropologist called Jok – sought to bring local knowledge in the horn of Africa to bear on International development, policy, social and critical action.
We now have three streams of work. First, research remains an important part of what we do; we do primary research and we support others to do research as well. Secondly, we are probably the best known in the region for education and training. We run annual courses on the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes and the Sudans; they are one-week courses aimed at professionals who are working in the region or are coming to work in the region. Most course participants work for international corporations, businesses or sometimes even the military and are new to the region. These induction courses cover the history, geography and topography of the countries. We also train on current issues that vary from year to year. For example, last year we held several migration sessions while in previous years piracy had been a big topic; these topical courses on current issues keep the education alive.
We are increasingly doing core courses on current issues; organisations are coming to us and saying they want to know more about a topic and so we are developing country-specific courses for their interests. Currently, we are in partnership with the UNICEF East and South Regional office who properly induct their teams into the countries they are going to work in and so we bring in experts from the regions who can spend three days with them. So far we have done Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi and Rwanda and South Sudan and we are moving also to southern Africa because they have asked us to come and do courses there. We are also doing more thematic courses. We had a course in February on Kenya’s elections so we had Kenyans and non-Kenyans who have been working on democrisation in Kenya for a number of years training so that attracted about forty people working for international organisations, embassies, businesses seeking to understand the election process here. Right now, there is a course on migration for UNICEF who are thinking about how to tackle issues of migration globally, and when children are involved issues of migration, trafficking, etc.
While those courses are primarily aimed at those who can afford it, we also train people from the region in research. We are working with the University of Hargeisa and the University in Puntland to develop a research institute in both of them and train Somali researchers; the idea is the universities that are there shouldn’t just be teaching universities but should also develop a research role. Since they lack resources to do that we have a grant that is part of a funding pool from the UK government which is supporting this effort. For example, in South Sudan we have a research project looking at the role of customary authorities, chiefs, and how their role has been affected by the conflict, how their authority has changed over time, and what role they might have within the peace process in South Sudan. We are training South Sudanese researchers to do the research; all our research projects have an element of training as well.+
The third stream of work is around the quality and access to public information. We do that through research publications available online and through the Rift Valley Forum, a public platform created in 2012 where researchers and academics, both government and non-government affiliated come together to discuss key issues in the region. Since 2012, the Rift Valley Forum has worked with over 70 organisations and hosted about 120 book launches and research disseminations and other public discussions. The meetings are open to the public though RSVPs are required; most forums are held at the RVI offices, however, we have also held meeting at the National Museum where we have had 300 people, and we had a meeting last year at the National Theatre on the closure of Dadaab camp. In Nairobi, we have a mailing list of 4,000 people.
The way we are running the forum is changing a bit as we learn from experience.
RP: With all this capacity building and engagement the RVI does not seem to be a traditional think tank.
MB: We actually don’t call ourselves a think tank; we are on a list of think tanks but it’s not something that we call ourselves. Our tagline is making local knowledge work – for policy, for internationals, for nationals and the circulation of local knowledge. Two of the ways we are trying to do things differently is do a series instead of just one-off events that look at an issue from different perspectives. Last year, we went around the Kenyan coast and had three different meetings in one week; one was on extractives, another on youth and employment and the third on cultural identity. In 2017, we will probably do a series on election forums because it’s a topical issue.
After the forums, we prepare a report on or a briefing paper that are all on the RVI website. Depending on the quality of conversation and availability of resources, we record a podcast. We also prefer to put our research on the website because most journals are not open access there are few open access journals.
RP: So what are the major concerns of someone leading a think tank, what is keeping you up at night?
MB: I’ve only just become the executive director in January; I was previously the regional director. Funding for some of our work like education is not a major issue since the courses are income generating. It’s also not too difficult to get money for research, what’s difficult is getting money to fund our own research on what we want to do.
RP: How much of your current funding is in response to funding calls?
MB: I would say that it’s probably half and half. We were lucky when the forum was set up as part of the grant we got from the research. It’s a mixture; sometimes it’s our idea and sometimes its other people who loop us in. In principle, we don’t take work that’s completely outside our area; we don’t for example do a lot of research around security issues because we have a principle that whatever information we produce should be open to public access. So if a donor comes in and says that they won’t allow us to publish we will say no, and in most cases they know or we will find a way where we can publish some of it.
RP: Are you concerned about the changing funding landscape and how you can stay relevant?
MB: It’s just not about being relevant but also having the funding that allows one to have the resources to do the work. An example is the very popular forum platform that at the moment has no funding support and we do not want to charge for participation. We try to make it a very open platform whether you are a student, a diplomat, in the military there is nothing to stop any of you coming and participating in the event. People see it as useful but somehow it doesn’t have the funding. Raising core funding and sustaining the running of the forum is challenging. And unless a donor sees the forum as particularly useful to their objectives then I think it’s difficult to find that core funding; although, there are more possibilities with a foundation.
RP: Apart from funding, what else concerns you?
MB: Too much work, there are not enough of us working and the quality of work one does suffers because of that. I think the forum is an example, 70% of the forums we hold are here in Nairobi, sometimes we hold them outside Nairobi in Mogadishu, Hargaisa, Juba. I feel that we need to do more to take the forum out there as a platform for people to access it in different ways; maybe not just physically but also digitally to find ways of communicating the discussions with people. Organisations like SID are doing that. They do twitter forums as well, so there are other types of platforms besides physical platforms in the sense that people can come together. I think it’s important to have that but I guess a lot of debate is going on in digital platforms and I think that’s something that we need to think about more is how to have both physical and digital platforms.
RP: You are concerned about making local knowledge work, how are you measuring that?
MB: That’s a good question. I don’t think we are measuring it that well since a lot of what we do is difficult to measure. We are not immunising children or digging wells so it’s difficult to measure influence or whether or not these conversations are changing other conversations or ways of working.
However, I think we monitor the use of our publications, attendance to our meetings, what organisations and their interests are, and whether the conversations we have here are picked up elsewhere; although that’s not a terribly exact science. In some areas we have a bit more evidence, for example, our work on the impact of war on men is being taught in universities in the USA and the UK and it’s also been picked up by the SID and used in some of the papers they put out and in other work such as gender and social norms. The research gets out and we get to see that in different ways. We have also done reviews of the forums we have hosted through online questionnaires to people that attended asking them how they found them and what they would like to see different, but it’s not something that I would say we have done well systematically.
RP: What would you list as your top three successes?
MB: It depends on what level one is talking about. One, I think the forum has been very successful in terms of providing a space for discussion and the number of people who come and continue to come to them; we plan on doing one a month but end up doing up to four a month so I think it is a success and we would like to continue it. Two, there are also successes in terms of research that is providing useful information that may be used by other people. Three, another great success I have not yet mentioned here is the cultural center in Hargeisa funded through an EU grant; it’s been extremely successful in terms of its popularity and use and it also holds public forums where sometimes 800-900 people turn up depending on what the topic is.
The Hargeisa cultural center has two theatres, a recording studio, an artist studio and a library none of which existed before; the center’s facilities were targeted towards young people and it is the young people who mostly use it but it’s also a place where the young and old interact in an interesting way. There are also a lot of generational issues between older and younger people so they meet and create sort of a mutual respect and they come to listen to older artists talk about poetry or sing or dance. I think it’s been a huge success and something that we want to continue to support. That’s one of the ways in which local knowledge is happening in reality because they are doing things like working with minority groups. One of the things they have been trying to do is to bring to the front their culture and bridge those issues between the majority and the minority and the clans and help people to understand better their mutual histories and cultures.
RP: You mentioned that you don’t make recommendations in your reports and that’s a conscious choice not to direct people but to provide them with the information they then use.
MB: We might call them policy considerations or key issues. It can be tempting but I don’t think it’s our role to tell people the how to.
In terms of influence, let me give you an example. We did some research on the economics of the elections in Somaliland. Rather than seeing the elections as a political event we are looking at them as an economic event, how do the candidates fund it, how do the parties fund it and what impact that has on the dynamics of the election. The research found that people vote multiple times because they are repaying a debt, for example, that person did my family a favor. What is interesting is that elections are not just about the democratic process but are being used to address other issues. Secondly, as a donor or electoral commission, you are trying to make people behave in sort of a model democratic way and you bring in regulation, equipment, etc. to make people vote in a way that they are supposed to vote. Well, it may not have an impact because that is not what people’s interests in the elections are about.
It is not for us to tell the commission or a donor that you need to do this or the other about it, but instead to say, listen, you may think that you are providing resources or doing things in a certain way because you are expecting a certain outcome but people who are participating in it are thinking about it differently and these are the implications of that.
RP: I’m wondering how making that choice not to direct and say ‘this is what you ought to be doing’ is affecting the sort of influence that you are having.
MB: Yes, it does affect, there are different things that one can do to improve people’s understanding. As you said, it could be in producing a shorter research briefing or maybe have another forum or have a bit more time after the research to go out and talk about the research with leaders, or going back to the community where you did that research and talking about it at that level, so there are many different ways of doing it. The purpose of having a forum is to take our research out there and not just be a book on a shelf or a report on a computer but to have conversations around that research.
RP: Are you using media a lot?
MB: We are using social media a bit more than we used to and that’s part because as an organisation we have been more savvy in terms of using it; unlike me who doesn’t know how to use it. I think we are also sort of getting more printed news media coverage than we used to but it’s something that we recognise that we need to do more of, but there as well it’s a resource issue.
RP: Is there a benefit in bringing African think tanks together?
MB: Yes, I would see some value in that. One of the things I should also say having taken on this role of Executive Director, is that the previous Executive Director was based in London but I am based here and part of my mission is to make the RVI a regionally based organisation. The center of gravity moves from London to Nairobi and this is where the ideas are set as opposed to London which I think has been the view of the organisation and also to bring people from the region into the organisation and into more senior positions. And for my position, to have someone from the region so that it becomes an African organisation, so that’s part of what my agenda is.
RP: Without being humble, what are some of the gifts you bring to this organisation?
MB: I think that is something that my colleagues would say, they would say that I have some knowledge of the region particularly in Somalia; I think there would also be some recognition of my knowledge of the regional issues. As an Executive Director, I think the important thing is not to be directive and I think in that sense I’m a bit different from the previous director. I tend to be a bit more open, consultative and involving in my approach and in generating ideas since I am not the one managing the projects.
RP: What is new, intriguing or hopeful about the research environment today?
MB: One of my concerns about the research environment is the quality of the research in African institutions; we are in small ways trying to help improve this through training of researchers. We are helping to build research institutes and also exposing people to other people’s research through our forums and publications. Part of my vision for the institution is to take us from building local research capacity to generating research that is not for international organisations but for the local people. This is why we are working with universities in Hargeisa and Puntland.
Many international organisations do research in Somaliland but it tends to be instructed in terms of the information and it’s not necessarily relevant for the people, local institutions and authorities. So one of our strategies is to try to encourage a research culture one in which we focus on what it is that we need ourselves, our societies and our institutions.