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Cartagena 2017: Mecca of Participatory Action Research?


Both of us made a pilgrimage to Cartagena for the Action Research of the America’s conference and the First Global Assembly of Knowledge Democracy, June 12-17, 2017. For Budd it was a third visit to Cartagena having been there for Orlando Fals Borda’s first time 1977. The 1977 event was billed as the first international conference on ‘investigacion y accion’.  The ‘investigacion y accion’ that Fals Borda was speaking off was quite different from the action research traditions that were more common in organizational change discourses of the day. Cartagena had been chosen because it was on the Atlantic coast of Colombia near where Orlando had carried out his revolutionary study with the Afro-Colombian people.  This study was published in a book where one side of the page were the oral traditions of the Afro Colombians and the other side a more academic portrayal of history of the region. In 1977, Budd shared ideas that had been developed in Tanzania in the early 1970s where the concept of ‘participatory research’ first emerged.  The 1977 event was small with about 125 participants.  The central debate arose between activist scholars on the left who were informed by Marxist philosophy with its emphasis on the role of vanguard intellectuals in political change and the ideas that Orlando was putting forward of organizing around a process of knowledge construction from the bottom up.  He called his approach ‘science of the common person’.  The reality was that in Latin America of the late 1970s nearly every country had undergone a military coup d’état and the vanguard parties were on the run. Budd recalls that the proponents of the bottom-up investigacion y accion process felt that they had gained the upper hand in the debates.  The proof could be seen in the remainder of the 1970s and throughout the 80s when ‘investigacion y accion participativa’ (which became participatory action research or PAR) and popular education became the foundational approaches to organizing throughout Latin America. Budd did not recall a single woman speaking from the front of the rooms.

Both Rajesh and Budd took part in the 1997 World Assembly of Participatory Action Research again organized by Orlando Fals Borda.  1997 was perhaps the

largest gathering ever of action researchers, participatory or community-based researchers, campesinos, indigenous knowledge keepers, afrodescendants, students and civil society. 1997 felt like a popular movement with demonstrations, performance art, theatre, women’s defiance and tributes to those who were being killed by government forces for siding with the militants in the mountains.  Flavoured by heavyweight progressive intellectuals such as Anibal Quijano, James Petras, Eduardo Galeano, Emmanuel Wallerstein and Agnes Heller, the 1997 conference was a chaotic, hopeful, celebratory and defiant stew that said that instrumentalism and positivism had been overtaken by the liberatory intensions of hope.

The third Cartagena conference of June 12-17, 2017 was the brainchild of the relatively new Action Research Network of the Americas, a network founded in August 2012, by Lonnie Rowell, Joseph Shosh, Margaret Riel, Eduardo Flores, and Cathy Bruce of the USA.  The conference in Cartagena was the 5th ARNA conference.  Cartagena was chosen as the venue as an acknowledgement of the contributions of Orlando Fals Borda who passed away in 2008 and as a celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the first Cartagena conference in 1977.  The ARNA2017 conference included a day devoted to what was called the First Global Assembly of Knowledge Democracy.  Lonnie Rowell, Joseph Shosh and Doris Santos from the National University of Colombia in Bogota were the key organisers of the events.  In addition, Doris organised a pre-conference workshop in Bogota that Rajesh contributed to as well as several oportunities to pay tribute to Orlando Fals Borda who  had lived and worked in Bogota. Doris Santos provides the specific context for the 2017 Cartagena meeting,

“These are certainly exciting and challenging times for academic citizens in Colombia. Many of us have made the decision to support the very fragile peace process that has just started. This decision implies, among other challenges, to help to reconstruct the relationships and collaborations in our society, starting with our own within the universities (between faculty members, between faculties), while making sense of those with the communities involved in the process. This is a new start for us academics as part of a new upcoming society. Hierarchical relationships inside and outside universities derived from traditional ways of understanding who ‘owns’ and/or ‘validates’ knowledge in society are challenged by new citizenships under construction. Collective reflections upon new political scenarios in the world and the exchange of local experiences of collaborations are really meaningful for us”.  

There were around 600 participants including academics from the US and Colombia.  Many more women present than in either 1977 or 1997, but fewer non-academics, civil society folks or social movement activists.  Far too many of the keynote speakers were older males (including Budd and Rajesh!).  Many of the best known popular educators and participatory researchers from the rich history of this tradition in Latin America were present such as Oscar Jara of Peru and Costa Rica, Felix Cadena of Mexico, Marco Raul Mejia of Colombia, Rosa Zuniga of Mexico, and Carlos Rodrigues Brandao of Brazil. There were fewer people from outside the Americas (only two Canadians) which makes sense given that the organizers were the Action Research Network of the Americas. With the exception of a talk by Alf Casiani, a leader of the AfroColombian movement on knowledge and exclusion and a workshop organised by Zoraida Mendiwelso-Bendek, Marjorie Mayo and Rajesh on the potential of participatory research as a contribution to the transition to peace in Colombia after 52 years of war, there were fewer bursts of new energy than might have been hoped for.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos, from Portugal was the best known academic present. His work on epistemologies of the global south, on the effects of epistemicide and on the potential of a university of social movements was magnetic.  He drew crowds of students and admirers everywhere he appeared.  He was the keynote speaker on the day of the Global Assembly of Knowledge Democracy.  His opening remarks on the Global Assembly were sobering.  Given the missing persons from the social movements, from the political and social justice frontlines, from the Indigenous communities, this event could not be called the first Global Assembly on Knowledge Democracy.  It could be called a planning event, a first step towards something more inclusive.  He said that in matters of epistemicide we were living in the contradiction of seeing something new, but recreating the continued colonialisation of knowledge.  He said that Friere and Fals Borda has been gifted readers of their times and that their ideas on liberatory education and participatory action research had been right to their times.  But we live in a darker, more complex time, a time where knowledge and power are further fragmented by location, identity, culture, sexuality, gender, ability, spirituality and more.  We need, he said, a theory and a practice that recognises and supports an ecology of knowledges, that is located outside the academy as well as inside and can confront the neoliberal structure directly. He called for a reclamation and revitalisation of popular education.

In both 1977 and 1997, music and dance were woven into the fabric of the conferences.  2017 offered us much music including a haunting song, a ‘message to colombia’ written by Orlando.  But the music and dance was somehow structured into the introductory moments and the closing moments, a much more Euroamerican practice than an African or Latin American practice.

But both Rajesh and Budd came away with a reminder of the deep resevoir of intellectual and practical experience that can be found in Latin America.  We came away with renewed evidence that the passion for this work in Latin America persists,  that popular education is alive & well, that younger women academics are eager; that university leadership is thinking about engaging with post-conflict peace process. It was a fine return to a place with much meaning for us and a fitting spot for our contemporary avatars as UNESCO co-chairs to spend some time.

Our final note is about Cartagena, the town.  It is no longer a sleepy Caribbean destination but is a booming tourist hot spot with a dynamic nightlife, a totally renovated historic city centre surrounded by high-rise residences overlooking the sea from every angle.

Rajesh Tandon and Budd Hall

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