Action research for social innovation with African diaspora

The voice of African diaspora in the Netherlands is hardly heard in Dutch policy on Africa. Research done by the Wageningen Science Shop identified missed opportunities and this resulted in a motion in parliament. ‘Scientists could do to be a bit more activist.’

African migrants residing in the Netherlands have unique understanding and insights as a result of their experience and family ties. This could be very useful when formulating Dutch policy on the particular country of origin, for example policy on development cooperation, but also policy on trade or raw materials from Africa. Yet little use is made of this resource. A 2015 study by the Wageningen Science Shop made an inventory of the knowledge and experience of migrants. Project leader Margriet Goris worked with African in Motion, an organisation of African diaspora in the Netherlands that lobbies for more input from diaspora in policymaking. She published a scientific article from this research.

Social innovation

It’s an example of social innovation, says Goris. ‘As researchers we joined up with an African migrant movement.’ A number of African and diaspora students participated in the study, and they teamed up with Africa in Motion. There was an African student movement within WUR. ‘In the momentum of this research process, Dutch people of African origin demanded their right to have a say,’ says Goris. The researchers substantiated Africa in Motion’s arguments, and this resulted in former Socialist Party MP Eric Smaling proposing a motion in parliament – that diaspora should have a bigger role in policymaking. The motion was accepted.

‘Nevertheless, I’m still an independent researcher and continue to observe Africa in Motion in a critical manner,’ says Goris. ‘The bottom line is that as a researcher you want to make an impact.’ And she achieved that by working with Africa in Motion, and looking closely together at who could do what best, given their role. ‘Sometimes a researcher is taken more seriously than a civil society organisation.’

Challenging the status quo

As a researcher you also have to be clear about your own assumptions, says Goris. ‘Our assumption was that more could be achieved by making use of the life histories, network and knowledge of a wide range of people. It’s an assumption that has often been proved elsewhere, by the way, and that receives widespread support from the business community but not, strangely, from Dutch development policy.’

It’s perfectly all right for researchers to challenge the status quo sometimes for the sake of bringing about change, Goris believes. ‘The situation is often depoliticised in research. For example, the role of government is not questioned, choices that have been made are not mentioned. Yet sometimes the solution is political.’

Max Koffi, director of Africa in Motion assents. ‘The diaspora in the Netherlands has come up with many initiatives that would contribute to the development of their home country. And Dutch businesses could benefit from these too, by setting up a branch in Africa. ’The government spends large amounts of money on aid and trade, says Koffi, but still makes little use of the unifying role that diaspora could play.

The Science Shop research has helped to raise the profile of this issue, agrees Koffi. ‘Scientists could do to be a bit more activist.’ There is high demand for socially engaged researchers.