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Blog: Sharath Srinivasan, Director and co-Founder of Africa's Voices

last modified Mar 13, 2018 02:54 PM
Deepa Iyer, MPhil in Development Studies, member of CGHR's Student Group wrote about the third talk of this year's Practitioner Series with Sharath Srinivasan, Africa's Voices.

It was homecoming for Dr. Sharath Srinivasan, Co-Director of the Centre for Governance and Human Rights (CGHR) at the University of Cambridge and Director and co-Founder of Africa’s Voices, as he joined the students for an interactive session as part of the Practitioners’ Series this week.  Dr. Srinivasan alluded to the ongoing strike in Cambridge in the beginning of his presentation as the talk was part of a ‘teach-out’ program. He reminisced on the student strikes of 2010 and described how senior scholars and professors marked their solidarity with striking students when the tuition fees were hiked. He remarked that the university-wide strike of 2018 seemed a reversal of the circumstance, with students giving support to the university staff in their struggle for rights. Sharath also cautioned against the tendency to impugn strikers in terms of credibility, commitment and desire to do their job because beyond pensions, this strike involved legitimate means of association, speech and dissent vital to a democratic polity in an effort to protect the future of research and education in the UK. In that sense, the protection of voice, and its power when exercised in concert, which is at the heart of the Africa’s Voices project, connects the events going on in Cambridge with the talk he was to give.

Sharath then moved to the history of how Africa’s Voices came into existence as a spin-off that came out of his research on political participation and new communication technologies. 

After completing his Doctor of Philosophy degree at Oxford, Sharath was offered a lectureship position at Cambridge. In this role, he conceived of a centre of research in Cambridge with a global outlook on governance and human rights and an orientation towards policy-making and practice.  In one strand of work, Sharath saw the new centre as an opportunity to explore how the liberalisation of media and growth in mobile technologies had increased opportunities for political participation in the Global South in new and different ways. 

Sharath_Practitioer Series

A research programme was initiated to investigate how power played out in new public spaces of communication. CGHR also sought to understand how these new spaces might provide opportunities to amplify citizen voice in different ways. The centre signed up with community radio stations in specific locations of eight sub-Saharan African countries for what came to be called the Africa’s Voices project. The radio stations themselves suggested themes and topics of discussion for the on-air programmes, and mediators, who were the media personnel presenting the program, were trained to intervene in specific ways. The objective of the pilot project was to understand what parts of this interaction process changed the content of interaction. For instance, the way the topic was introduced and discussions were moderated as well as the kind of participants that came on the show had an impact on the way the interaction shaped up. Contrasting the position of a social scientist who ‘extracts’ information from respondents, this method of engagement explored the possibility of acting as catalyst to enable conversations of interest from the ground-level. For example, policies that affected everyday life such as the use of plastic bags were a conversation point.

An operational idea

Translating the pilot project into a marketable enterprise was a whole new challenge. Sharath described how financial sustainability shaped the process of conceiving an operating model of this idea, in ways that possibly challenged the integrity of stakeholders’ original objectives for getting involved. Going through the process of the ‘bureaucratisation of a good idea,’ Sharath pointed out that as a charity that was dependent on funding from various stakeholders, the enterprise moved from purely capturing citizen voices to directing discussion on various research agendas, especially public health. He also discussed how enterprises tend to rationalise on continuity and path dependency and resist change at the institutional level. Sharath also mentioned dealing with the risk of capture and the operationalisation of financial sustainability as the core areas of concern while developing a social enterprise.

Sharath’s experience with community-oriented communication in convened spaces of technology raises the question of the role of technology in enabling human communication. While conceding that the medium affects modes of communication and that technology helps in scaling up the extent of research communication, he cautioned that technology has a lesser ability to completely replace the human power for interpretation and the capacity to navigate through evolving information. He admitted that the constant trade-off that he faced as a researcher while working on the project was the tussle between abstraction and interpretation. While large data sets of belief maps were available to him, the easier and convenient way to analyse the data was through various statistical models of frequency testing, which increased the possible loss of the narratives’ integrity. He concluded his presentation by discussing what Africa’s Voices essentially did at the grassroots-level: convene a space for the discussion and contention of ideas without being combative and engage policymakers’ attention to the voices coming from the ground.