Professor G. Hari Harindranath, School of Business and Management, and Professor Tim Unwin, Department of Geography, received GCRF funding for their project 'South-South Migration, Inequality and Development Hub'. We recently caught up with Hari and Tim to ask more about the project and how they both got involved.
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and your roles at Royal Holloway?
Hari - I am a Professor of Information Systems in the Department of Digital Innovation and Management, School of Business and Management. I also serve as the Director of Internationalisation for the School.
Tim - My role is Emeritus Professor of Geography (since 2011) and Chairholder of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D (since 2007). I was Head of Geography (1999-2001) and then went on secondment to DFID (2001-2004) where I led the PM’s Imfundo initiative, creating partnerships for the use of technology in education in Africa. Subsequently, I was Chair of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission and then Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (2011-2015).
2. GCRF funded the ‘GCRF South-South Migration, Inequality and Development Hub’ that you both work on, can you tell us more about the GCRF Hub?
The MIDEQ Hub (Migration for Development and Equality; 2019-2024) funded to the tune of £19,863,201 (FEC) by UKRI-GCRF and led by the PI Heaven Crawley (Coventry University) aims to understand the experiences of migrants in Africa, Asia and Latin America, focusing especially on six contrasting migration corridors (Haiti-Brazil, China-Ghana, Ethiopia-South Africa, Nepal-Malaysia, Burkino Faso-Côte d’Ivoire, and Jordan-Egypt). MIDEQ involves some 40 organisations and includes 128 researchers, with eleven multi-disciplinary work packages cutting across these 12 countries, focusing on issues such as gender and childhood inequalities, migration intermediaries, resource flows and arts, creative resistance and wellbeing.
Hari (in the pink shirt) contributing to the Hub’s research planning discussions in Accra (2019) (Photo by Tim).
3. Can you tell us about the parts you play in the Hub and the work package that you lead/are involved in?
We lead an “intervention” work package, focusing on the interface between digital technologies, inequalities and migration, but participate in all aspects of the Hub’s work and provide advice and support especially on the use of digital tech. Hari is also a member of the Hub’s Management Board and on the Data Management team, and Tim is one of the two safeguarding confidants. Our research is in three phases: understanding how migrants use digital technologies, understanding what inequalities they might like to change, and then working with migrants and tech developers to create some intervention that may help reduce inequalities. We are in the first instance working in the first four of the corridors listed above, but may well only work in two of them for phase three, depending on logistics and the findings we make over the first three years.
4. The Hub award involved a number of universities and stakeholders working together, how did you collaborate and distribute the work?
Working together with so many partners has no doubt had its challenges! Overall, the matrix structure of having six corridors (each with two country leads) intersecting with 11 work packages (each with one or two CoIs) provides the basic framework for our work. The initial group of partners was brought together by the PI and we co-created the proposal to UKRI GCRF, but within the first year two of the country lead organisations had fallen by the wayside and had to be replaced. Two week-long face-to-face meetings of all partners in Ghana and Nairobi in 2019 were crucial to enabling us to get to know each other, and not least create some empathy and understanding of our varying skills and ambitions. This was important in helping us choose the priority corridors in which we would subsequently work. Challenges remain not least in relation to the difficulties of working on the ground with country teams due to the pandemic.
Shaping empathy through storytelling around the fire in Kenya (2019) (Photo by Tim).
5. Can you tell us about some of the difficulties faced by the migrants that you work with?
This is an enormous question, that has many different dimensions. COVID-19 has dominated everything over the last year, and has generally made the lives of migrants very much harder. For example, in Malaysia many migrants were rounded up in the early stages of the pandemic and put into camps so that they would not spread the disease to local citizens (see https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/health-environment/article/3092084/malaysias-coronavirus-lockdown-lifts-migrant-workers). Likewise, the lockdowns in South Africa have made life increasingly difficult, especially for migrants. Across all of the corridors, legal movements of people have been drastically reduced, and this has made life very hard for migrants who were planning to return home. Interestingly, though, there is some evidence from Haiti that migrant remittances although hit significantly in the early days of the pandemic have now returned to levels similar to what they were before.
6. You were both looking at technological ways of improving the lives of migrants, can you give us an example of this?
When we first joined the Hub our partners mostly thought that our role was to develop an app based largely on the research conducted in the early stages of MIDEQ. This is very far from our intention. Indeed, the early evidence of our research has shown that most apps developed “for” migrants are rarely if ever used by them! Instead, a key principle underlying our research and practice is that we should be the servants of the migrants, understanding how they would like to reduce inequalities, and then working with them and local tech developers to craft and implement some digital intervention. If we discover that one of the biggest fears of migrants is that tech will be used to track and control them, we might even suggest that alternative non-digital interventions might be wiser. Although that it is unlikely, we remain very open, and are working with international agencies such as the IOM, ILO and ICRC to explore how the apps that they are already developing might be improved. However, the pandemic has most certainly affected our work. It is not exactly easy to ask migrants about their digital technology use when migration and mobility have been the first to be impacted by COVID-19.
7. What have we learnt most from working within the Hub?
Hari - I have found the experience of working in such a large multidisciplinary Hub both rewarding and challenging; rewarding because of the opportunities to work in such diverse contexts with some great colleagues and challenging because of the different assumptions people have about how that work should be done in the first place! I have learnt that perseverance is key to making any headway.
Tim - I have especially learnt to listen more! All of the partners come from very different backgrounds and have a wide range of experiences. This is an incredible opportunity for us to learn from each other – at least for those of us who realise that we still have much to learn! A project of this size has enormous challenges, and it is easy to criticize, but if we are going to be successful it is very important that we all try to pull together and be supportive of each other. We also come from very different cultures, and it is very easy to cause offence accidentally – so we must be willing to forgive others in the hope that they will also forgive us. However, none of us will ever get on with everyone, and so we need to recognise this and concentrate our efforts on working with those we like and respect.
MIDEQ Hub soft launch (Accra, 2019).
8. Have you found ways to share experiences more widely within College?
We have tried to be as open as possible in sharing our research practices and have also helped some colleagues across the College by providing advice about their own GCRF applications. We have collaborated in College workshops relating to GCRF activities, and Tim has also provided safeguarding training and advice to different groups of colleagues. We have also been able to secure College funds to bring some of our MIDEQ partners for wider networking on campus although this has had to be postponed due to the pandemic.
9. Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Not really, other than having ensured we had enough funds to be able to do what we really wanted to! The budget for a project this size might seem a lot, but when broken down between the partners it is really insufficient to deliver what we would like. We have, though, been very flexible in our approach, and this has enabled us to act differently in order to ensure that we still deliver. Thus, in 2020 we had planned to spend much time in the field, especially in South Africa, Ghana, Nepal and Malaysia, where we had intended to undertake qualitative and hermeneutic research with migrants. COVID-19 prevented this, and so we had to rethink radically our approach. As a result we developed an online survey for migrants and their families in each of the countries with which we are working, and our partners (and many others) have helped share this widely. This has been more successful in some countries than in others, and the resultant quantitative data are very different from what we had intended, but this has at least enabled us to have evidence from the first phase of the research that we can then hopefully take with us into phase two when we are able to travel overseas again.