Lessons for Global Collaboration: South African and European Perspectives

This is the transcript of a panel facilitated by Josiane Smith, our Partnerships and Growth Manager, during the final symposium of the Common Good First (CGF) project in October 2019 in South Africa.

This is the transcript of a panel facilitated by Josiane Smith, our Partnerships and Growth Manager, during the final symposium of the Common Good First (CGF) project in October 2019 in South Africa. Common Good First was a three-year-long Erasmus+ funded project which brought together academics from twelve European and South African institutions to conceive a digital network which identifies, showcases and connects social impact projects, and supports community changemakers to develop e-skills and digital storytelling for engaged scholarship and social change.

The panel was structured around three sets of questions, the discussions around which will be published in two parts. 1) What was your role in the project? What did you learn from participating in this project? 2) What did you find hard? How was your perspective and approach challenged? 3) What are your lessons for global collaboration? What would you have done differently?

And in short, the takeaways are that 

  • Participants were seeking to change and challenge something but finished the three-year project changed and challenged themselves
  • Keeping the final goals of the project in mind throughout the design and delivery would have encouraged different questions, choices and behaviours from the start
  • There were unforeseen barriers in this project, like infrastructure, language and familiarity with the requirements of this fund, that emerged as the project took shape
  • The field of social innovation has taken off in the last two years in South Africa, in terms of publications, media reports, postgraduate studies, and this project served to strengthen those efforts alongside other efforts around building digital literacy
  • The network was shaped over three years but is open and willing to explore how to invest in its continuation and legacy going forwards.

What was your role in the project? What did you learn from participating in this project? 

Marina / Reykjavik University

We worked on mapping the digital landscape in South Africa, and we were also responsible for picking the subcontractors and used a local supplier to build the platform and local partners to manage the platform. There was lots of testing, breaking and fixing and in the process, I learned a lot about South Africa as well as how to do this project properly – Common Good First is about enabling not dictating. 

Leona / University of Western Cape

We participated in the Digital Landscape Study and the platform development and I personally focused more on the user perspective – looking at whether it was accessible and engaging on a daily basis.

What I found surprising was the importance of infrastructure for the success of this project (on the level of having proper mobile phones and data, let alone laptops or internet). But more than that, I realised the scarcest commodity is time – the social innovators were required to invest time in this. On the one hand, we invited them to share their stories which they wanted to share, but on the other, they experienced time constraints because they had to work to be able to survive. We could all see the ultimate benefit of participating in the process but I learned that we had to meet participants where they were at.

Within our consortium, more than building a robust network, we discovered one another as human beings; we took one another seriously for where we are each coming from. There was an openness to listening and sharing – rather than telling.

So when we first started, some of the deliverables did not make sense to us in South Africa – it was clearly done from a European perspective, designed with a small country mentality, whereas South Africa is a large country with a lot more diversity. When I raised this, I happily found that there was an openness and flexibility to adjust to the local context and redefine the criteria.

Chris / University of Johannesburg

We did the Social Innovation Landscape Report which scanned up until 2016 and then did a comparative landscape report which looked at the period 2017-19 to see how the field has evolved. Our findings show that it has taken off in the last two years – in terms of publications, media reports, postgraduate studies…

I think I learned most about managing expectations going into this project – everyone has a different viewpoint on digital storytelling, whether from a community engagement perspective or through the use of technology. We have a different viewpoint going out as we did going in – as a business department, we saw it as a tool for business not necessarily as a tool for good.

Guadalupe / University of Alicante

We were in charge of monitoring the quality and implementation of the project, as well as doing risk management. We also coordinated the advisory and evaluation committee.

We learnt that universities here engage in local communities a lot. For instance, community managers within university institutions help their universities to become an agent for social change. This is very different from Spanish universities. Another learning is that the difference wasn’t just between European and South African universities – even amongst the European partners, we are very different from each other.

Nils-Petter / University of Norway

Our approach is of the social work tradition; we are a university that has been using digital storytelling as a tool for many years to engage with communities… But I’ll have to admit, we didn’t quite understand what this was all about at the start. Then we did a pilot and saw how storytelling is a tool that may be used in very different cultural circumstances – it’s not dependent on living in one type of society.

Our institution has practical experience of digital storytelling in education in terms of methodology and content. We have been using this as a tool for critical reflection in our studies, but we learned how to compare our work to the African storytelling tradition, using oral storytelling and story circles. It’s quite amazing to witness how an individual story goes through the round of feedback so that it can evolve and become a better story.

So we went back and invited refugees living in our town to make digital stories – to share some of their experiences but to use digital story as a way of presenting themselves to the community and to potential employers. This project has evolved more than many of our other projects. 

What did you find hard? How was your perspective and approach challenged?

Guadalupe / University of Alicante

As social scientists, we found it challenging to move from daily scientific practice to solving real-world problems… to make the leap into applied research and deeper engagement with the communities. We also found it hard to integrate the activities of the project within the structure of the university, as this kind of work needs a community and a place and often needs to battle against bureaucracy and hierarchical structures. We also had a language barrier, which made it hard to find people from the academic staff who didn’t all speak English. We had the people and knowledge in terms of internal communication and management, but getting this curriculum to take shape within and across the University was difficult. 

Nils-Petter / University of Norway

There was a cultural difference between us, but actually our similarities and differences cut across our cultural divides and landed on who we were as people. Other than as a consortium, the Erasmus+ project was a challenge at first when trying to “find the framework” – it’s a big system, there are a lot of administrative requirements, and there are a lot of magic words to learn how to use, e.g. “work package”.

Chris / University of Johannesburg

For me, I suppose it was the question around where does your contribution fit into the bigger picture? I joined about 8 months after the start and kept wanting to know how does this fit together? Why does this work that I’m doing matter? It’s only towards the end that I could see it take shape.

Leona / University of Western Cape

The individuals who formed part of the CGF were not the only people required to make the project work – it required the involvement of many more. So thinking from the start about who to work with and how to extend the network – that’s challenging because there’s no funding for that extra amount of involvement.

What are your lessons for global collaboration? What would you have done differently?

Guadalupe / Cristina / University of Alicante

We would have engaged academic staff from the beginning. We have academic staff who have strong expertise in digital storytelling and could have contributed to the content, not just the management of the project. We could have found new solutions for language barriers, too!

Chris / University of Johannesburg

It would have been better to involve our finance and administrative people in the process – they didn’t always understand why we were doing things a certain way. I also would have made a clearer emphasis that this project is co-funded, not fully funded, by the Erasmus+ project – the institutions are paying as well! Again, we should have reached a common understanding before going into this project. 

Marina / Reykjavik University

I would have liked to involve more people from my university. But practically, it would have been more costly to fly more people from Iceland to South Africa. We would have liked to have a bigger contingent – more people could have benefitted from being in this consortium.

Leona / University of Western Cape

What I would have done differently, I think, is to conceptually understand what the project is about, asking questions like what is going to be the end product? I only understood the sustainability requirements towards the end of the project, that we ought to be planning for continuation and legacy, which requires a different mindset and set of questions and choices from the start.

Nils-Petter / University of Norway

I would have learned the Erasmus+ language! We should take more into our work and teaching – especially the international perspectives – to make our students feel like they are part of a bigger reality than just a smaller nation in the North. We would like to use this network further on and also in other fields – we are going to be signing an MOU with other partners in the consortium… This network will be part of a broader international strategy for our university…