Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
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Reflecting on the Impact of Environmental Training

July 1, 2010

Over the last decade, the Henry Luce Foundation has funded $30 million in environmental initiatives to enhance academic training and research as well as support ground-breaking projects of environmental organizations.

The foundation has now turned to the Watson Institute to assess the overall impacts, lessons learned, and critical needs remaining from its initiative for those who would wish to mobilize environmental knowledge in the service of global public goods.

Under a $150,000 grant, Watson will conduct research and host a conference including Luce grantees, among other activities. The work will be led by Watson Institute Director Michael Kennedy, Africana Studies Associate Professor Nancy J. Jacobs, and J. Timmons Roberts, director of Brown's Center for Environmental Studies.

Included in this analysis will be data collected as part of the Institute’s own Luce-supported program known as the Watson International Scholars of the Environment, which over 10 years hosted 66 mid-career environmental professionals from 41 countries in the developing world.

These scholars each came to Brown for a semester to work with faculty and students from across the disciplines, and meet with professionals at NGOs, think tanks, and governments in other US cities. Home-country workshops led by program alumni took place in seven countries. Many continue to collaborate in an international alumni network.

In announcing the new relationship with Luce, Kennedy said that, “We view this work as part of a larger public enterprise, one designed to broaden awareness among various publics of environmental challenges and the ways in which they articulate with other needs from justice and democracy to extending economic development and educational opportunity.” Toward that end, the project, “Assessing Environmental Knowledge Flows and Their Media,” will also integrate various media both as subject and as object of the initiative.

Last year, after a semester of intensive research, coursework and hands-on training, nine African scholars and practitioners graduated the Watson International Scholars of the Environment Program with certificates, new personal and professional connections, and a more nuanced understanding of what makes environmental solutions.

Speakers at the scholars' culminating event reflected the multiple dimensions of the program, which in 2009 had focused on Africa. In his keynote address, Boston University Professor of African and environmental history James McCann summarized the central theme of the Watson Scholars’ core course in African environmental history: the link between historical inquiry and contemporary environmental issues. The work of historians consists of projecting past trends onto the future, and is thus closely related to current challenges, McCann said.

For instance, while many idealize local knowledge about the environment, such knowledge may be in jeopardy, McCann said. Some farmers have lost some longstanding environmental practices, he added, recounting an example of a group of peasant women who had forgotten how to use charcoal for power.

However, this trend is neither universal nor predetermined. While farmers in Zimbabwe have lost key local knowledge, farmers in Malawi and Ethiopia have retained an understanding of crop diversity, he said.

McCann asked whether Africa would become a “homogenous dystopia” where local knowledge is eradicated, or the site of stability and familiarity for years to come. While no prediction is foolproof, he noted that Africa is ahead of the curve in adaptations to small-scale information technologies, adding that farmers there have long been adept at adapting to new technologies independently of governments and “big systems.”

In the new generation of environmental advocates, “Africa may well take a leading role,” McCann said.

Munyaradzi Chenje, senior program officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a key sponsor of the Watson Scholars program, also congratulated the graduates, reminding those present of the important policy component of the Watson Scholars program.

While in residency at the Institute, the 2009 scholars learned about the “role of environment as foundation for development,” Chenje said. Overall, he lauded the program for “strengthening environmental educational networks” around the world, and he said that UNEP may seek future opportunities to collaborate with Watson Scholars.

Finally, one Watson Scholar selected by his colleagues reflected on the semester’s work and the opportunities for collaboration ahead. Joachim Ibeziako Ezeji, chief executive officer of the Rural Africa Water Development Project in Nigeria, recounted the “cascade of memories” from his time at Brown. The objectives of this “great milestone” were met with great success, he said. The course modules provided a forum for “intense brainstorming” about the components of a sound environmental solution, including capacity building and finance, Ezeji said.

Ezeji’s address reflected Institute Director Kennedy’s vision of the program as an interaction between scholars and practitioners. Ezeji and his eight colleagues forged strong relationships within the cohort, with “young Brunonians” in Professor Nancy Jacobs’ environmental history class, and with Brown faculty and staff, he said.

The end of the program does not mark the end of these relationships. On the contrary, the nine graduates’ departure from Brown University “heralds the very beginning of a more robust relationship with the Institute,” Ezeji said.

With reporting by Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend '11