Meet the new director: Marleen Dekker

Marleen Dekker became Director of the ASCL on 1 April 2021. Trained as a human geographer (MA) and a development economist (PhD) she started working as a researcher at the ASCL in 2007, and specialised more and more in inclusive development in Africa. In 2014 she became the coordinator of the Knowledge Platform for Inclusive Development in Africa, and in 2017 she was appointed Professor of Inclusive Development in Africa at Leiden University.

Your predecessor, Prof. Jan-Bart Gewald, is a historian, you are a development economist. Will the focus of the African Studies Centre’s research shift more towards development issues?
That question goes back to the core of the ASCL. The vision of our Centre is to understand and contextualise how the continent and its people change. The importance of African Studies is that you do that from different disciplinary perspectives. To understand current changes and developments in Africa it is necessary to also know the past, and development is not just about economics but also about political or anthropological insights, for example. It’s the social as well as the cultural and the political and the economic dynamics that are relevant to study. In my view, this multidisciplinarity of African Studies is something to cherish, and that is also visible in the collaborations that we have, e.g. in the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa, that considers innovations, frugality and what that means in Africa. Or in LANDac, that looks at how land issues affect development processes. My emphasis will be on this multidisciplinarity and the role we as African Studies Centre can play in contextualising these broader developments. And that may also be reflected in new partnerships across disciplinary divides.

One more thing that is relevant for the Centre’s future, and that was started by my predecessor, is the development of a more diverse and inclusive staff portfolio. Younger colleagues, for example, bring in new themes and perspectives that are significant towards the future. And as an African Studies Centre it is obviously key to work with African colleagues, not only in Africa, but also within the institute, and that should guide our agenda for the coming years.

Inclusive development has been central in your work in the last seven years. How would you define it?
In academic and policy circles, the concept Inclusive Development was coined as a response to increasing inequalities and the realisation that simply economic growth or income growth is not enough to define development. Inclusive development is also about social indicators such as health, social welfare and people’s voice. And it’s about more equal distribution and participation. This distribution can refer to the difference between rural and urban areas, or between regions in a country, between regions in the world, but also between income groups, social categories, men and women, young and old people, abled and disabled people. So it pays attention to inequalities.

To what extent has inclusive development gained ground in African countries? And what has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdowns?
I would have answered your question completely different one and a half years ago. The pandemic, and especially the lockdowns have had an immense impact. Mobility restrictions led to income losses, especially for the self-employed, with dire consequences for poverty levels. The progress in poverty reduction that has been realised in the past twenty years has evaporated. And the closing of schools and universities, some for up to a year, will have profound effects as well. The accessibility of online learning is a concern, especially in rural areas, and children may not return to school when teaching starts again, notably girls.
At the same time there are very innovative responses in different countries. In Kenya education is provided through radio and television, for example. The government in Togo developed a programme for informal sector workers, who could receive a monthly cash allowance to protect them from income losses due to the lockdown. And in Ghana the private sector pulled together funds to develop health facilities and provide food support to market porters. So there is no one response to COVID, it’s very diverse.

European efforts to work on Africa’s development are often seen as paternalistic or even colonial. Where do you stand in that discussion?  
That is an essential discussion, as indeed there can be a tendency to be paternalistic. There is a move towards more partnership-driven collaboration, but what matters is: is this just a phrase on paper or is it put into practice, and if so, how? As academics we have a responsibility to keep on emphasising this. What we do with the Knowledge Platform INCLUDE is to co-create a vehicle for African voices to be heard more. Our Platform Members, both from Africa and the Netherlands, together define the topics that should feature in policy discussions on inclusive development. These topics come up from the African context, are based on academic insights and are debated both in selected African countries and the Netherlands. A good example is the issue of social protection. In 2014 our African members advocated for this to be brought into policy discussions. For a long time this was a sensitive discussion in the Netherlands, because social protection was equated to handing out money and not seen as a productive investment. By reviewing the academic evidence it becomes clear that providing a basic minimum is in fact a way to enhance more productive activities. That perspective has changed over the years, and now, also because of the role that social protection plays in COVID responses globally, there is a more nuanced and supportive interest in this topic.

How do you see your recent appointment in the Development Cooperation Committee of the Advisory Council International Affairs (AIV) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?
To me, academics have a societal role to play, for example in providing advice to policy makers. Academic research is relevant for policy makers and empirical observations from Africa and by African scholars provide a much needed reality-check in policy discussions. The discussion on social protection is a good example.
As a researcher you really want to emphasise how contexts are different. What works in Kenya may not work in Mali, and what works in South Africa does not work in Senegal. It’s all about context-specificity, and I notice in the AIV and in the Ministry that the idea that Africa is not a country is gaining ground, as is the importance of including different narratives. I consider it my role to emphasise this in the Committee.

In the last few years you did a research project on Gender, Social Norms and Financial Inclusion in Zambia. What are the outcomes of this research? 
Zambia’s national policy has an emphasis on promoting financial inclusion for women; allowing women more financial freedom, more space to save, either in a saving group or on mobile saving devices. In this project, in which I collaborated with Zambian and British colleagues, we aimed to get a better understanding of the normative environment in which financial inclusion programmes are working. We studied social norms and for whom and to what extent they play a role in the economic behaviour of women and men. The study was done in a farming context and this is a good example of where the importance of history comes in. Since the colonial administration regarded the men as their main point of contact for agricultural markets, in rural Zambia today the husbands are still the main money holders in a household.
What we found is that saving, especially by women, is seen as something positive. Interestingly, it is also clear that saving should not be done in secret, it should not be done without the spouse knowing that the other spouse is saving. Hence, organisations that promote individual saving may in fact create a tension within households or communities. The individual focus on women may jeopardise their position. So on the one hand saving may increase women’s independence, but on the other hand it may lead to a backlash, in the sense that they become vulnerable to domestic violence.
For organisations promoting financial inclusion, it’s important to understand these dynamics. What follows is that if an organisation starts to work with both women and men together, it may be more accepted for women to start saving and holding money.  

Has the research been finalised now?
We have finalised it in Eastern Province in Zambia. The organisation has now asked us to do the same research in Southern Province, so we will continue the project for another year, also depending on the COVID situation and its implications for travel.

What do think of the travel ban for researchers, which is making it extremely difficult especially for PhD candidates and project researchers who need to do fieldwork and finalise their research within the given years of time?
For researchers with a limited time frame and an emphasis on ethnographic data collection or a dependence on national archives, international travel is essential. At the same time, the current situation also provides opportunities to innovate and strengthen local and remote collaborations. We should keep in mind the context a research is taking place in, and see if it is possible to do fieldwork with adjusted protocols. In some countries there are no mobility restrictions, so it may be possible to do research there, but in other countries there are restrictions, and these should be respected. Within that setting, it is also necessary to take your responsibility as a researcher and not put local collaborators and interlocutors at risk when doing fieldwork in COVID times. An essential discussion and reflection for African Studies scholars.

Should universities be looking more at the different contexts of countries when deciding where researchers can travel to?
Yes, I think considerations on travel for fieldwork should really be customised. Together with other colleagues in Leiden we are starting a conversation on what could be possible, when and under what conditions, calling for some perspective towards a step-by-step opening up, rather than a blanket ‘no’.

From the beginning of last December up to the end of February the ASCL organised the online conference ‘Africa Knows!’, about knowledge production in and about Africa. The conference slogan was: ‘It is time to decolonise minds’. What have you learnt from the conference, leading a European centre of African Studies?
Decolonising the minds and the academy is crucial. We see a keen interest in this discussion from students as well, both in our minors and master’s programmes. Having courses by African lecturers, exchanging ideas, cherishing the diversity, becoming aware of power relations, using literature from African academics. This is also why I am very proud of the ASCL Library, with its collection of African materials; a true gem in the Netherlands, because of the unique sources of information they provide.
Interestingly, the conference was intended to take place in person in Leiden and the Hague, but because of the COVID situation it became virtual. In terms of decolonising the minds, this had an immediate effect because it became much more accessible for scholars in Africa and elsewhere to participate. That exchange has always been important in African Studies, it is the core of African Studies to me, and it is now centre stage.

Will more future conferences be held online?
Yes, or with a hybrid set-up, depending on the purpose of the conference. The one thing I do personally miss, however, is the coffee talks and the lunch talks you have with colleagues. That personal contact and those exchanges are usually very inspiring. But I can imagine there will be innovations that will allow for such personal exchange as well.

These must have been strange times for you to start as a director, seeing your colleagues only on a computer screen and not at the coffee table.
Indeed! I have to say that I am impressed by how colleagues have been handling the ‘working from home’ situation. Professionally, and as professionals, most of the work has continued. I am particularly pleased that the library remained accessible and colleagues and students were able to transition to online teaching. But we have to realise that it is not business as usual, it puts a strain on what can be done and on the sense of community. We really need to take some time to re-connect to each other and jointly look ahead.

Text: Fenneken Veldkamp
Photo: Sandra Hazenberg