I’ve been reflecting on my first visit to a Geography Association conference, in Manchester over the past couple of days. The theme of the conference was ‘Geographies of Difference’.
In her Presidential Lecture, Fran Martin talked about the importance of being open to having our world views challenged. She used different types of maps – showing the same location but drawn from different perspectives and thus showing the same thing in radically different ways – to show the danger of teaching from a ‘single story’. Geography can make a significant contribution to creating a more just world – but not by putting forward single stories or single solutions. It needs to tell the different stories. The different perspectives.
In this age of multi-tasking, soundbites, and the need for ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, there can sometimes seem an imperative to present everything in terms of black and white. Simple stories, clear dichotomies, straight-forward solutions. We’ve all been trained by the media to think in this way.
Think Global, as Fran was doing today, advocates teaching in the grey area between the black and white. There’s rarely a single right answer to a problem; there are often different stories about the same issue which may be contradictory but each with degrees of validity. It’s by teaching people to see different points of view, and to think about why those views are held by the people or organisations who hold them, that change for a just and sustainable world will happen. To learn to think critically in this way empowers people to make decisions and take action.
The Geographies of Difference theme was carried forward through the workshops at the conference. I attended one called ‘Africa: Diversity and Development’ led by Professor Tony Binns and Etienne Nel of Otago University, New Zealand.
They talked about the incredible diversity amongst Africa’s 49 mainland and 7 island states – with life expectancy, for example, ranging from 72 in Algeria to 35 in Lesotho. Perceptions of Africa, while now more positive than a decade ago, still lag behind the reality of the positive developments taking place. One third of Africans, for example, live in countries with GDP growth greater than 4% in each year of the last decade. The level of military coups dropped from 24 in the 1960s to 5 in the 2000s. The African middle class is now roughly the size of the total US population. But people still often see Africa as one single unit – not seeing the differences, and the positives as well as the persisting problems.
A question to the presenters at the end also highlighted how African issues need to be seen from the different stories. Kenya has just discovered oil, leading to enormous excitement within the country at the development potential that an oil-windfall could bring. Look at the benefits brought to some oil rich countries around the globe. But look at others – Nigeria, for example, where a large section of the population still live on less than $1.25 a day despite it’s oil riches, and the oil has led to wide environmental damage – and perhaps the benefits don’t flow so automatically – leading to higher corruption and threats of instability. How will Kenya’s oil discovery, potentially a source of riches, change the country in the years to come?
Another example is the phenomenal investment by China in African states in recent years. One third of Chinese global outward investment is in Africa. Although this is having a profound effect across almost all African states, the investment is heavily skewed to those with large banks of natural resources. This investment is leading to new infrastructure like roads and buildings, but it’s not necessarily helping African nations to repeat the successes of Asia and Latin America in developing their own manufacturing base. Can African nations make the Chinese investment work for them?
I enjoyed meeting with geography teachers on the Think Global stand, who clearly grasp the work of Think Global and our members, and want to stay in touch through the Think Global Schools Network. All in all, it was a stimulating couple of daysc with the geographers.