The end of an era for NorLARNet
After 11 years, today we send the last NorLARNet newsletter, only weeks before the NorLARNet secretariat closes. It is both sad and a bit ironic that a platform for communication and debate on Latin America research is shut down, precisely when it is perhaps most needed. Yet, the end of the secretariat does not have to be the end of the network. In this blog, I reflect on successes, shortcomings, and the way ahead.
From the debate: "Venezuela: is there a peaceful solution?". With Alfredo Zamudio, Leiv Marsteintredet, Benedicte Bull, Edgardo Lander, Iselin Strønen.
It is not without a certain sadness that the last ordinary newsletter from the Norwegian Latin America Research Network (NorLARNet ) is published today, only a few weeks before NorLARNet’s secretariat will be closed and activities end. This is due to a decision by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Research Council of Norway not to continue funding it.
The NorLARNet secretariat and its newsletter have existed since August 2008. During those 11 years, we have organized 219 large and small events – guest lectures, seminars, conferences, workshops, PhD- and master courses. We have invited academics from all over Latin America, and opened our auditoriums to everything from a President and several ministers, to activists and artists. Yet, the principle has always been to bring them into an academic context and debate with academics. NorLARNet’s mission has been to establish a solid environment for research on Latin America, and bring knowledge into the public debate, in Norway and in Latin America. Academic workshops have been organized from Tromsø to Kristiansand, on topics ranging from urban violence to dialects and seaweeds.
Flexibility, collaboration and academic quality
Looking back, I would argue that we have succeeded in creating networks: among researchers and between researchers and user groups. This is partly due to the three principles in our activity: flexibility, collaboration and academic quality. We did not want to make NorLARNet into a new administrative layer bothering researchers with requests for registration and information. We wanted rather to provide resources that the researchers could benefit from, and adapt our activities to their wishes. As far as possible, we have sought to be flexible when allocating funds for research workshops, and inviting guest researchers and speakers. Cooperation has been our guiding light in the organization of events. We have worked with most NGOs, research institutes, media, think tanks, universities, business chambers, embassies and ministries that have interests and activities in Latin America. And we have sought to bring knowledge to where the interest for it is – which is not necessarily only in our own auditoriums, but may be in boardrooms, theaters, and clubs. In the various collaboration projects, our role has always been to bring in academics and ensure academic quality, rather than to pursue particular interests or political agendas.
However, two ambitions of NorLARNet can only be said to have been partially met. One is to contribute to setting the agenda for the public debate. NorLARNet guests or the secretariat have been in the media around 500 times since 2008. However, although we can count on some successes, we have only only to a small extent managed to set the agenda, and ensure that attention is given also to the variety of important issues in the region, not only to "drug wars" and dictators.
We also had an ambition to contribute to depoliticize the debate on Latin America. We have organized some very successful events where we have brought together people with different perspectives, but all with solid knowledge, to achieve significant insight and understanding about deeply controversial topics (the photo above is from one of them). However, it remains a challenge for research communication that the debate on Latin America continues to be polarized and politicized.
Difficult, but important: research in a polarized Latin America
These challenges seem only to become more important in the future. NorLARNet was established in a period of great optimism. Business saw economic opportunities in Latin America; politicians saw partners in global politics; social movements saw inspiring examples of people’s mobilization. And many saw the need for better knowledge and cooperation with scientific groups in Latin America in order to take part in that bright future.
Today, the situation is very different. Ironically, perhaps, we are at a point where research and knowledge is more important than ever, but where few are interested in investing in it. Economic optimism is replaced by uncertainty in many countries in Latin America. Public debates are extremely polarized and increasingly influenced by false news and groundless claims. Researchers as well as critical media are under pressure, and arenas for open and informed debates are becoming extremely scarce. This will more than likely also eventually influence the knowledge on Latin America in Norway and the attitudes and opinions formed that will prepare the ground for actions by governments, businesses and others.
In this situation, research and research communication is as difficult as it is important. It is difficult because funding is scarce; official data are often missing; information is manipulated. Yet, the systematic collection of data, and analysis of it based on generally accepted methods and criteria, are of enormous importance to how any society, including those of Latin America, evolves.
A platform for research dissemination and debate in Norway may not seem like the most important for how research and the debate in Latin America unfold. The most important is of course that research undertaken in Latin America by researchers based there. However, research is strengthened through international collaboration. Our research gets better by collaborating with Latin American researchers, and Latin American research may benefit from collaborating with our best in different fields.
Moreover, in order for research on Latin America to be used and understood in a Norwegian context, we need “translators” - not just translators of language, but people that can make knowledge about distant places understandable to audiences close to home. If we don’t have those “translators”, chances that we will adopt the perspectives provided by mainstream global media, or flows of false or manipulated information increase.
In the future, activities that can contribute to providing such will not be organized by NorLARNet. That does of course not mean that all Latin America oriented research, or the communication and debate of it, will end. Personally, I am extremely grateful for having been given the opportunity to meet and learn from an enormous amount of interesting and knowledgeable people from all over the world during these 11 years, and hope that someone will find the possibility to find new ways to strengthen research and research communication on Latin America in the future.