Global Perspectives on Knowledge Co-production: Transformative Insights from the MGG Academy

Embark on a journey of collaboration and innovation as Nitish Barole, Jiayinaer Bolati and Reon Van der Merwe – three dynamic professionals from India, China and South Africa – share their transformative experiences from the 2023 Managing Global Governance (MGG) Academy at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS) in Bonn. Discover how this immersive program reshaped their perspectives on international cooperation, youth engagement, and sustainable development. Through their Change Maker Project, they navigated the intricate terrain of academia-civil society partnerships, unraveling the secrets to fostering impactful collaborations at the University of Applied Science Bonn-Rhein-Sieg. Join them as they delve into the intricate tapestry of global challenges, unveiling actionable insights and strategies for building a brighter, more inclusive future.

Please introduce yourself:

Nitish: I am Nitish, a humanitarian professional from India with over a decade of experience in peacebuilding and youth engagement. I founded Youth for Resilience and co-founded Impacting Youth, both dedicated to meaningful youth engagement and program design.

Reon: I am Reon from South Africa with ten years in youth development, specializing in multilateral organizations like BRICS, the United Nations, and the African Union. I focus on stakeholder engagement and creating spaces for youth to learn about international relations. I co-founded Impacting Youth, aiming to enhance youth-related initiatives through social impact consultancy.

Jiayinaer: I am Jiayinaer, one of the three participants from China in the MGG Academy 2023. I work in environmental science, international cooperation, and sustainable development. I was on the same Change Maker Project team with Nitish and Reon, working on the “Knowledge co-production between research and international non-governmental organization (NGOs)” challenge.

What did the MGG Academy at IDOS mean for you and how did it impact you personally and professionally?

Jiayinaer: The MGG Academy is not just a learning experience. It is an adventure of a lifetime, doing the right thing with the right people at the right time. Through the Academy, I engaged with a diverse group of individuals who share a common goal of contributing to global sustainability.

Reon: The MGG Academy was a unique professional experience, offering three months to step back and reflect on my career path. It provided insights into Europe’s approach to development, broadening my horizons and helping me understand global stakeholder perspectives. Personally, it instilled resilience and equipped me with the skills needed to navigate the complex challenges of the development sector. Interacting with professionals from diverse backgrounds enriched my understanding of collaboration and the importance of inclusivity and diversity in our work. Overall, the Academy reshaped my perspective on Africa’s role in the global development discourse, emphasizing the need for African practitioners to contribute uniquely to global challenges.

Nitish: The MGG Academy was invaluable both personally and professionally. It offered opportunities to learn new skills, engage with professionals from various countries, and gain a deeper understanding of diverse topics. Personally, it promoted an appreciation for collaboration and diversity, enriching my outlook on teamwork and inclusion. Professionally, it emphasized the importance of collaboration on a global scale and provided insights into navigating multicultural environments. The experience encouraged me to appreciate and leverage diversity in all aspects of my work, fostering a deeper sense of inclusivity and resilience. Overall, the MGG Academy was instrumental in shaping my approach to collaboration, diversity, and professional growth in the development sector.

What was your Change Maker Project about, and what are the most valuable insights from the action component of the Academy?

Nitish: We worked on actionable solutions to address the challenge of building partnerships between research and international NGOs for the University of Applied Science Bonn-Rhein-Sieg. They sought to integrate academia and industry to produce comprehensive knowledge. Our Change Maker Project addressed the struggle to form partnerships between these sectors. Through collaborative teamwork, we proposed actionable solutions to bridge the gap. This experience provided valuable insights into the complexities of research and academia, highlighting the importance of building trust and confidence in partnerships. Working in a diverse team during the Academy allowed us to exchange ideas and engage in high-level discussions. Despite the challenges, the project emphasized the need for patience and persistence in ensuring successful collaborations between academia and NGOs.

Jiayinaer: A wealth of information is available, but there is a lack of effective translation from academic language to practical, easily digestible formats for NGOs. The need for concise, easy-to-understand knowledge translation from academia to NGOs emerged as a crucial aspect of bridging the gap between research and practice. We saw a notable barrier between academia and NGOs, with each operating in separate spheres and having a limited understanding of each other’s perspectives and needs. Creating spaces for interaction, dialogue, and networking between them was identified as essential for fostering mutual understanding and collaboration.

Reon: The Academy provided a valuable experience in using the Design Thinking process, which we now integrate into our work on youth engagement. Our project highlighted the challenges in aligning the priorities of academia and NGOs and understanding their mixed expectations. It offered insights into the dynamics of these relationships and their implications for future engagement. Additionally, we explored the potential of emerging technologies like AI to enhance collaboration in the development sector. Overall, the project underscored the importance of understanding and navigating the complexities of interdisciplinary partnerships for effective knowledge production and action.

How can the co-production of evidence-based and actionable knowledge exchange between academia and international NGOs be strengthened?

Reon: Strengthening the co-production of evidence-based knowledge between academia and NGOs requires shifting from the traditional one-way dissemination model to a collaborative, iterative process. Firstly, acknowledging the expertise of NGOs and involving them in research agenda-setting is crucial. Whole process collaboration, where NGOs are engaged from project conceptualization to implementation, ensures the relevance and usability of research findings. Effective science communication is also essential to make academic research understandable and actionable for NGOs. Facilitating networking opportunities between academia and NGOs fosters organic collaboration. Personal relationships play a vital role in initiating and maintaining partnerships. Moreover, institutional mechanisms like NGO advisory boards can institutionalize engagement and ensure ongoing communication. Overall, creating a culture of collaboration, involving NGOs from the outset, enhancing science communication, facilitating networking, and institutionalizing engagement are key strategies to strengthen the co-production of knowledge between academia and NGOs.

Jiayinaer: Enhancing the collaboration between academia and international NGOs to co-produce evidence-based and actionable knowledge requires promoting effective communication alongside encouraging interaction and mutual understanding. Clear and concise communication is essential to convey academic insights in accessible formats, facilitating broader comprehension and engagement. Establishing enduring partnerships based on mutual respect and shared goals is fundamental, and it involves creating platforms for ongoing dialogue, collaborative research, and knowledge-sharing forums. Promoting interdisciplinary approaches and facilitating capacity-building initiatives can further strengthen collaboration effectiveness. By harnessing the expertise of academia and NGOs and embracing diverse perspectives, stakeholders can collectively generate impactful solutions to address complex global challenges.

Nitish: The most valuable insight was the importance of teamwork, especially in diverse groups. Collaborating with my team members allowed for meaningful exchanges and elevated discussions. Professionally, it highlighted the time and effort needed to build trust and collaboration between academia and NGOs. It emphasized the necessity of patience and persistence in cultivating partnerships. Through the project, we learned the significance of interdisciplinary approaches and leveraging emerging technologies like AI to enhance collaboration in the development sector. Overall, the project underscored the importance of understanding and navigating the complexities of interdisciplinary partnerships for effective knowledge production and action.

 What does the MGG Network mean to you?

Jiayinaer: The MGG Network serves as a platform where I am inspired, supported, and empowered to take action. It stimulates lifelong connections and collaborations, creating a sense of belonging and shared purpose among its members. Overall, the MGG Network is more than just a professional association, it is a community of changemakers striving to make a positive impact on the world.

Nitish: The MGG Network provides a valuable platform for collaboration and networking among professionals from diverse backgrounds and organizations. It fosters collaborations and partnerships, enabling individuals to learn from each other and work together on common goals. Through the Network, we can leverage each other’s expertise and resources to address complex challenges effectively. Impacting Youth, our initiative born out of our experience at MGG aims to enhance youth engagement programs’ effectiveness. By providing social impact consultancy services, we assist organizations in designing impactful programs for young people. Our focus is on empowering stakeholders, including NGOs, government agencies, and corporations to better engage with youth and create meaningful opportunities for them. Drawing on our extensive experience and the Design Thinking process, we guide organizations in developing strategies and structures that ensure their youth initiatives achieve their intended outcomes.

Reon: The MGG Network offers a unique opportunity to connect with professionals globally, fostering collaboration and knowledge exchange. Our experience during MGG inspired us to launch Impacting Youth, a social impact consultancy focused on enhancing youth engagement programs’ effectiveness. We recognized a growing need among organizations, including government agencies and corporations, to improve their youth initiatives. Impacting Youth aims to fill this gap by providing tailored consultancy services, drawing on our extensive experience and the design thinking process. Our goal is to empower stakeholders to design and implement impactful programs for young people, ultimately creating more opportunities and positive outcomes for youth globally. Through Impacting Youth, we strive to make a meaningful contribution to youth development and engagement initiatives worldwide.

How do you see the role of youth in international cooperation for sustainable development?

Reon: Youth engagement in international cooperation for sustainable development requires shifting from tokenistic participation to meaningful inclusion and ownership. Platforms like regional youth parliaments offer institutionalized spaces where young people can consistently voice their perspectives and contribute to decision-making processes. However, organizations need to move beyond ad hoc engagement and adopt a bottom-up approach that empowers youth as stakeholders rather than just beneficiaries. Youth should be involved in setting the agenda from the start, ensuring their priorities and perspectives shape policies and initiatives. Moreover, effective communication and understanding of youth’s needs and aspirations are crucial for meaningful engagement. As future leaders, young people bring fresh perspectives, innovative ideas, and a sense of urgency to global challenges. By empowering them as partners in sustainable development efforts, we can harness their potential to drive positive change.

Jiayinaer: Youth are not just the leaders of tomorrow. They are the driving force behind international cooperation for sustainable development today. Their energy, creativity, and passion make them invaluable contributors to global efforts towards a more sustainable future. As catalysts for change, youth bring fresh perspectives and innovative ideas to address pressing global challenges. Their active engagement and creative strategies are instrumental in driving effective actions and raising awareness on a global scale. Empowering youth in international cooperation initiatives fosters collaboration and generates momentum for positive change across borders.

Nitish: The role of youth in international cooperation for sustainable development is vital but often undermined by tokenistic engagement practices. There is a need for a paradigm shift towards genuine inclusion and empowerment, where young people are not just consulted but actively involved in decision-making processes. Our approach at Impacting Youth emphasizes co-designing and co-implementing programs with young people, ensuring their ownership and leadership. It is essential to effectively incorporate youth perspectives and priorities into policy documents and initiatives. This requires continuous monitoring and evaluation to track the impact of youth consultations and ensure their voices are heard and acted upon. By empowering youth as stakeholders and recognizing their agency in shaping the future, we can effectively leverage their creativity, energy, and passion to achieve sustainable development goals.

What other projects are you currently involved with? Can you tell us a few words about the Youth for Resilience organization in India  and the YALI Regional Leadership Center Southern Africa?

Nitish: I am the founder of Youth for Resilience, a global youth-led organization focusing on disaster risk reduction, climate change, and sustainable development. We empower young people through capacity-building and advocate for their meaningful engagement in decision-making processes. Additionally, I consult part-time with World Wide Fund (WWF), USA, designing and implementing programs for youth in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Reon: Alongside my work with Impacting Youth, I am a facilitator and learning designer, collaborating with various organizations to develop courses on personal and professional development. Currently, I am involved with the Young African Leaders Initiative as a facilitator, guiding young leaders through leadership development content. I also contribute to the Southern African Youth Forum, assisting in organizing flagship programs like the SADC Youth Parliament and Youth Forum, promoting regional integration and Pan-Africanism among youth in the South African Development Community (SADC) region.

What would be areas where China, India, Romania, and South Africa could cooperate more to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? What opportunities and challenges do you see for South-South and Triangular cooperation?

Jiayinaer: In addressing the SDGs, collaboration among these countries can strategically focus on key areas such as climate change mitigation, biodiversity conservation, renewable energy development, and sustainable urbanization. By leveraging their respective strengths and resources, they can drive significant progress towards achieving shared development objectives. Challenges such as resource disparities and differing development priorities can be navigated through innovative approaches and strategic partnerships. South-South and Triangular cooperation provide promising avenues for mutual learning, capacity-building, and knowledge exchange. Strengthening partnerships through platforms like the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) facilitates knowledge exchange and fosters progress towards SDG attainment.

Nitish: China, India, Romania, and South Africa have opportunities for collaboration in addressing climate change, especially considering its significant impact globally. Sharing experiences, best practices, and lessons learned in dealing with climate change-related challenges, such as heatwaves, could be beneficial. Triangular cooperation, including South-South learning, presents opportunities for mutual growth and development, particularly at the youth level. However, challenges may include coordinating efforts among diverse stakeholders and ensuring equitable participation and benefit-sharing among participating countries. Nevertheless, leveraging triangular cooperation in areas like climate change could significantly contribute to achieving SDG 17 on partnerships for the goals.

Reon: A shift in global dynamics is evident, marked by multiple crises alongside the rise of diverse centers of influence. Historically, the United States and Europe dictated global cooperation, but recent developments, like the formation of BRICS, highlight the need for a more inclusive approach. Understanding the unique historical struggles of nations like China, India, Romania, and South Africa is crucial for effective cooperation. Initiatives such as the European Green Deal risk appearing paternalistic and almost colonial to some partners from the Global South, highlighting the need for a more inclusive and co-creative approach to cooperation. Challenges for cooperation include avoiding polarization and Cold War mentalities, particularly for countries like Romania straddling both sides of the global divide. The focus should be on building partnerships based on mutual respect, understanding, and shared goals, rather than perpetuating outdated dichotomies.

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This interview has been taken by Lutz Drieling for the Romanian International Development Review, which is published by the Romanian Association for International Cooperation and Development (ARCADIA). Lutz is originally from the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany and currently a Research Fellow at the Făgăraș Research Institute in Transylvania, Romania. Before completing his MA in International Public Affairs at the University of Bucharest in 2023, he obtained a BA in Sustainable Social Policy from the Bonn-Rhine-Sieg University of Applied Sciences. The International Centre for Sustainable Development at Bonn-Rhine-Sieg University proposed the challenge for which Jiayinaer, Nitish and Reon developed the innovative solution in their Change Maker Project. This interview was facilitated and coordinated by Roland Müller, Board Member at ARCADIA, and a participant in the 2023 MGG Academy.

The views presented in this article belong to their authors and are not reflecting the official position of ARCADIA and the Făgăraș Research Institute.