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What is Difficult Dialogues?

SujithaSelvarajah7 February 2017

Difficult Dialogues Logo 2017In just three days, the annual Difficult Dialogues forum will kick off. This year’s collaboration between UCL and Difficult Dialogues centres around the pivotal question, ‘Is India’s health a grand challenge?’

Difficult Dialogues is a platform for change.  It is a unique opportunity to bring together a varied range of stakeholders, from experts in academia, public policy, business, international relations and civil society.  These diverse perspectives will undoubtedly fuel important debates about health in India. Our conversations will focus on the four central themes of the summit: Inequality, Gender, Universal Health Care and The Changing Burden of Disease.  Founded by UCL alumna, Surina Narula, Difficult Dialogue’s vision is to build a foundation for these difficult conversations, and translate this dialogue into impact.

The variety comes not only in the panellists and speakers but also the audience.  Rarely will you find such a range of audience members — from government officials and civil society organisations to undergraduates — being engaged in the same discussions.  The forum will take a broader look at health, examining the impact of social, political and economic factors on communities and individual wellbeing.

UCL pioneered investigation into the social determinants of health, with Sir Michael Marmot’s landmark Whitehall Study leading the way in making us rethink the way we tackle health inequalities and universal health care.  Professor Marmot, Ruth Bell and their colleagues at the UCL Institute of Health Equity continue to build this evidence base.   UCL has a strong history in being a leader for change; for example it was the first university in the UK to accept men and women on equal merit. As Dame Nicole Brewer of the Vice-Provost’s office said, “UCL’s strength in forming global partnerships lies in its expertise across a wide range of disciplines.”  Dame Anne Johnson, a UCL speaker at the summit, was the principal investigator in the first ever study that looked at sexual health behaviours, the first of its kind across the world.

Former Director of the UCL Institute of Global Health and current director of Maternal and Child Health at the World Health Organisation, Anthony Costello, did substantial research looking into interventions which reduced maternal mortality rates in rural Indian communities and one of the panel discussions will look at Better Births and choices in Childbirth.  The panel features award-winning independent Indian reporter Sohini Chattopadhay, Bashi Hazard, an Australian lawyer who is Board Director of Human Rights in Childbirth, and will be chaired by UCL’s Dr Aarathi Prasad, who is part of the steering committee for the entire summit.  The panel looking at ensuring equality and opportunity for individuals with disabilities, will be chaired by the UCL Academic lead for Difficult Dialogues, Professor Monica Lakhanpaul.  Professor Lakhanpaul has recently won funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) for a project which looks at optimal infant feeding practises in rural India. The project is one of the first to be funded by GCRF which recognises world-leading research partnerships improving health in low and middle income countries.

At the heart of this bidirectional partnership between Difficult Dialogues and UCL is knowledge exchange and opportunities for collaborations that work towards the overall goal of universal health coverage.

Welcoming the World: celebrating the democratisation of ideas at Jaipur Literature Festival

SophieVinter31 January 2017

UCL undergraduates Shalaka Bapat (first year Anthropology) and Tamiza Tudor (third year French and German) attended the 2017 Jaipur Literature Festival thanks to a DSC travel award, supported by the Global Engagement Office. The festival celebrated its tenth anniversary this year.

Words and images: Shalaka Bapat. Originally published here in Savage, UCL’s arts and culture journal.

UCL students Shalaka and Tamiza at Jaipur Literature FestivalThrough the dusty streets of the Pink City emerge ancient palaces and city gates. Next to these stand shops selling mobile phone chargers, cafés blasting Bollywood music and idle Uber drivers awaiting custom. While Jaipur’s architecture is characterised by a mix of Rajasthani and Mughal styles, the city itself is where old meets new. What better place to celebrate ‘ten years of the best writers and thinkers from around the globe’?

I recently attended the tenth Jaipur Literature Festival, where some of the world’s leading artists, scientists and thinkers gather for five days of talks, debates and panels. For those five days, the Hotel Diggi Palace feels like the intellectual heartbeat of the world. The debates are heated, the talks passionate, and you leave a panel feeling that your mind and soul have been nourished with new insights. Many from a certain ‘set’ in India – middle-class, well-educated, international in their outlook yet Indian in their identity – ‘get down to Diggi’ each year. But the audience is not limited to this set because, crucially, JLF is free. This, and the mixture of talks in Hindi and English make events and ideas accessible to many in the region. In a country with huge inequality, this is a powerful statement in favour of opening up intellectual circles.

Indeed, some of India’s most beloved figures attended and gave their talks in Hindi; including Bollywood actor Rishi Kapoor, screenwriter Javed Akhtar and the celebrated poet, Gulzar. These were among the most popular talks and drew large contingents from local schools.

With a population of over one billion people, competition in India in every sector and at every level is incredibly high. This puts added pressure on pupils to distinguish themselves academically; many students receive extra tuition and there are few opportunities to learn for the sake of learning. JLF is a space for young people to learn information they will not be tested on, and to hear ideas that do not come from a textbook. The festival also brings international authors to their Indian readers. Writers such as Paul Beatty, winner of the Man Booker Prize, rarely go on book tours in India. Yet as the length of the queues for book signing stood testament, they are hugely popular.

Jaipur Literature FestivalThe interest was reciprocal and international visitors took full advantage of the vast range of Indian speakers in attendance. While the discussions covered many themes there was a prevailing interest in India’s history, its present and its future. ‘Welcoming the world’ was how the festival was kicked off by its directors, and the five days were as much a celebration and examination of India as of literature and culture in general. From a discussion on the Vedas, one of the oldest scriptures in Hinduism, to an illustration of the disparity among Indian states, each talk highlighted the complexities of the subcontinent. This seems incredibly important in an increasingly polarised world. As Adichie said, ‘when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise’.

This applies to both international perceptions of India and Indians’ perceptions of their nation. India is moving further to a right-wing, Hindu nationalist version of itself, and it is important now more than ever to have a space to discuss, share and question. While there has been criticism of the Festival’s sponsorship by Zee, a media company whose news channel has been said to ‘serve as the media bludgeon of the Hindu right’, many of the discussions were in favour of a strong left. A highlight was ‘Why the Future of Free Speech depends on India’; a conversation between Timothy Garton Ash and Salil Tripathi. They spoke about India as a swing state for global free speech, and the importance of cultivating a sense of ‘robust civility’ amongst its population. They also argued for an increased awareness of the diversity of the subcontinent.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2017Historically, the desire to create an Indian monolith has affected literature in astounding ways. Books have been banned, essays removed from reading lists, and authors blackballed. The festival represents a coming together to recognise and celebrate diversity. Author Perumal Murugan, whose book One Part Woman was banned for some time, has spoken at JLF in the past. This year’s festival stayed true to its values of open discussion, debate and knowledge-sharing. Panels such as ‘Being the Other’, discussing being Muslim in a divided India, critically engaged with issues of prejudice, censorship, and its effect on literature. It is essential that JLF continues in this vein in the future, regardless of its sponsor.

India’s diversity makes it a unique location for the sharing of knowledge. With one of the largest youth populations in the world, India will be instrumental in sculpting the global landscape of free speech and access to information in the future. However, these traits have also made the country susceptible to polarisation and extremism. The Jaipur Literature Festival makes a powerful statement in favour of the democratisation of ideas. While incorporating elements from all aspects of culture, literature is promoted as the principle vehicle for ideas sharing. The festival recently created ‘Jaipur Bookmark’, a platform devoted to bringing authors, publishers and translators together. As a practice in empathy reading is becoming increasingly important in India, where growing division has left many citizens vulnerable to alienation. The country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, said that ‘the art of a people is a true mirror to their minds’. JLP allows the multifariousness of India’s cultural consciousness to be freely shared and celebrated.

Knowledge exchange at UCL India Voices

SujithaSelvarajah27 January 2017

Words and images: Sujitha Selvarajah. Sujitha is a UCL Global Health graduate and final year medical student who will be tweeting and blogging live from the upcoming Difficult Dialogues conference in Goa, of which UCL is Knowledge Partner.

UCL India Voices academic speed dating event, January 2017As part of the UCL Grand Challenge of Cultural Understanding, UCL India Voices hosted the first ever academic speed dating event following January’s South Asia Network Meeting.

With an organisation as large as UCL, with so many departments and different research interests, the potential for collaboration is huge.  It is this potential for collaboration within UCL, particularly on global projects, that underpinned the success of the evening.  It was an ideal platform bringing together people from different backgrounds and disciplines, who share similar interests and objectives.

As Vice-Provost International Dame Nicola Brewer told attendees: “UCL’s strength in forming global partnerships lies in its expertise across a wide range of disciplines.” The evening was a huge success, with many details exchanged and prospective future collaborations being discussed.

Ina Goel, from UCL’s Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies, was an organiser of the event. She said: “Often it becomes hard to break hierarchies in the academic set-up, and an event like ‘speed-dating’ becomes a fun platform not only to have multi-sectoral collaborations but also to get an opportunity to meet people which we might not otherwise get a chance to cross paths with.”

She added that the UCL Grand Challenges programme will soon be inviting applications for two small grants of up to £2,500 each to support innovative cross-disciplinary collaborations between researchers from across the university, to help build impactful partnerships with organisations in India.

Sparking conversation

IMG_0189_editedThe collaborative discussions set the scene for the upcoming Difficult Dialogues conference from 10-12 February, the theme of which asks “Is India’s Health a Grand Challenge?”

The summit is set to take place in Goa and Dr Aarathi Prasad (UCL Office of the Vice-Provost Research) who is on the steering committee, spoke about UCL’s role as Knowledge Partner.

Aarathi emphasised the importance of it not being an academic conference, but instead a forum for discussion and debate about some of the greatest issues and challenges facing universal healthcare in India.

Founded by Surina Narula, a UCL alumni, Difficult Dialogues will engage a range of stakeholders with its primary aim being to bridge the gap between policy makers and NGOs, clinicians and those on the front line.

Having paved the way as a global leader in forming the evidence base for the social determinants of health, UCL experts across different disciplines will be attending the conference and engaging in conversation that aims to spark conversation and impact policy.

Future opportunities

UCL’s South Asia Network is a forum that brings together academics working in the region to explore the current work of UCL as well as opportunities for future engagement.  Whilst there are many focus areas within the regions for UCL collaboration, such as Myanmar and Pakistan, the primary focus of the day’s activities was UCL’s involvement in India.

2017 being the year of the 70th anniversary of India’s Independence and the UK-India Cultural Exchange, also provided the ideal context for this.

UCL's Professor Monica Lakhanpaul, Professor Marie Lall and Dr Priti Parikh present their project at the January 2017 UCL South Asia Network meetingDuring the South Asia Network meeting, Narinder Kapur gave a presentation on the upcoming International Gandhi Conference. As part of the conference,  a new Gandhi scholarship has been set up by UCL, allowing five young people from India to attend the conference in the UK.  The five scholars will be selected after submitting an essay on the relevance of Gandhi in the 21st Century, and their work will be displayed at the event.

Professor Monica Lakhanpaul (UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health), Professor Marie Lall (UCL Institute of Education and Pro-Vice-Provost South Asia) and Dr Priti Parikh (UCL Department of Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering), updated the group on the ongoing success of their project A cross disciplinary approach to optimise infant feeding through schools and Anganwadi networks in India. They have secured funding and partnered with a number of Indian NGOs, Save the Children and local community members to develop integrated health, education and environmental interventions.  Professor Lakhanpaul highlighted trust as key to the success of bidirectional exchanges such as this one.

UCL South Asian collaborations win funding to help developing countries cope with environmental hazards

SophieVinter13 January 2017

Bak Bay Slum Beach, Mumbai. Copyright Flickr/Adam CohnThree interdisciplinary UCL collaborations have secured Research Councils funding to help communities in developing countries better manage their response to environmental disasters.

Projects led by UCL’s Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction and Department of Statistical Science are among 29 that have been backed by the Building Resilience research programme to tackle a range of life-threatening hazards, from droughts and land degradation to volcanoes, earthquakes and flooding.

The programme, run by the NERC, ESRC and AHRC, forms part of the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF), a £1·5bn UK government fund to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries.

  • Professor Serge Guillas (UCL Department of Statistical Science) will lead a team collaborating with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) investigating tsunami risk to coastal India, in order to increase community resilience through planning and policy changes.
  • Professor Peter Sammonds (UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction) will work with the University of Jammu on a project examining environmental hazards in a frontier conflict zone. His team will focus on Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, which experiences frequent major floods and landslides.
  • Professor Maureen Fordham (UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction) will lead a team exploring use of mobile technology in mountainous rural Nepal – blighted by frequent earthquakes and landslides – to improve access to information and communications to support the health of pregnant or newly delivered women and their children before, during and after an environmental disaster. She will collaborate with Nepal-based HERD International and UK think-tank ODI.

Preventing loss of lives and livelihood

Building on an existing three-year collaboration with IISc in developing statistical and mathematical approaches to better quantify tsunami hazards, Professor Guillas will work with Dr Cassidy Johnson (UCL Development Planning Unit) and Dr Simon Day (UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction) to explore how urbanisation contributes to the impact of coastal inundation on Indian communities, using planning to prevent severe losses in lives and livelihoods alike.

He said: “In 2004, the lack of awareness and preparedness to a possible tsunami arising from the Sumatra-Andaman fault unfortunately contributed to the death of around 15,000 people on the Eastern coast of India, with a catastrophic effect on poor and fragile local communities. The prospect of similar losses in a future event on the Western coast, including cities such as Mumbai, compels us to jointly investigate this risk.

“The Mumbai metropolitan region has grown from around 5 million to 25 million people since 1945 – the date of the last tsunami hitting the region – with a large concentration of poor population on the coast and living on low-lying reclaimed land. Such density poses massive evacuation issues due to the lack of infrastructure and preparedness. Only wise planning can reduce exposure, as early warning systems only mitigate the tsunami consequences.”

Ask GEO: Rachel Corcoran, Programme Manager

SophieVinter22 September 2016

Rachel Corcoran, Programme ManagerRachel is GEO’s Programme Manager. We asked her to tell us more about her role and the recently launched Global Engagement Funds.

What is your role in GEO?

UCL’s Global Engagement Strategy launched in May last year – it’s an ambitious strategy which sets out a number of objectives: from ramping up the university’s collaborations with institutions abroad, to increasing student mobility and raising UCL’s global profile, to name a few.

As with any strategy, it’s all well and good deciding what you want to achieve, but the more difficult part is in the delivery. In UCL’s case, my office, the GEO, has a team dedicated to partnership development, with much of the other activity actually delivered by lots of other departments across the university – a ‘hub and spoke’ model (see image below), with GEO as the ‘hub’.

As Programme Manager, my role is to be a central point of oversight – to plan, monitor and evaluate success, ensuring that progress against objectives across UCL is captured in one place, identifying areas of overlap between different initiatives and supporting delivery offices where needed.

One part of the strategy which I specifically work on is managing the funding to academics to develop their overseas collaborations – recently I was pleased to launch the second year of the Global Engagement Funds.

The 'Hub and Spoke' model for delivering UCL's Global Engagement StrategyWhat are the Global Engagement Funds for?

Global Engagement Funds cover the costs associated with UCL academics collaborating with higher education institutions, organisations or companies abroad.  The aim is to facilitate activity for which there might not be another funding source, but which could be the start of an exciting new initiative.

There were some fascinating projects last year – I remember there was one from Archaeology, involving a researcher partnering with a Dutch NGO to tackle the black market in looted antiquities from Iraq and Syria, through jointly building a database of such objects. Or the lecturer from the Institute for Global Health who funded travel to Kigali to work with the University of Rwanda on the prevention of gender-based violence – including a joint seminar, meetings with key individuals, and visits to potential field sites, with a view to writing a grant proposal.

I’m not part of the decision-making though – the panels are led by Vice-Deans International (VDIs) and regional Pro-Vice-Provosts (PVPRs).

What is the role of the VDIs and PVPRs in the wider strategy?

The PVPRs play an important strategic role as a catalyst for UCL’s engagement in their particular region. Each term they chair the Regional Network meeting; they welcome international delegations to UCL and act as ambassadors for UCL abroad.

While the PVPRs focus on a specific region spanning all of UCL’s faculties, the role of the VDIs spans all regions in a particular faculty. They are a point of contact for academics and work with the Dean to ensure that the faculty’s global partnerships (e.g. teaching, research, consultancy, knowledge transfer) are in line with the wider strategy.

Map showing UCL activity in Europe as at September 2016How do you think the vote for Brexit has impacted on UCL’s plans for global engagement?

I think that it just shows that it is now more important than ever that UCL remains open and engaged with the world, sending a clear message to our partners (see my colleague Conor’s comments).  As our Vice-Provost (International) says, we are redoubling our efforts to meet those objectives set out in the strategy, especially with regard to Europe, one of the regions where we have a significant amount of activity.

Not only that, but I am excited to be part of reviewing, in the light of the Brexit vote, the way in which we intend to go about achieving objectives.