Work together, not alone: doing things the Batswana way

13 November, 2018

Botswana University Campus Appeal statue. CC-BY by Heritage Adventures

International Data Week in Botswana was unlike any conference I’ve been to before. It brought together over 820 participants from 66 countries. Botswana was represented by over 250 participants and the engagement from the wider African continent was marked and added a different dimension and richness of conversation that isn’t always present at RDA plenaries.

The conference was opened by the President of Botswana, His Excellency Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi, who gave an impassioned and informed address which showed his genuine understanding and concern about data issues. Dr Masisi spoke on the importance of a knowledge-based economy and the potential for Open Data and Open Science platforms to foster regional and continental integration through collaboration. Speaking on the data marketplace, he demonstrated a commitment to actively engage in this agenda in a way that benefits the community and improves the lives of the people he serves. During the opening session we were also treated to a first-rate marimba band, an operatic rendition of the national anthem, and an infectious 20+ strong traditional dance troupe that had many of us dancing in our seats (you know who you are!). This was the first indication that we were going to be taught how to do things by the Africans.

A small group of us were lucky enough to do some sightseeing before the conference. During a city tour with Andy of Heritage Adventures we learned about the history of Botswana’s independence and the importance of peacefulness and collaboration which shone through at the conference. Botswana gained independence in June 1966, since when it has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies, averaging about 5% per annum over the past decade. There is a strong sense of community and collective action. The development of the University of Botswana campus in Gaborone is a case in point. Andy explained about the Botswana University Campus Appeal (BUCA) or “One Man, One Beast” campaign in which the people of Botswana made donations of cattle, chicken, eggs and grain to raise funds to establish a University. Launched by the President in March 1976 with an ambitious target of one million Rand, by mid-October the same year, over R800,000 had been raised and 2,700 cattle had been donated or pledged. This is commemorated on campus with a statue of a farmer driving an Ox. Limited resources need not limit achievement.

Attending the CODATA General Assembly as the UK delegate was also an eye-opening experience. I learned more about the CODATA membership model there and that it is evolving these categories and planning a recruitment drive to grow membership and ensure sustainability. Having spent the last six months considering similar issues for the Research Data Alliance to help formulate its RDA Regions proposal, I think closer collaboration is necessary. Barend Mons was elected as the new CODATA President in Gaborone. Although he will now step down from GO FAIR activities to focus on the new role, his position will inevitably raise the profile of GO FAIR in such discussions. Government investment in the Netherlands, Germany and France has led to the establishment of the GO FAIR International Support & Coordination Office (GFISCO), with each of the founding countries having its own international office to guide new and existing Implementation Networks. National budgets and investment in data is always tight and countries will undoubtedly question what value they derive from each membership. Closer cooperation and collaboration between RDA, CODATA and GO FAIR is needed to avoid competing for the same funds and pursuing overlapping agendas. It is important to define the role of each initiative and how they complement one another. We should learn from the collaborative approach of the Botswanans here.

The Botswanan flag is representative of its national values. The blue represents water, and the white-black-white bands depict the racial harmony of the people. Botswana is the continent's longest continuous multi-party democracy, has a good human rights record and is ranked as the least corrupt country in Africa. On the journey to the CODATA General Assembly during my last day in Botswana, Joseph Wafula from Kenya spoke about how he admired the decision-making approach in the country. Leaders cannot just pass new legislation. Proposals need to be taken to the people and debated in ordinary households. This may slow down the process, but it leads to more robust and implementable policy, and as he observed, politicians shouldn’t be scared of having their ideas debated - if they are strong ideas they will be passed. It made me ashamed to think of the diversionary news tactics that are often implemented in more ‘developed’ countries to pass new legislation by the back door when people are preoccupied with other issues.

What continues to impress me about RDA is the ground-up approach to its work. This does lead to some duplication and certain groups using the forum as a publicity platform, but the equity of voice that allows any member to bring forward ideas and convene groups is an important ideal to protect. Developing solutions in an international forum not only strengthens the outputs as they are enriched by multiple perspectives, but the ideas gain validity and have increased adoption. It also helps to challenge the ‘not-invented-here’ mentality which can often lead to reinvention of wheels and misuse of public funds. Genuine collaboration, inclusivity and diversity is hard work and can be intensely frustrating, but in most cases those cross-culture and cross-domain activities are a lot of fun, enrich your own understanding, and are ultimately worth it in the end.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”   African proverb