Rachel Clarke, Cuthbert Tukundane
In this article we discuss recent collaborative writing experiences between researchers in the U.K. and Uganda. In early 2020, our team began planning research with young Ugandan refugees on their mobile phone use. Subsequently, numerous pandemic lockdowns thwarted this research and we had to revise our plans. While this enforced physical immobility (at least in terms of air and road travel) initially limited possibilities for building new partnerships, it did open up opportunities for deeper reflection on critically informed sociotechnical mobilities, engaging us both pragmatically and conceptually with different disciplines as part of an international team. In this dialogue, we highlight the value of collaboration and collective sense making, recognizing differences in expertise, disciplines, and orientations, for understanding technological innovation in international development and refugee contexts.
Rachel Clarke: In 2019, colleagues at the Centre for International Development at Northumbria University and I began conversations with researchers at Uganda Martyrs University on young refugees' use of mobile phones for finding work. Through an existing collaborative project, Refugee Youth Volunteering Uganda (RYVU; https://ryvu.org/), young refugees had highlighted how they valued access to up-to-date information as a pathway to future employment. There was, however, limited understanding on what technologies and infrastructures were available to them. As part of an exploratory study, we had planned to work in the Nakivale refugee settlement in rural southwestern Uganda in May 2020. The settlement has a population of more than 134,000 refugees. We were a small team that included myself (HCI and design); social scientist Darryl Humble (international development); scholar Cuthbert Tukundane (youth studies and employment; UNESCO Chair on Lifelong Learning, Youth, and Work); and scholar Caroline Paparu (refugee studies). Our broad aim was to understand what access young refugees had to mobile phones and data networks. This was also quite timely, as recent changes in legislation meant they could now buy and register their own SIM cards for mobile phone use.
→ HCI research has highlighted the significance of mobile phone access for refugee settlement and integration.
→ Recent changes in legislation for SIM registration in Uganda indicates that young refugees could have greater independence in mobile phone use.
→ Future research in this area requires cross-disciplinary perspectives to develop a mobility justice orientation.
My understanding was that prior to this, refugees in the settlements had to develop artful workarounds to purchase and register SIM cards with NGOs. These workarounds had, until the end of 2019, dominated mobile phone connectivity and data access in the settlements . Uganda has a high population of young refugees (23 percent of the refugee population is between the ages of 15 and 24) , yet there is limited understanding of their access to and use of mobile phones. Uganda also has a progressive policy on employment that allows refugees to work. For those in rural areas, employment and travel are more restricted, but this has also resulted in high numbers of local grassroots enterprises emerging within the settlements. Our collective interests involved exploring this emergent space of possibility on how young refugees in particular perceived and used their mobile phones in relation to their anticipated future livelihoods.
Cuthbert Tukundane: In Uganda, just like elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is a mobile phone revolution. The number of people acquiring mobile phones has steadily increased over the past decade. According to the Uganda Communications Commission, by September 2019, Uganda had a tele-density of 63.9 percent, with 25.6 million mobile phone subscribers and 15.2 million mobile Internet subscribers. I suspect this has further increased in the past 18 months. This mobile phone revolution is partly fueled by the increasing necessity to stay connected to family, friends, and social networks, as well as the diversified services offered by many of the telecommunications companies.
Today, people in Uganda use mobile phones to do business, including banking and the buying and selling of goods and services, and also for fun—watching TV and YouTube, listening to podcasts, books, and radio, and texting with friends. Young people also use their phone for learning, gaming, and job hunting. To facilitate this, people are increasingly buying smartphones enabled with Internet connectivity. Internet access has also improved, with many people in most urban centers around the country able to access 3G and 4G networks. With the proliferation of telecom companies and competition, Internet connectivity is improving nationally, although prices for data bundles are still prohibitive for many, and most connectivity in rural areas uses mobile networks rather than cable. The smartphone market is seeing a boost in sales with the arrival of Chinese telephone companies, which also bring in cheaper handsets.
|Artwork by refugees at the Antonio Guterres Urban Refugee Community Centre in Kampala, Uganda, as part of the Refugee Youth Volunteering in Uganda (RYVU) project (https://ryvu.org/@RYVUganda).|
In the refugee settlements, however, the situation is very different, given their location and the plight of refugees. Most of the major settlements in Uganda like Nakivale are located in rural areas, where connectivity is still a challenge, with limited service providers and hardly any access to 3G networks. Also, due to the low-income status of refugees, many cannot afford to buy their own mobile phones, although there are mobile-repair businesses in many settlements. Nevertheless, many are gaining access to mobile technology, which could present an opportunity for improving livelihoods by expanding social networks and access to learning, doing business, and finding jobs. I think it's important to find ways to further understand existing access for young people and how they perceive mobile phones, as little is currently known. Doing so could help create more equitable opportunities with regard to future employment.
RC: Over the past 12 months, it has become difficult to imagine our lives as they were previously—so globally and physically mobile, moving between airports, meetings, and workshops for weeks or months at a time. It was easy to take for granted. The expectation of and seemingly fluid transition to online work in the U.K. using a vast array of integrated platforms meant it was also easy to assume we could just easily transfer all our initial research plans to make use of digital formats. While it was our initial intention to work with some of the NGOs and young refugees that live in Nakivale, by mid-February 2020 it became clear that this wasn't going to be possible. Darryl and I checked the news and travel advice daily for Uganda, which was Covid-19 free until February. After the very first cases were announced, the country locked down almost immediately amid concerns of overwhelming an already stretched healthcare system. In the U.K., we were asked to revise our funding plans to consider different online variations that would not involve face-to-face interaction to engage NGOs and youth. However, as a team, we decided it was unfair to give more nonessential work to communities and organizations who would need to focus on day-to-day care for each other. We decided to focus on doing something that could lay the foundations for future partnership work that would help us consolidate what we already knew and what we could find out from our different disciplinary areas.
CT: With the onset of Covid-19, Uganda quickly imposed a total lockdown, meaning that all workplaces except those providing essential services had to be shut down. This, of course, also meant that universities like the one I work for, Uganda Martyrs University, had to close. Within the first few weeks of lockdown, the country seemed to be at a standstill, until people started exploring ways of working from home using online platforms. It wasn't an easy transition. Many of our organizations did not have the required IT infrastructure or well-developed online platforms to facilitate the transition to online working. Issues of limited Internet connectivity, low bandwidth, and lack of the necessary gadgets such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones became a real challenge for most people.
Over the past eight months, some government departments, private companies, NGOs, and schools have eventually managed to set up online systems to facilitate work and continued learning. But for many people, especially those outside the big cities, going online remains an uphill task. Most universities have now adopted online teaching and learning using platforms such as Moodle and Google Classroom, and are conducting live lectures via video-enabled media like Zoom, Google Meet, and Teams. However, not all students are able to participate in online learning due to lack of Internet-enabled gadgets or poor connectivity. This especially affects students from rural communities and poor backgrounds. Gadgets and connectivity issues aside, there is also a lot for both teachers and students to learn regarding online teaching and learning engagements.
To me, the old adage "the youth are the future" doesn't hold much meaning if young people lack the necessary support to gain the knowledge and skills that will lead to great opportunities.— CUTHBERT TUKUNDANE
While our movements, social life, and the way we work have shifted, it has also been a time to explore new ways of working together and learning new skills. We have discovered that we can accomplish certain tasks, such as our collaborative writing project, through online interaction, as opposed to the traditional ways of travel and physical meetings. Accordingly, I see online engagements playing a greater role in the future of work, learning, and collaboration efforts.
CT: Over the past 10 years, my interest has been in studying youth transitions from education to work. This is largely influenced by the high levels of unemployment among young people in Sub-Saharan Africa in general and in Uganda in particular, and the desire to see youth livelihoods improve. To me, the old adage "the youth are the future" doesn't hold much meaning if young people lack the necessary support to gain the knowledge and skills that will lead to great opportunities—and the future to which they aspire. Access to decent and meaningful work, both in the informal and formal sectors, is at the heart of these opportunities. Not only would this give young people the chance to earn a living, but it would also build their sense of self-worth and help them become active citizens.
Owing to this conviction, I am engaged in initiatives and research that address youth education and labor-market needs. My Ph.D. study, undertaken between 2009 and 2013, focused on building vocational skills for disadvantaged youth. The study was built around an action research project that brought together different stakeholders, including young people, educators, private sector workers, and policymakers, with the aim of improving skills-training programs for young people and their transition into the world of work. During this study, I came to really appreciate young people's talent, resilience, and potential, which, if well nurtured, could expand their life choices and give them a hopeful future. Currently, I am involved in two projects that study youth skills development and labor-market outcomes. The UNESCO Chair on Lifelong Learning, Youth, and Work is a collaboration between academic institutions, TVET institutes, youth organizations, and the private sector, aimed at improving the training of young people and their transition to the labor market. The RYVU project is looking at skills acquisition and employability through volunteering by refugee youth.
As my colleagues and I engage in such international collaborative projects, we also realize that in this globalized knowledge economy, technology, and especially mobile phone connectivity, is increasingly playing a key role in young people's lives. So we can also see mobile phones as tools for young people to think about their futures, as well as to create and/or take advantage of certain kinds of opportunities. This is especially true for young refugees, whose chances of mobility and work beyond their settlements is often restricted. But it can also be problematic, in how access to phones and networks are enabled or restricted in the settlements. The literature review we undertook is a starting point toward exploring the potential of mobile technology in enhancing the livelihoods of young refugees in Uganda; few studies on youth and refugees currently recognize this.
RC: My motivation in starting the project was an ongoing interest in the movement of people and their relations to the material infrastructures that support mobile connectivity more broadly . Over the years, my research has focused on the invisibility of refugees, who don't have the privilege of moving between borders without the anxiety of being questioned by authorities. Early work in mobility studies highlighted the expansive use of technology in how people, objects, and data move between borders. Critics, however, recognized there was an assumed privilege and choice inferred, a privilege not equally experienced for many people moving between borders out of necessity rather than choice. Refugees and migrant workers either fleeing war or seeking better education or economic change could be left out of these early analyses. In recent years, research in HCI has brought further insight into this domain by focusing on both the potential opportunities and challenges of digital infrastructures experienced by refugees [4,5].
Despite this more recent interest, there still remain invisible actors who are impacted by the ever-expanding ubiquity and production of mobile technologies. During my Ph.D., I had the immense pleasure of working with a group of politically active women from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I was coming to the end of my last study after working with an international women's center in the U.K. I had developed a wearable technology that created access to a collective archive of women's shared photographs. The women were both delighted with the technology and very critical of where the technology was from, not just in terms of the fact it had come from our university lab, but also in terms of where the materials inside the technologies were actually from. I had spent a lot of time focusing on methods for inclusivity and empowerment for women at the center to engage with technology in a meaningful and embodied way, designing for their collective expertise. Women from DRC, who were not originally part of the co-design phase, were concerned that any mobile technologies, such as phones or wearables, were likely to have been produced using conflict minerals from their country of birth. Sought-after minerals such as cobalt in mobile technologies may perpetuate longstanding violence and displacement—it was one of the main reasons they had fled their country and why they came to live in the U.K. This made me drastically rethink the assumptions I had made as a design researcher. My focus on issues of their access and inclusivity was focused too closely on certain social justice agendas at the potential cost of others. This highlighted the need to take seriously the geopolitics of material mobilities associated with mobile technologies and their increased ubiquity. And this is ongoing. There have even been recent legal battles with the big tech companies about child labor abuses and deaths in mines in DRC [6,7]. The HCI community is implicated if we don't consider these wider sustainability issues of where the tech is coming from and who is left behind.
The HCI community is implicated if we don't consider these wider sustainability issues of where the tech is coming from and who is left behind.— RACHEL CLARKE
Since 2000, thousands of refugees have crossed the borders of DRC into Uganda because of longstanding conflicts associated with human rights abuses and minerals used in our mobile devices. Yet within HCI, there has been limited engagement with these specific issues, despite research in the geographic region. HCI research within East Africa has focused predominantly on major cities or rural communities, and less on refugee populations, despite the significant movement between conflict border zones and their direct contact with issues of resource supply for the technology industry. The UN's Sustainability Development Goals also place significant emphasis on improving technological access as a direct means of reducing poverty. In working with Cuthbert, Caroline, and Darryl, this was also a chance to further develop a more enriched understanding of what mobile technology might mean for young people if their families had been impacted by these conflicts and what the technology might mean for their future lives. I was interested in exploring what I felt was an uneasy circularity—the minerals leaving DRC and returning to East Africa as a mobile phone in what Mimi Sheller might describe as a form of "mobility justice" in highlighting and responding to the "deep flows of inequality."
CT: Doing this collaborative literature review was an interesting and enriching experience for me. Initially we had planned to conduct a field study, with me and Caroline doing the fieldwork in Nakivale settlement in close contact with Rachel and Darryl. When the field study was canceled due to Covid-19, I was wondering what would happen and thought that the best scenario would be to postpone it. Nonetheless, the idea of doing a literature review came up and we quickly adopted it. Without having physically met before, we embarked on this communication when we could, using email, Zoom, and WhatsApp. We quickly developed thematic areas; each one of us had a theme to work on based on our specific expertise. We held meetings and shared progress on working drafts when we could. It was amazing how smoothly things worked and that we were able to finish what we intended within the anticipated time.
Working with people from different disciplines was a great opportunity. Each individual brought their unique knowledge and expertise; this complementarity enabled us to produce an important piece of work. For me, working in this way has concretized and reinforced the benefits of cross-disciplinary research. There was intial disappointment that Covid-19 had interrupted our project plans, but the lockdown gave us ample time to search and review literature, and to discuss and engage with each other's perspectives in a more meaningful way. But of course this meant working from home, which had its own joys and challenges, with children constantly asking for their share of attention.
By and large, working together was a good experience, primarily relying on digital spaces for communication and online, face-to-face meetings. It shows that it's possible to collaborate and work and accomplish certain tasks without travel and physical presence—although we were limited in our ability to gain perspectives from young refugees themselves. As this pandemic has changed the way we work and compelled us to find new ways of working—who knows? Maybe the future of working in such international collaborative projects will be a blend of physical and online engagements, not requiring a lot of travel. But of course online engagements also have their own downside, especially when it comes to connectivity issues. During some meetings, we would sometimes drop off and have to reconnect, often a couple of times, because of unstable Internet connections. We would then change platforms, or drop the video and just use audio or messaging on WhatsApp. There is of course a need for good Internet connectivity infrastructure for productive online engagements, or at least an awareness that online connectivity may not always go according to plan.
RC: Yes, indeed, this issue of disruptions in our connectivity was a further reminder that the distribution of mobile networks is not equal, nor is it straightforward, requiring patience and responsive workarounds. While we knew this, it was different to experience these issues while trying to work from home and integrate these aspects into our daily domestic routines. We all recognize that literature searches can take us only so far and that we are missing the actual perspectives of young people, and that this would be a next step when it is reasonable to do so. In a way, focusing on what literature was already there across different disciplines took some pressure off, in us not trying to rush through qualitative research without a more thorough understanding of the wider practical, social, and political communications infrastructures in Uganda, particularly in the refugee settlements. In some respects it felt like a luxury to be focusing on literature, which would not have been possible without the pandemic and the patience needed to sometimes step back and reflect.
My recent experiences have been to do literature reviews while under extreme pressure to deliver on funding proposals, which become time sensitive and don't always allow for collaborative and disciplinary perspectives to emerge or for this learning to be embedded. HCI is a highly interdisciplinary field in and of itself. Many of us as researcher practitioners also frequently work across and alongside other disciplines at a time when we are also working toward deeper responsiveness to intersectionalities in our practices . But this often takes time, especially to build relationships and respect different disciplinary and identity orientations and outlooks, the boundaries of which are often not clearly defined or delineated in a neat way because these are also built up by individuals bringing their personal experiences to scholarly inquiry. This is as much about mobility justice, as Mimi Sheller speaks of, in not only responding to inequalities of access to technology but also spending time understanding where we are coming from personally, ethically, and intellectually as globally connected researchers.
Thank you to Caroline Paparu, Ugandan Martyrs University, and Darryl Humble, the Centre for International Development, Northumbria University, U.K., for their valuable contributions. This work was funded by Research England's GCRF Quality Research Fund at Northumbria University, U.K.
1. GSMA. Proportionate regulation in Uganda: A gateway for refugees accessing mobile services in their own name. GSMA Report, 2020; https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Uganda_Case_Study_Web_Spreads.pdf
2. UNHCR. Uganda Refugees Statistics Dashboard - October, 2020; https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/details/82807
4. Coles-Kemp, L. and Bjerg Jensen, R. Accessing a new land: Designing for a social conceptualisation of access. Proc. of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2019, Paper 181, 1–12; https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300411
5. Talhouk, R., Bustamante, A., Aal, K., Weibert, A., Charitonos, K., and Vlachokyriakos, V. HCI and refugees: Experiences and reflections. Interactions 25, 4 (Jul.- Aug. 2018), 46–51; https://doi.org/10.1145/3215846
6. Kelly, A. Apple and Google named in US lawsuit over Congolese child cobalt mining deaths. The Guardian. Dec. 16, 2019; https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/dec/16/apple-and-google-named-in-us-lawsuit-over-congolese-child-cobalt-mining-deaths
7. Kelly, A. Human rights activists 'forced to flee DRC' over child cobalt mining lawsuit. The Guardian. Mar. 10, 2020; https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/mar/10/human-rights-activist-forced-to-flee-drc-over-child-cobalt-mining-lawsuit
8. Kumar, N. and Karusala, N. Intersectional computing. Interactions 26, 2 (Mar.–Apr. 2019), 50–54; https://doi.org/10.1145/3305360
Rachel Clarke is a senior lecturer in interaction design at Open Lab, Newcastle University. Her current research focuses on the gendered politics of participatory design practice in the context of refugee settlement, international development, and smart urbanization in more-than-human worlds. firstname.lastname@example.org
Cuthbert Tukundane is a senior lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Uganda Martyrs University. His research interests are in the areas of skills development, social exclusion, action research, and rural livelihoods, as well as youth, education, and work. email@example.com
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