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Inside Story: a Researcher's Eye-View of the ECoSA Pan-African Research Programme

Number 15 - December 1997

P. Vare


The ECoSA survey was not my first stab research in environmental education (EE) but it was certainly the biggest research exercise in which I have been involved. In 1993 I undertook to evaluate a three year education and awareness programme in Uganda. The research tool at that time was an interview based on a structured questionnaire which was reviewed and adapted after each field visit.A hazy recollection of statistical techniques, combined with more recent observations of scientists in the field, pushed my evaluation towards a quantitative approach.Meanwhile, an intuitive view of the complex way in which people learn rang warning bells even as the first questionnaires snapped off the word processor.Such was my frame of mind on returning to the UK where I became Director of ECoSA.

The ECoSA Survey

The Education and Communication for Sustainability in Africa (ECoSA) survey was implemented by the UK-based International Centre for Conservation Education (ICCE) on behalf of the European Union.Two distinct products were to be provided:

  • a report which would provide an overall picture of the state of environmental education in Africa against which future priorities could be determined
  • a user friendly database of organisations involved in the provision of EE in Africa.

The survey had a great deal of ground to cover and time was limited owing to an expansion of the original Terms of Reference with no concomitant adjustment in time or budget.The research was carried out over fifteen months from May 1994 to July 1995 with a period for report writing and database editing which extended into early 1996.

Paper or People? - Selecting the Approach

The Terms of Reference prescribed the use of a questionnaire, reflecting the original ICCE proposal to produce a bank of information on existing programmes.Questionnaires are useful tools for collecting specific pieces of factual information (number of staff, duration of projects and so forth) yet the scope of the report demanded more than this.While the use of a postal questionnaire was essential in obtaining the facts for the database I was conscious of the fact that this would not reveal the complexity of EE on the ground.What was EE anyway and what made it different in Africa?

Certain 'Southern' non-governmental organisations are largely mirrors of their 'Northern' counterparts while the programmes of government agencies may also reflect distortions produced by donor interests as well as the influence of a colonial past.And yet these were the very organisations who would receive and respond to our questionnaires.A paper-based survey which relied on literacy would omit a large proportion of African society, particularly women. For a truly African picture we would need to talk to people.

A programme of semi-structured interviews at 'grass roots' level grew from a personal conviction that without an investigation into the way people already received environmental information and education, the survey would give an inadequate picture of the real needs of EE in Africa. Interviewers were employed and trained in Mali, Mozambique and Uganda in order to listen to the experience of people in rural and urban settings.

Despite this qualitative, field-based strand to the research (plus information gathering through country visits and a literature review), the Final Report would ultimately be written in Europe.So before submitting this to the European Union a draft report was prepared for a consultative workshop in Africa. This was another listening exercise, giving forty African and Africa-based practitioners an opportunity to discuss the key issues raised in the report. The comments from the workshop became an essential component of the Final Report.

Lessons Learned

The lessons referred to here are those concerned with doing research rather than the official outcomes of the survey*.Perhaps the most important principle to be borne out by this experience was the value of talking with people.

We all receive questionnaires and for the most part we find them an irritation if not an infernal nuisance.Having spent years as a designer and implementer of EE in Africa, I did not feel comfortable in the role of irritant to over a thousand environmental educators across the continent; (however I was struck by the time and effort that hundreds of people did put into their questionnaire responses).

Becoming involved in research - being a builder of knowledgeled me to think a good deal harder about what knowledge was all about.The pieces of information recorded on the questionnaires were simply that - information.My interpretation of this information would always be just that - my interpretation, no matter how many statistical gymnastics I put the numbers through. The knowledge I really gained was generated through social interaction between myself and practitioners.Indeed the roles of researcher and practitioner become blurred as both parties share in the analysis of situations.

By holding an informed conversation we can build ideas, test them against the experience of others and remould them in an atmosphere of collaboration and common interest. This is how knowledge is constructed.It is how we have done it for centuries, how knowledge has been built up and built upon in traditional societies across the continents.My principle achievement during the months of the ECoSA programme was to recognise this process as the social construction of knowledge and to un-learn the artificial rigour of the scientific method (which, as far as I can see, still holds good for studies of the physical world).

During the time of the ECoSA survey in 1995, I facilitated a workshop in Zanzibar and introduced an interview technique as a qualitative research tool - the outcome was inspiring.Simply through interviewing people in Zanzibar's Stone Town about their perception of the local solid waste problem, residents were moved to organise themselves over the issue, something which had not been achieved by years of television campaigns and wildlife club clean-ups.

This in turn has helped me to recognise a key role of environmental education, that is building in people the competence to analyse their own situation and to initiate change.The philosopher Michael Foucault seemed to be talking about the same thing back in 1977:

"What we have to present are instruments and tools that people might find useful.By forming groups specifically to make these analyses, to wage these struggles, by using these instruments or others: this is how, in the end, possibilities open up." (Foucault 1977 in Foucault 1984)

On an immediately practical note this experience has also convinced me of the value of carrying out research before attempting to begin an EE programme.As environmental educators we must make every effort to find out what is important to people, how they perceive the world and then - rather than telling them where they are going wrong - work towards an understanding of how we perceive the world.In this case 'we' can include experts from whichever environmental specialism is relevant at the time.

The task of the environmental educator is to provide the tools which can re-integrate our artificially divided disciplines.While we require a broad understanding of many issues we need not be experts in specific issues; our area of expertise is people, from taxi-drivers to taxonomists and we should never tire of trying to discover what makes them tick.

* The ECoSA Final Report proposes a number of guiding principles and recommendations (including a more collaborative approach between donors and practitioners in developing EE programmes); these are included in a Summary Report.


Foucault M (Rabinow P, Ed.) (1984) The Foucault Reader. Penguin, London.
Pretty J N (1993) Participatory Enquiry for Sustainable Agriculture, International Institute for Environment and Development, London.
Slim H & Thompson P (1993) Listening For A Change: Oral Testimony And Development. Panos, London.Paul Vare is the Programme Manager for the International Centre for Conservation Education (ICCE), Greenfield House, Guiting Power, Cheltenham GL54 5TZ, UK.Tel: 44 (0) 1451 850777. Fax: 44 (0) 1451 850705.