During the month of July 2016, Eritrea hosted an International Conference on Eritrean Studies (ICES) inviting scholars from all around the world, from renowned universities, institutes as well as Eritrean scholars from the Diaspora and from Eritrea. The three day-long conference was highly followed thanks to the local media as well as its presence on social media under the hashtag #ICES2016, on Twitter which, allowed many to follow live updates.
The conference was surely a success and it also came at an important point in time where Eritrea is on the spotlight of media headlines portraying and caricaturing it in damaging ways. The well-organized conference is, hence, a milestone to Eritrea and its academic body who worked hard to make it a success. Nonetheless, as I had the chance to take part in this conference, I took the time to interact with participants. It was also an opportunity to reflect on different aspect of the ICES and the theme of the conference, ‘The Way Forward’ which could mean Eritrea’s post-ICES 2016. With this in mind, I am sharing some of my thoughts to readers of Eritrea Profile.
To begin with, the fabulous idea of organizing such an event on Eritrean Studies by including a wide range of subjects including archeology, culture, food security, migration among others show how rich the scope of Eritrean Studies is, to some extent, unexploited. With about fourteen parallel sessions conducted on each day of the conference, many were overwhelmed and could not decide which ones to attend. The program was, thus, dense and intensive. In this regard, some of the recommendations to the program would be in terms of timing and choice of subject to run concurrently. To give you an example, on Thursday, July 21st, many subjects in similar fields, very timely, and with high interest were held all together, for example topics such as the panel discussions on “Current Issues in Africa” and one on “Eritrea-US, Eritrea-Ethiopia Relations”. In addition to this, many participants commented that each day focused on specific field of studies, with for instance, having many sessions on archeology, anthropology and history at similar schedule, then the afternoon sessions were merely on environment, biology and medicine and so on. In other words, to ensure that participants have the chance to listen to wide range of subjects, the program would need to be reconsidered for future conferences by making sure that similar subjects run at different times.
The field of studies were surely interesting but it was clear that some papers needed a more rigorous screening in order to have enriched debates through constructive criticism. This would enhance the level of discussion and bring deeper analyses, new ideas and solutions especially in topics related to politics, development and more importantly migration.
Further, this platform was also an opportunity for local scholars to get exposure and network with international researchers. Nonetheless, the strict invitation requirements did not attract many young scholars as I would have expected. Certainly, during the plenary sessions, the space available was limited, however during the parallel sessions, as participants were dispatched, many rooms were hungrily looking for people to fill them up. Thus, as a way forward, some thinking should be given to how national scholars both from the homeland and the diaspora play a major role and show to the international community that Eritrea holds a sense of ownership of its Eritrean Studies?
Likewise, Natnael Yebio W., in his article of the edition of Vol.23, No.41 of Eritrea Profile, titled ICES: Benchmark for Future Major International Conferences; wrote how “the conference will challenge the existent biased narrative about Eritrea and create a much more holistic, contextual understanding of the country”. This is true but it all depends on how Eritrean scholars manage to hold a sense of ownership by being the drivers of Eritrean studies and perhaps change the trend as Mela Ghebremedhin stressed in her piece, A Glimpse to the Upcoming ICES 2016, on 16th July, “many scholars who actually haven’t set foot in the country are deemed “experts” on Eritrea and have, very often, presented a biased narrative of the country or lacked an updated or objective data and facts. Subsequently, their findings became norm and serve as a reference for policymakers and media outlets”.
To ensure this sense of ownership will, in my opinion, requires local scholars to keep the momentum and secondly the National Commission for Higher Education should promote conferences at the national level, on a yearly basis and also organize inter-collegiate research papers competition. The idea would motivate young scholars to produce researched material on different fields of Eritrean studies and gain recognition at international level. The recognition at global level would certainly need to keep the motion and forge the established network during the ICES 2016 by creating partnership and in the long run, institutionalize Eritrean Studies and make Eritrea and its capital city the hub of Eritrean Studies.
The sense of ownership will, moreover, require local scholars to enhance partnerships and engage with other African scholars and to uplift African researchers by taking a Pan-African approach. To strengthen this, during the ICES 2016, about 28 countries were presented but very few were from the African continent.
Another point is the special sessions organized on the Resident Ambassadors Roundtable in which some of the ambassadors expected to have a public session and enable the general public to engage with diplomats residing in Eritrea. The interesting subjects covered included the issues regarding the image of Eritrea in the media, the various ongoing development partnership, bilateral relations as well as the border issue. The second special session was the writers’ workshop in which participants had a chance to learn and get the appropriate tools prior to publishing academic articles. This session would have gained higher interest among young local scholars if the session was given larger space and was open to the public. Many graduate assistants and even journalists would have benefited from such an occasion.
Overall, many were highly impressed by the level of professionalism of the organizers as well as the networking and unity among young and new scholars and policy makers. This was especially demonstrated during the gala dinner on Friday July 22nd where three generations of Eritreans as well as international scholars joined together and danced to the different Eritrean beats. As a strong public diplomacy tool, this has surely, been enshrined in the memory of the guests.
The theme of the ICES, ‘the Way Forward’, will bring Eritrean Studies the platform it deserves by reflecting the lessons learned, keeping the momentum and enhancing a sense of ownership by locally based and dedicated Eritrean scholars.