Closing conference of ARUSS – Assisting Regional Universities in Sudan and South Sudan

Photo 1 - Photo:Åse Roti Dalen
Photo: Zienab Onour (far right) is a young researcher from Red Sea University. The conference in Omdurman was her first big conference, and her first trip outside Red Sea (credits: Åse Roti Dalen)

The closing conference of the Assisting Regional Universities in Sudan and South-Sudan (ARUSS) programme, a research cooperation between Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) and the University of Bergen, and Ahfad University for Women and six regional Sudanese universities took place on October 1-2, 2017. The conference shared major findings from four years of research. Impact was at the core of the discussions.

Strengthening regional universities for development

The conference marked the end of the second phase of ARUSS and brought together researchers, regional policy makers, government institutions, local and international organizations and several embassies in Khartoum. In his keynote lecture, Professor Gunnar Sørbø underlined that “while the road to development and peace still mainly goes through Khartoum, the future of Sudan will increasingly depend on developments in the ‘peripheries’. Sørbø’s opening lecture kicked off two days of intense debate and heated discussions on a range of complex and challenging topics such as human trafficking, decentralization and child marriage and the impact of the Norwegian support to regional universities in Sudan.

The objective of the ARUSS programme has been to strengthen research and teaching capacity at regional universities in Blue Nile, Dilling, Gedarif, Kassala, Nyala and Red Sea, through support from Ahfad University, the University of Khartoum, and the Norwegian institutions, in order to improve the basis of decision-making on local, national and international level. Unfortunately, due to the return to war, it has not been possible to carry out activities to the extent that was planned with the regional universities in South Sudan. 

During the programme period ARUSS has produced an impressive list of publications in the areas of borderland dynamics, fiscal and political decentralization, and gender. Besides the many books, articles and working papers produced, ARUSS researchers have been in demand for advice and engagement from government institutions in the regions and in Khartoum as well as from civil society organizations.

Professor Abdel Ghaffar, the project coordinator at Ahfad University, emphasized that “this conference shows that we have affected not only the universities in the region, but also the education system in Sudan”. At the same time Gunnar Sørbø came to Khartoum for his studies, Abdel Ghaffar came to Norway and Bergen. He started studies at the University of Bergen in 1978, and he would become the first person to graduate with a PhD at the Social Science Faculty.

Engagement with communities and regional policy makers on sensitive topics

The programme has managed to engage regional policy makers and government officials in discussions on highly sensitive topics such as decentralization of central power from Juba and Khartoum, human smuggling and trafficking, female genital mutilation and child marriage. Only days before the closing conference, an ARUSS-workshop on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child marriage was held in Port Sudan. It was attended by various parliamentarians and representatives from the Ministry of social welfare. Remarkably a Sheik spoke out about the negative health effects of these practices for the girl child ( CMI blog post)

“What is special about ARUSS is the way we produce collaborative research”, commented Liv Tønnessen, the project coordinator at CMI, emphasizing the importance of research findings being produced not only in English, but also in Arabic in order to engage with a broader range og stakeholders and policy makers in Sudan. “A research model where researchers, civil society and government officials have cooperated from the start, has enabled the programme to put pressing development challenges in the different regions on the agenda”.

More than 50 years of university cooperation between Sudan and Norway

Ambassador Bård Hopland and Professor Sørbø both reflected on the past to the present, from Fredrik Barth’s professorship in Khartoum to the beginning of students exchange between Khartoum and Bergen, which would later spread to several other disciplines, the renowned library at the University of Bergen with a large Sudan collection of books and manuscripts, and the many social science programs that preceded ARUSS . “Perhaps it was an advantage that we started at a time when there were no other vested interests in Sudan on the Norwegian side. This all meant that there were initially no external forces trying to influence the directions and topics of our research”, said Sørbø.

“In many ways the research shaped the bilateral relations between Sudan and Norway”, emphasized the Ambassador in his opening remarks. If it had not been for these long-term efforts in research, it is unlikely that Norway would have engaged in trying to build peace in Sudan. The Ambassador underlined that even though the partnership between Sudan and Norway is an institutional cooperation, it is also built on personal relations developed over a long period of time. Hence he was looking forward to see how the program has managed to foster a new generations of young researchers, both women and men, to continue the collaboration in the future.

One of these young researcher is Zienab Onour. She is 20 years old and has just started her career as a researcher at the Red Sea University. The closing conference was her first big conference, and her first trip outside Red Sea State.

Gunnar Sørbø came to Khartoum to study Arabic as a 22 – year old. Little did he know then how much his trip to Sudan would affect the rest of his career. While the closing conference probably was the first of many conferences for Zienab Onour, it was Sørbø’s last, at least in the capacity of being an ARUSS researcher, but there is hope that the ARUSS program will continue. “ARUSS demonstrates that regional and local development matters. We have produced results”, Sørbø concluded in his final remarks.