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The GEM-DIAMOND’s First Policy AGORA Forum and Citizen Innovation Lab

21 February 2023 | Back to news list

A Primer on Policy Work, Local Activism and the Role of Academia in Engaging Dissensus

Written by Guillaume François Larouche and Anna Sophie Zech, Photo credit: © Frederik Ponjaert

On the 26th, 27th and 28th of January, the GEM fellows had the pleasure of being hosted by the Romanian peace institute PATRIR for a three-day policy agora and citizen innovation lab in Cluj, Romania. Research can but does not have to be a solely solitary and highly technical endeavour and the goal of this conference was for the fellows to come together with other academics and practitioners to reflect upon our role as young scholars in a political context that is often charged with dissensus.

The City of Cluj: A European Carrefour

A young city with a multicultural heritage, Cluj provided a stimulating backdrop to our discussions. The city has seen much change over the centuries boasting both an Austro-Hungarian heritage and a link to ancient Rome. It in fact has not one name but an impressive three that reflect German and Hungarian influences respectively (Klausenburg in German and Kolozsvár in Hungarian). Thanks to its heritage, Cluj is also a French-speaking and Francophile city; while in Cluj, it is possible to engage with several intellectuals and academics in French. Young students are forming an avant-garde: in dynamic and welcoming restaurants and cafes, students meet to discuss and reflect on the world’s issues. At the same time, one can hear their laughter and their worried discussions about the future, whether in Romanian or in English. Indeed, this small Transylvanian town, located only a four-hour drive from the Ukrainian border challenges images of Central Eastern Europe often perpetrated by the media as intolerant and marked by democratic backsliding. In contrast to these stories, the people we have met in Cluj, whether they are working in academia or in civil society, are standing up for democracy, freedom and tolerance, LGBTQ rights, Roma people’s rights, women's rights, and the right to live in dignity.

Effective Engagement? On Systematic Policy Work and Local Stakeholders

Our first day provided a welcomed opportunity to debrief and clarify the agenda for the rest of the academic year to ensure the smooth progression towards our shared goals. It was the first time all GEM fellows met since the GEM DIAMOND kick-off conference in October 2022 and an atmosphere of enthusiasm filled the room; everyone was eager to engage and continue the dialogue.

We discussed how to write an effective policy brief before diving into more applied insights on PATRIR’s policy work and setting the tone for an interactive workshop. The remainder of the day was spent returning to discussions that began at the October kick-off and will stay with us throughout the project, i.e., attempting to better understand what we consider as “dissensus” in democracy and unpacking the role(s) of different actors in this context.

A recurring theme of our initial day certainly was the importance of local networks, action, and knowledge in policy processes. Achieving sustainable change requires a thorough issue analysis whose accuracy depends on identifying relevant stakeholders and engaging with them. Without stakeholder mapping and stakeholder profiles, dissecting the issues to be worked on and building an effective advocacy cycle will be challenging.

Effective Spaces for Dissensus? The Role of the Rule of Law, Local Stakeholders, and the Media

The second day of the agora was equally stimulating, starting with an intervention by PATRIR’s Kai Brand-Jacobsen on some of the major global challenges we are currently facing in Europe and beyond. This was followed by an extensive discussion of fundamental rights issues in relation to the rule of law and the autonomy of the judiciary, which was complemented by policy insights from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and an important judicial analysis by Dragoș Călin, who is a judge at the Bucharest Court of Appeal. In a context of dissensus, the role of the independent judiciary as a space for the democratic contestation of government via public interest litigation was highlighted. Importantly, however, concerns were also raised as to the legitimacy of the law as based on a shared social consensus that is slowly eroding in an ever more individualised and polarized society.

In line with this, we discussed the difficulty of creating effective spaces for dissensus. Who can define what legitimate dissensus is and to what extent dissensus is productive? The media panel, with which we ended the day, for example, highlighted the intricacies of fact-checking without amplifying, while the gender panel invited us to reflect on the privilege of being head and the importance of silent solidarity in confronting intersectional discrimination.

Effective Contribution? On Our Role as Young Scholars

On our third and final day, we had the opportunity to welcome Andrea Pető, Professor in the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University, Vienna Austria, as our keynote speaker and take stock by reflecting on the role of academia in a context of dissensus. We discussed complementarities with and differences from policy work and activism. While academia can and should engage with the broader public sphere through these activities, both to further the quality of one’s research in grounding it in political realities and contribute for example to policy solutions by providing the resulting data-driven findings, academia might also do well to respect its limits. In an output-focused society, researchers are often encouraged and even expected to significantly contribute to policy work, but this should not be done to the detriment of academic research. During this discussion, academic research was seen as aiming to provide independent, empirical and ethical research results. In fact, instead of focusing on such output contributions, it might be more productive to consider the role of academia as opening spaces for debate. This can take a multitude of forms, big or small, from reinvigorating the ideal of a truly public and open university to encouraging the inclusion of diversity in research inquiries and bibliographies.

A Road Forward?

During the final session of the workshop, GEM fellows were asked to write their takeaways from our discussions in Cluj on a whiteboard. The words they wrote down are reproduced below and highlight the main elements they retained from our time in Cluj: what they wanted to say to each other or to ourselves, and their views on the role of academia in the context of dissensus over liberal democracy and the rule of law. These are just some of the thoughts we gathered: we are all interconnected; network, engage, share, and listen; resilience and involvement; connect and cooperate.

There is of course no definitive answer to any of the issues that have been raised above. Rather what we would like to leave you with after three intense days is the extract of a poem. Kai quoted this to us at the end of our workshop and it may help us reflect on the value of engaging with opinions that differ from our own. Where our paths cross, we may be able to act on conflict as an opportunity. It is where we eschew this that this conflict can turn into a threatening dissensus. It is up to us to choose our path.

Walker, your footsteps
are the road, and nothing more.
Walker, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.

Antonio Machado, trans. Willis Barnstone from Antonio Machado, Border of a Dream: Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2004.