In this programme of work we have explored how members of civil society organisations (CSOs) and academic researchers participate in action research based on processes of co-learning and co-research about the right to health. In particular, we are interested in knowledge that has previously been suppressed or undocumented. While charters and commissions are important, it is the collective action of civil society which will translate human rights into practice: in particular, the agency of the most vulnerable and those affected by human rights violations to monitor and hold states to account, to develop programs and policies, to take on an advocacy role and to address human rights violations.
Knowledge is instrumental to agency, yet there is a diversity of ways of knowing which reflect hierarchies of knowledge and power. To translate the right to health into practice, and to research how this is done, it is important to recognise that existing dominant knowledge may be incomplete. One of the principles underlying the work of the Learning Network (LN) is empowerment which we understand to imply knowledge, assertiveness and critical engagement for collective action. Knowledge and learning are therefore central to the four roles of the LN: a research role documenting and analyzing best practices in realizing the right to health; an informational role to ensure communities are better informed about rights to health; a capacity building role to promote access to learning opportunities for member organizations; and an action role to use the learning gained by member organizations to support services and advocacy around health.
Because knowledge in the Global North is generally dominated by individualist concepts of human rights, the LN has turned, amongst others, to African philosophers for a contribution towards an understanding of collective rights. The LN challenges the dominance of knowledge from the Global North on the right to health; without rejecting this knowledge, it has sought to expand theorisation of the right to health. Our focus is on epistemological authenticity and generation of new knowledge paradigms. The work in this programme formed part of a project at the University of Cape Town as a Programme to Enhance Research Capacity (PERC) (2010-2012) with a particular focus on indigenous knowledge creation. Supported by PERC, we considered: How does a co-research process enable the surfacing of previously suppressed or undocumented knowledge? And how does this process of surfacing suppressed knowledge through co-research enable the dissemination of knowledge that would not otherwise be accessed?
The work under this theme has been published in different places: In the journal Gateways (Stuttaford et al 2012[M1] ) we outlined our ideas around knowledge production for health rights. We have also conducted an evaluation of pamphlets produced by the LN and found that learning and knowledge exchange was most useful when the pamphlets were used in conjunction with collective learning opportunities such as workshops and community advocacy (Strecker et al 2012[M2] ). In 2012 we presented a co-authored paper written by civil society- based and university based co-researchers, published in 2014 [M3] as part of a collection. This paper was the first time all co-researchers wrote together and was milestone in not only starting to establish a conceptual framework to guide the LN, but also for all co-researchers to translate research into a university-based form of dissemination through an academic monograph.
A current proposal is pending with Swedish colleagues to explore methods of human rights research that best captures these perspectives.
The work is ongoing as the LN evolves.