Sarah Duff (who has contributed to this blog before) had a very interesting piece in the UK Guardian this week on the hurdles scholars in developing countries have to face in order to engage with scholars in the developed world. Rather than focusing on whether or not the visa system is fair, she describes exactly what she must do in order to present a paper in “the West” how this impacts on the development of her research:

I describe the expensive, time-consuming, and often quite invasive procedure of applying for a visa to explain why they influence my work. Because my American visa is valid until 2015, I jump at the chance of attending conferences in the US. Next year, I hope to present at a conference in Australia, but I will only attend if I manage to secure travel funds that will cover the cost of the visa (another £65). I recently presented a paper at a conference in London via Skype because I had neither the time nor the funds to apply for a British visa.

Given what we hear in the media (and how Europeans complain to me of lines at US airports) it’s interesting here that the US system (which can provide up to a 10 year visa) is almost enlightened by comparison. Certainly it is fairer to scholars who are trying to network and get their research noticed.

However, the point I want to raise is (writing as a Western academic) more selfish. While Duff’s article suggests the way that these expensive and complicated visa systems have an impact on scholars in the developing world and how they do research, it seems clear to me that these systems are also affecting, if not damaging, research in the West. If scholars “in the West” cannot get access to scholars in the developing world, surely this is also affecting our ability to carry out research and exchange information and ideas as well. Yes, of course there is the internet, Skype, online journals, etc. The research is there if you look for it. But don’t we learn more at conferences when we have better global representation and views? Additionally, aren’t our students (who may not have large grants /funds to travel) better off when they can meet with and speak to scholars from the developing world? These things just seem self-evident.

Given recent trends in the West, I don’t expect this visa situation to be changing any time soon. But I think it is important for scholars to consider the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the absence of voices from the developing world because of their inability to engage and network is affecting the way both groups of scholars carry out research.

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