Podcast: Personal, Pragmatic, Practical: Conversation on Unequal North-South Research Relations

View the podcast on You Tube

  Unequally Yoked: From denying visas to the Global South researchers to travel to not crediting them for research they worked on, the discussion about unequal North-South research relationships continues to rage on. Researchers in the Global South do not want to complain anymore about how unfairly they are treated by their northern counterparts and confront the challenge head-on.

To continue this conversation, we have produced Unequally Yoked, a five-part podcast. Kenya’s journalist and communications specialist Verah Okeyo talks with Prof George Nyabuga from Kenya’s premier university, the University of Nairobi. Using his own experiences in a North-South research relationship, George candidly talks about the strategies researchers in the South can use to exploitation-proof themselves such as confronting the conditionalities that come with Northern funding which will make them subjects (as opposed to partners) to Northern leadership.

George starts by answering the question, “are these North-South research collaborations even necessary?”, moving to how researchers in the Global South protect themselves in these collaborations. In a rare display of boldness of civil servants, George talks about how the government’s negligible funding for research and development positions researchers in Kenya— and other Global South countries— at the mercy of their northern counterparts.

Verah Okeyo is a Nairobi-based journalist and communications specialist who tweets at @iamverahokeyo.

The interview - audio only

Articles previously on DDRN.dk about dimensions of South-North inequalities in research:

In The Neo-Colonialism in Development Studies, Namrata Acharya describes the fundamental inequality about access to scientific publication. Most “top journals” are based in the Global North, with editorial boards of these journals populated by academics based in the Global North. A self-reinforcing system of referencing develops, whereby most scholars refer only to work done in the Global North and seem completely unaware of work done elsewhere, even by research done in the country about which they write.

In the article International Graduates and their Struggles with the Job Hunt, Krishnanunni Mavinkal Ravindran interviews two other research graduates, from Mexico and Ethiopia respectively, to explain about his own and their aspirations coming to Denmark for higher education and then having to live on precarious working conditions, e.g. as a self-employed courier partner with Wolt, a food delivery company in Denmark.          

The interview with Maria Eriksson-Baaz, professor at Uppsala University, Sweden, pinpoints the particular partnership between the “facilitating researcher” pejoratively named research assistant or even fixer, who is based in the research setting, performs research tasks and regulates the access and flow of knowledge, and the “contracting researcher”. Maria Eriksson-Baaz advocates a reformulation of development studies to focus on the development industry, not least into the consequences of its increasing marketization.

The interview with Julia Suárez-Krabbe, associate professor at Roskilde University, argues that partnership with the Global South must start by learning more about the discussions among South intellectuals historically and today. Julia Suárez-Krabbe says this should not happen through a North framework of understanding, rather we have to take seriously the framework within which people theorize, analyse and act.

The unequal research partnerships remain, as acknowledged by Iben Nathan, associate professor at University of Copenhagen: “Even with the best intentions, it is still researchers in the North who have the last say in determining topics and formulating research projects, which most often are in and about the South.” Iben Nathan suggests “we could be more open to the idea of funding projects with South partners coming to study the North – as well as projects where the two sides are studying each other, or where the partners together study global links and dependencies.”

“You feel that you are contributing to a build-up of capacity. But then, it’s quite a shame to see that this achievement very often is eroded shortly after the clever ones receive their Ph.D. degree when they are leaving research to become university administrators and managers”, observes Niels Fold, professor at University of Copenhagen. Also, the emphasis on transferring skills for certain technical solutions put the professionalism of social science researchers on the defensive.

Lars Buur, associate professor at Roskilde University, recognizes the adverse impact of unequal research partnerships: “What often happens with South driven projects, is that North partners write the application, which is then submitted on behalf of the South partners, who formally manage the research grant. But the real capacity is somewhere else. A change of power relations to allow research questions to be defined in the South will only happen, when local governments provide funding for research in the South with the partners South institutions want to work with.”

Karuti Kanyinga, who is professor at University of Nairobi, has monitored the impact of inequality in North-South academic collaborations. He suggests that the Global South acknowledges the crisis that makes it vulnerable to exploitation. And he encourages scientists to agitate for funding for research and development activities from their governments, and not be overly dependent on the North. 

From a Danish perspective, Christian Friis Bach, who is a former Minister for Development Cooperation, proposes that this position is dropped altogether. Rather, all government ministries and their expertise need to be involved, as development cooperation is given a much higher priority. As an example, the Minister of Health would make sure that health is considered in a global context, and the Minister of Education would be responsible for children going to school in Africa. Jointly with the Nordic countries, we should build welfare societies by channelling substantial development aid into what then could be named a global compensation mechanism.”

During a roundtable at SWEDEV 2021, Maria Eriksson-Baaz, professor at Uppsala University, Sweden, mentioned that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) departs from any form of spatial distinction, and that the challenge of climate change puts considerable emphasis of the Global North and its elite populations. Both trends contradict development studies as they used to be. Thus, “we need to try to integrate these issues within the normal disciplines. In response to the fear of what would happen to area studies, Maria Eriksson-Baaz said: “We need to take the fight, integrate these issues into the disciplines”.