A Great Transition for Development Researchers in South and North

”For development research to thrive in the future, we have to take it very seriously, that it should be a global enterprise rather than merely Northern researchers doing fieldwork in the South”, says professor Anne Mette Kjær at Aarhus University.

“We are in the midst of a time of transition within the international community of development researchers”, says Anne Mette Kjær, professor of political science at Aarhus University.

”There is an emerging focus on structural inequalities within the academic world itself. We in the Global North have become much more aware that we have to avoid being supercilious, we have to avoid trying to push through our own models in relation to our colleagues in the Global South”.

”For many years, the basic assumption in development research was based on the classic modernization thinking that a traditional society must develop into a modern society by creating a middle class, then introducing democracy and so on. We still have that way of thinking to some degree, but at the same time we have an enormous upheaval against it”.

”This transition is an extremely positive development”, underlines Anne Mette Kjær, who is currently also the chairman of the Danish government’s Council for Development Policy, ”and the drive for this change is coming mainly from the South”.

”It’s decolonization in practice. They are telling us in the North that they don’t want us to decide what shall be the topics of their research. They don’t want to be controlled and guided by us”.

This challenge from the South is often formulated by South-researchers who have been partly educated and for some time periods have been based in universities in high income countries. According to Anne Mette Kjær, frictions are not created only during close encounters between South and North: it is a “broad feeling” which is also coming from researchers in the South who are educated in the South and who have spent their entire career in the South.

Even though the current movement is positive and very necessary, Anne Mette Kjær believes that ”it would be a shame if the on-going development research should suffer from it. Many of the ongoing research programmes are keen on addressing these developments in the way they design research partnerships”.

According to Anne Mette Kjær, this debate is closely linked to the global debate about development assistance. ”When researchers travel back to villages in Tanzania where they did fieldwork 25 years ago and observe that change has actually taken place – that is development research. We need open curiosity in identifying what is happening when a society is either developing or not developing. That kind of research is still extremely important”.

Not much conservatism

”I don’t know where this process will end, but I know there is a movement going on away from ‘traditional’ development research. If we are to have any development research in the future, we need to take it very seriously, that it is not only a way of designating North researchers traveling to make research in the South. It has to be genuinely global. It’s also development research when we are studying the social crisis in Lolland-Falster (a Danish locality, ed.), done by either a researcher from the North or a researcher from the South. It’s also development research when someone is studying the development of Lebanon which used to be a developed country, but now is in free fall”.

Anne Mette Kjær doesn’t really experience any major ”conservatism” in the community of development researchers in relation to this transition, either globally or in a Danish context. ”The considerations behind the transition are defining a lot of interesting research projects from all sides at the moment”, she observes.

There seem to be much fewer development researchers than in the past. ”Very few are conducting detailed research in what is shaping development in a specific setting. A lot of political science literature relevant for development research is about meta phenomena, such as the general links between democracy, dictatorship and economic growth. Such research can be important. Survey experiments carried out in the Global South can also be an important contribution to the evaluation of development interventions among others. Anne Mette Kjær emphasizes the value of doing old fashioned work in the field. If I should be conservative in any sense, I do think that more researchers should go on fieldwork and get hands-on knowledge about their field of study”.

Anne Mette Kjær has worked with global issues and especially the Global South for many years, even before entering university. She traveled a great deal before enrolling at the university, ”the world opened itself for me”, and she had a firm conviction that she wished to somehow work with international relations, as she entered the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University.

For many years, she had her main focus on Latin America. She spent several months during her masters’ studies in Chile in the early nineties, around the time General Pinochet was removed from power and some level of democracy was reintroduced. ”It was interesting to see how people had to adjust to living in a country where they were now allowed to talk freely”, Anne Mette Kjær remembers.

It was just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a time of optimism and a firm belief that the same economic and societal model should and would fit in any country. Anne Mette Kjær focused on the ”structural adjustment programs” of the World Bank and its recipe for reforms in developing countries, the same everywhere. So her master thesis, which she wrote together with a fellow student, dealt with globalization and democratization in several African countries, and since then her main field of study has shifted to Africa.

Her PhD-thesis compared public sector reforms and governance in Uganda and Tanzania in the late nineties. ”I learned that there were tremendous differences from country to country, and domestic politics played a major role”. Since then she has worked with policy reform and their implementation in Uganda and other African countries. Not only reform of administration, but also education reforms, industrial policies and land reforms. ”Often policies look great on paper, but whether they are implemented depend on local factors such as power relations, which differ from country to country – and even from region to region within one country. You simply need specific knowledge about these places to understand what is going on”.

Strength of a broad network

Anne Mette Kjær kept Aarhus as her base and is now professor at her old department – with a very active network in many countries. ”I haven’t been in Uganda one single time paid by the Department”, she explains. ”Of course I get my salary, but I have always found funding for the travel expenses from other sources. From Danish public research funding as well as funding from other European countries. It’s one of the strengths of having a wide network – that people ask you to participate in projects and they often come with the funding”.

”Unfortunately, funding for development research in general comes to a very high degree only from the North, and it has implications for networking. But since my time as a PhD-student, I have also built networks with local researchers in the South. As example, I’ve recently published a paper together with Mesharch Katusiimeh, a good colleague in Uganda who was my research assistant twenty years ago on a post.doc project about taxation and capacity building in this field when he was a master student, and since then we have been friends and colleagues”.

However, Anne Mette Kjær still observes an obvious South-North pattern in the division of labor in such a partnership. ”We in the North just know from experience what will be accepted and what will not be accepted by academic journals. We are very focused on writing and getting our research published in these journals, simply because we have good salaries and more time. In the South there are less resources to be able to focus on the writing. Therefore, the division of labor can often be such that Southern researchers provide the contextualized knowledge and do the data collection whereas the Northern based researchers do the writing”.

“At the same time, there is clearly a trend towards many more colleagues from the South getting training and expertise in writing academic articles for the journals”. This is part of the movement I spoke about earlier.

”In all my projects, I try to argue for buying free time for our South collaborators so that they can concentrate on the project and avoid administrative and educational duties at their institutions. They have to get away from the place. Still, once, I had a Ugandan colleague here in Aarhus, and she had her own quiet office, so we could focus on writing together. Even then, her telephone was ringing all the time with administrative and other matters from home”.

”There is a strange tone to the word capacity building – as if there wasn’t any capacity to begin with. Of course, nowadays there is tremendous capacity in the South. We have to be careful with these expressions”.

This is one of the major takeaways from the current transition process going on right now.

Professor Anne Mette Kjær
Assoc.Prof. Katusiimeh Mesharch Walto