Addressing Global South/North Inequalities in Research
As a researcher who was born and spent most of her adult and working life in South Africa, I have long valued the contribution of researchers and academics from the Global South. I was fortunate to be surrounded by inspirational and innovative colleagues from universities and organisations from around Africa. While it was easy for me to recognize excellence of thought and field-building, I came to realize that this was not always a shared sentiment. Academics and researchers from the Global South are disadvantaged in many ways and are not only regarded as less valuable, but are often valued less than those from the Global North.
The Global South is not a Place, it is a Mind-Set
The term ‘Global South’ has a number of different meanings, some of which have evolved over time. I prefer the more conceptual understanding of the Global South as the space “historically and/or currently oppressed by colonialism and global capitalism”. I believe this captures the concept accurately, as it does not see the deficit on the part of the Global South. Instead, it is a recognition that the status quo is no longer acceptable. This understanding is also a recognition that social change imposed by the Global North is not about “uplifting the South” – but rather about “enabling the North to exercise power over the South, and in doing so, erasing the specific character of those peoples and their societies” (Nilsen, 2016). It foregrounds the inequality in the relationship between South and North – as a result of the impact of the North … rather than a failure of the South.
The debate about the need to change the relationship between the South and the North has been gaining visibility, most recently with the #ShiftingThePower campaign. While this campaign is particularly in reference to donor funding and development globally, it clearly highlights an acceptance that the inequality that currently dictates development operations and processes are not sustainable and need to be changed. This is not at question. What is more pressing is a clear path of redress within the development sector, where funding, management, strategic planning and implementation are too often driven from the Global North to the Global South – without (sufficient, if any) consideration of what the Global South can bring to the table. This is a debate being played out at conferences, on social media and within development circles – but not one that will easily be resolved.
Shifting the Research Imbalance
How does this issue look like from the perspective of research from the Global South, and how can we start to value research outside of the Global North, using it to promote sustainable development both locally and globally? Researchers and academics from the Global South have pointed for a long time to the unequal relationship between them and academics from the Global North. The dominance of English as the standard language for academic excellence disadvantages many Global South academics, while equating language to ability – rather than acknowledging the importance and value of indigenous knowledge. In an insightful study called ‘Why Southern Research’, a number of common misconceptions are debunked through evidence-based research. The first key argument is that research from the Global South is best placed to solve local problems: “The only factor more strongly correlated to originality of science than the fact it is being undertaken by new researchers is the degree to which the research is incorporating local knowledge … those most closely linked to a particular problem are the best placed to innovate a solution to it”. The second argument is that “we should not assume that Northern partners are improving the quality of Southern ones”. In fact, the study showed that “Southern R4D demonstrates superior research quality to Northern R4D and to North-South partnered R4D”. Perhaps as a result of the doubt that researchers from the Global South produce reliable and valid research, their research tends to go beyond the quality of that seen from the Global North. If this evidence could be widely acknowledged and shared, it could debunk current thinking about research from the Global South
The Value of Indigenous, Local Knowledge
Beyond quality of research, the value of indigenous, local knowledge is growing in importance as there is recognition that indigenous knowledge is not only valuable to solving local problems but that “such knowledge can contribute to modern science and natural resource management”, even at the global level. As it becomes clear that while climate change has largely been a product of the Global North, it is mostly harshly felt by those in the Global South. As researchers in the Global South sit in contexts where droughts, floods and other natural disasters become more common, we cannot wait for the rest of the world to come up with solutions, but are developing our own. Maria Faciolince provides a good overview of some practical initiatives. Moreover, there is also the SouthSouthNorth initiative which works around climate finance, climate services, and climate and development implementation.
What Can We Do?
The question then is what can an organisation based in the Global North do to ensure greater visibility, value and engagement with research in the Global South? The first, perhaps most difficult step, is understanding that doing research in the Global South is about more than geography. It is about a change in mind-set from a perspective that regards the South as ‘needing’ to one that can see the value in the Global South ‘giving’ – giving knowledge, solutions and innovations that can address local problems and change global patterns. At a more practical level, to use the example of the organisation I work for, HAD works towards adopting research that embraces participatory processes – not only in data collection but also design, planning, implementation and analysis. The Research Department at HAD also works with local organisations in designing, planning and implementing capacity-strengthening projects that are sustainable, rooted in local expertise and experience, and build on local knowledge. As a faith-inspired organisation, we recognise that our faith sensitivity often provides us with perspectives that are rooted in local experiences. As with faith, we recognise that being rooted in a context allows for greater self-determination and agency. Gulrajani very much articulates our approach when he argues that “[t]he ‘South’ symbolises shared commitments to deeply held values of solidarity, non-interference and mutual self-regard, and a political desire to remake the global order that has for too long had the North at its pinnacle”.