“Diversity is the key to decolonizing research”

From climate change to biodiversity loss or conflicts over resource use: today’s crises are global. In tackling them, North–South research collaboration plays an important role, especially by providing knowledge for strategies and policies to meet these challenges. But such collaboration is still largely determined by the economic and political power imbalance between the global North and South, as well as by colonial patterns. So, it’s high time to decolonize research. CDE scientist Ravaka Andriamihaja investigated the issues at stake for the Swiss Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries (KFPE).

“Power imbalances are unlikely to change as long as project management and coordination are unilaterally located in the global North”: Ravaka Andriamihaja. Photo: CDE

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

Research teams in North–South partnerships work together across countries and continents to address global crises. The money for these programmes and projects usually comes from the North. Do those who pay always have the say?

The short answer is yes. The donors – whether they are countries or institutions – are usually the ones to decide how the money is used and what happens with the research results. Nonetheless, there are signs of gradual change. For example, the interviews I conducted for the study revealed that for new research projects, some donors now want Southern actors to be involved right from the start. But in practice, at the project level, it has usually been the case in the past years that the partners from the global North defined all the main points of a research project – its topic, its aims, and who should be involved. The North also defines the concepts and methods to be used.

The KFPE has long provided guidelines for research partnerships between the North and the South to ensure fairer research cooperation on as equitable and equal a basis as possible. You examined the guidelines in your study. What’s your conclusion?

First of all, it’s important to note that the study was done from the perspective of decolonization and not from other possible angles such as gender. The KFPE guidelines for research partnerships were first issued in 1998. They were revised and reissued as “11 principles and 7 questions” in 2012. However, much has changed in the world since then. Given today’s challenges in North–South research cooperation, we have to conclude that some of the principles are no longer up to date. And others need to be deepened. I’m referring here to the content of these principles.

You mention content – what can you say about form?

The interviews I conducted with researchers showed that they use these guidelines mainly as a checklist – if they use them at all. An in-depth discussion about the actual challenges faced seems to take place only rarely.


“As scientists, we need to think more about how we can identify actual needs”


You’ve mentioned that research topics and questions as well as methods are usually defined by the North. This problem is also described in the KFPE guidelines. At the same time, the research should also meet the local needs of those being studied, that is, of the countries in the global South. How can these issues be reconciled?

Typically, workshops are today organized with many different stakeholders to assess the local needs for research and to define the objectives. However, we have observed that local stakeholders and Southern scientists have learned to speak the language of Northern scientists. For example, when it comes to preventing deforestation, they will weave the term “zero deforestation” into their discourse. They do this because they know it’s what the Northern researchers want to hear. As a result, the research partners often don’t look more deeply into what the various stakeholders’ actual knowledge needs are. Nor is there a debate about whether the concept makes sense from the perspective and based on the possibilities of the South. Therefore, as scientists, we need to think more about how we can identify actual needs.

And what else?

It is very important to balance the leadership roles and responsibilities in the research projects among the partners. Power imbalances are unlikely to change as long as project management and coordination are unilaterally located in the global North. Researchers from Kenya, Peru, or Madagascar would therefore have to be involved in defining research questions and managing research projects from the very start. Responsibilities like financial management and accountability towards funders would have to be shared equitably and carried out through direct exchanges.


“Younger researchers from the South are less visible and their contributions are often not cited scientifically”


Your analysis reveals an unequal distribution of roles among researchers. Researchers from the South collect data and organize workshops. Researchers from the North analyse the data and write the scientific papers. What does this mean especially for young researchers from the South?

It means that scientists from the North are much closer to the process of knowledge generation. This is partly because of their leadership role in the North–South research collaboration, and partly because it’s just easier for them to publish scientific papers, if only for financial reasons. Publishing open access starts at around CHF 2,000. A fee this high can be prohibitive for researchers and institutions from the South. Another point is that most journals have their publishing houses in the North.

All in all, this means that younger researchers from the South, those who organize the workshops and collect the data, are less visible and their contributions are often not cited scientifically. And there is a high probability that someone who has worked to collect data will remain a data collector or work at an NGO for the rest of their life.


“If highly qualified scientists return to the South, this doesn’t necessarily mean they can continue to do research there”


Overall, these inequalities are based on the fact that the North researches the South, but not vice versa. What is the North missing by not learning from the South and not having the experience of being studied from the outside?

The answer is already contained in your question: it is about bringing in another perspective, even one that is more critical. Since North–South research cooperation is mainly about global challenges, this is a key element. Let’s take the example of the farmers in Masoala National Park in Madagascar: they are not the main drivers of deforestation. In a whole chain of actors responsible for it, they are the ones with the least influence. It is therefore important to investigate who is driving which developments – especially in the North. Bringing in other perspectives here would be extremely helpful and important.

The KFPE guidelines also address the issue of brain drain, warning that highly qualified scientists from the South could migrate to the North. However, your analysis urges us to move away from the attitude of blaming Southern researchers for the brain drain. But aren’t there areas – such as medicine – where a lack of local researchers can become an existential threat?

In terms of medicine, it is important to distinguish between doctors and researchers. As practitioners, of course doctors need to be close to their patients. But in medical research? Take the so-called neglected tropical diseases, such as cysticercosis, African sleeping sickness, or chikungunya. Who has the means and possibilities to research these diseases? Who decides whether to invest in research on them? Those decisions are made in the North. The question is, why are these diseases so under-researched?

Can you tell us why?

Because they are not common diseases in the North. So there are two possibilities: Either we wait a long time for the countries of the South to be ready to invest in research, or we diversify the relevant experts and decision-makers. Because often researchers from the South know family or community members who have suffered from such diseases, and they’d therefore be motivated to research them.

Regarding the brain drain, it should be pointed out that if highly qualified scientists return to the South, this doesn’t necessarily mean they can continue to do research there. For me, for example, it would be almost impossible to find a position in a research institute in Madagascar that has the funding and infrastructure needed to do research. Instead, I would have to mostly teach or work in an NGO – unless someone from the North came and recruited me for a research project...


“Research can be a lever to reduce the inequalities”


Is decolonized research even possible as long as the immense economic, political, social, and institutional inequalities between North and South persist?

I think we have to be clear about what we mean by colonization and decolonization. In the 1950s and 1960s, things were completely different than they are today. Decolonization is a process and largely depends on these definitions. But at its core, it is always about power imbalances. Research can be a lever to reduce these inequalities – both in terms of how research projects can be designed and in the actions and decisions of the people managing the projects. For example, when they create jobs in research and recruit personnel for their projects, when they set topics that contribute to reducing the gap between North and South, or when they set the salaries of Northern and Southern scientists.

What are your recommendations to researchers and institutions in Switzerland and to the KFPE to decolonize research?

Diversity is the key to decolonizing research. So, our first priority should be to promote diversity.



KFPE Guide and Annual Conference on Decolonizing North–South Research Partnerships

The KFPE first published the “Guidelines for Research in Partnership with Developing Countries” in 1998.  After several years of work, they were revised and republished in 2012 as “A Guide for Transboundary Research Partnerships”.

Dr Ravaka Andriamihaja was commissioned by KFPE in 2022 to to study these principles from the perspective of decolonizing North-South research cooperation. Her work serves to identify current challenges of North–South research collaboration, to define the characteristics of decolonized North–South research collaboration and, based on the results, to discuss the KFPE’s “11 Principles and 7 Questions”. A KFPE publication on the topic will follow at the end of 2023, in cooperation with additional researchers from Kenya and Ghana.

The KFPE will address the decolonization of research partnerships in a series of online events, starting on 19 April 2023, and at its annual conference in Bern on 5 May 2023. Go to programme