“The EU handles research cooperation with Africa in a much more forward-looking way than Switzerland”

While the EU is boosting its research cooperation with Africa and creating innovative funding instruments, Switzerland clings to old approaches. “The potential of countries in the global South isn’t recognized,” says Thomas Breu, Director of CDE and President of the Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries (KFPE). Yet now is when we urgently need more momentum to tackle global challenges and crises in concert. “It’s in our own interest,” he emphasizes.

“Switzerland is missing out on investing in knowledge capacities and systems in the global South”: Thomas Breu. Photo: Manu Friederich

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

The EU has big plans when it comes to research cooperation with Africa: In the framework of programmes like ARISE and in high-level policy dialogue with the African Union on science, technology, and innovation, the EU promotes cutting-edge research by African scientists and seeks to “enhance collaboration on an equal footing with the European continent.” Are these just nice words, or is a new joint research giant emerging between the EU and the African Union?

These programmes are driven by political engagement of the EU Commission with the African Union. Research has been identified as one of the top priorities at the highest political level. So, the EU has already created numerous instruments to advance education and research with, in, and between African Countries. In addition, there’s the so-called second pillar of the Horizon Europe programme: This emphasizes research on global challenges like climate change, energy, food security, etc. and is endowed with about 50 billion Euros. This funding source can also be used for research cooperation with African countries. Considering these agreements and funding sources, I don’t see the EU as merely paying lip service – it demonstrates serious willingness to significantly expand research cooperation with Africa.

China is also pushing ahead on research cooperation with Africa. Why this interest?

China has become a strong player in science, but I don’t think that the Chinese are especially interested in improving their research or making it more relevant by involving scientists from the global South. Rather, they view research collaboration as another means of gaining access to politics and markets in Africa. Such economic and political aspects are also clearly distinguishable with regards to the EU. But in the latter case, the basic understanding of research cooperation is more credible and up-to-date in the sense of recognizing that we face global sustainability problems that we have to address together.


“What our future looks like will largely be determined in the global South”



What our future looks like – whether and how we succeed in mastering today’s crises and sustainability challenges – will largely be determined in the global South. Here, it will be decisive whether and how development can be brought about differently than in the global North, as the latter has made advancements largely by exploiting and using up resources – notably at the expense of the South. Linked to this, of course, is the question of whether it will be possible to overcome the existing power imbalances between the global North and South. These elements – self-interest, solidarity, and awareness that joint research is key to sustainable development – can be seen in the EU research programmes.

Turning to Switzerland: It remains excluded from the world’s biggest research programme, Horizon Europe. Its own efforts to strengthen research cooperation with the global South remain modest – to put it gently. Is Switzerland once again in danger of falling behind?

Absolutely, this danger does exist – or rather, it’s already a reality. In Africa, in particular, Switzerland had a long tradition of research cooperation. Financially, its scope wasn’t massive, but it set standards for how to support research in African countries in a meaningful, sustainable manner. Examples include research institutions that remain to this day, such as the Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifiques in Côte d'Ivoire, the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania, CETRAD in Kenya, and the Water and Land Resource Centre in Ethiopia – all institutions that Switzerland played a key role in establishing. Compared to the past, Switzerland has unfortunately taken significant steps backwards in research cooperation with African countries.


“Our development cooperation is driven by policies that emphasize short-term goals”


How do you explain this?

Firstly, it’s strongly related to how Switzerland’s development cooperation is currently positioned. It is driven by policies emphasizing short-term goals. Focus on broad, socially sustainable development in countries of the South is given short shrift. Secondly, the division of roles between different departments in the federal government remains unclear and, as a result, no one really feels responsible.

Is there a lack of strategic vision regarding foreign research policy?

I think Switzerland pursues a very conventional approach to foreign research policy: it invests in cooperation with the traditional knowledge countries and markets, namely the OECD countries, so that it can be involved in these places. At the same time, it tries to keep open a few options via smaller activities, like Swissnex, in possible future knowledge markets or emerging economies. The potential of countries in the global South – even those with the highest rates of economic growth – isn’t recognized. We’re missing out on investing in knowledge capacities and systems in these countries, when in fact we would also benefit if we contributed more to tackling global challenges together with them. It’s hard to see any strategic foresight here. But the key point is that the EU handles research cooperation, especially with Africa, in a much more forward-looking way than Switzerland.


“Wouldn’t it befit Switzerland to prioritize research partnerships in its international cooperation?”


Because of the sheer financial volume that the EU invests?

No, not mainly because of that. The big difference is that the EU has many open funding vehicles. That is, it can fully support African researchers, research institutions, and exchange programmes without requiring that the concerned countries make financial contributions themselves. By contrast, in Switzerland there’s only one specific vehicle for collaborative research on global challenges that is permitted to fund researchers from the global South: the Solution-oriented Research for Development (SOR4D) programme, which is funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) with about five million francs annually. In virtually all other public funding programmes, it isn’t possible to co-fund researchers from abroad.

What bothers you about this?

The countries of the African Union have given themselves the goal of investing at least 1 percent of their gross domestic product in research. Even though the will is there, given their enormous debt ratios and the other urgent challenges facing these countries – such as the climate crisis, food insecurity, and poverty – this research investment goal remains a Herculean task. And the construction of knowledge systems takes time. We shouldn’t forget: the first university in what is now Switzerland was founded in Basel in 1460.

So, it’s only appropriate that the global North, which has benefitted and continues to benefit greatly from the global South, should support global South countries in this undertaking out of a sense of solidarity – as well as self-interest. And it begs the question: Wouldn’t it befit Switzerland to focus its international cooperation on research collaborations that enable countries of the global South to build up knowledge systems that provide a basis for self-determined development?


“The majority of the Swiss scientific community wants to change as little as possible in the current system”


What should Switzerland do concretely?

Certainly, it should quickly open up its funding channels for cooperation with researchers from abroad. In addition, new instruments and forms of cooperation are needed that are geared towards the long term. Institutional collaborations would be suited to this. And, of course, it would also be very beneficial and desirable if Switzerland – which remains a top location for science – would set aside more funds for practice-oriented, transdisciplinary research in and together with the global South, so we can work together on possible solutions to our global challenges.

That’s wishful thinking, isn’t it?

Not necessarily. But science in Switzerland still faces a number of challenges here. The majority of scientists want to change as little as possible in the current system, as doing so could mean shifting funds from basic to application-oriented research. If Swissuniversities – the umbrella organization of all Swiss universities, universities of applied sciences, and universities of teacher education – were to make a clear commitment to sustainability research, things could start moving.


“To enable self-determined development in the South, we also increasingly need to leave agenda-setting to the South in terms of where and how it wants to invest”


You talk about building up distinct knowledge and science systems in the global South. Why should they differ from ours?

Knowledge only creates added value if it considers existing circumstances and needs. So, science needs to be adapted to and anchored in the society concerned. With their traditional knowledge, most countries in the global South have a wealth of knowledge with huge potential. But because this alone is no longer sufficient in today’s world, new forms and approaches are needed to produce knowledge and then communicate it – that is, disseminate it at the policy level and in society. Simply copying what we do would not enable global South countries to develop according to their own circumstances and in a self-determined manner. But there is a real risk that they will simply adopt the Western model.

This is also linked to the fact that the North dominates science. The KFPE, of which you remain president until the end of the year, is dedicating its annual conference to the topic of decolonizing research collaborations. What levers need to be pulled?

On the one hand, we need to raise our awareness of power imbalances, and, on the other, we need to acknowledge that there are scientific systems, epistemologies, and methods based on other values and orientations. And there is no way around it: To enable self-determined development in the South, we also increasingly need to leave agenda-setting to the South – in other words, the power to define what it wants to invest in and how – even if the funding comes from here. At the same time, we should ask ourselves whether it isn’t time now to recognize forms of science and research that differ from our classic academic path.


“We all need to look for ways of reducing the imbalance”


Are you also referring to the International Graduate School (IGS) North-South PhD programme coordinated by CDE?

Right now, it’s mainly universities in the global North that are training the next generation of international researchers. That’s essentially the case with the IGS North-South, too. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. But the bottom line is that this basically reproduces the Northern science system elsewhere. There’s no counterweight to this, as other forms of knowledge are given next to no support and cannot build upon their strengths. Here, we all need to take a critical look at what we’re doing and search for new ways of reducing this imbalance.

Info box

KFPE Annual Conference on Decolonizing North–South Research Partnerships

On 5 May 2023, the KFPE holds its annual conference in collaboration with the SUDAC and SOR4D programmes. This year's focus lies on processes of decolonizing research partnerships. The aim of the conference is to bring together all actors interested in the debate on decolonizing Swiss research collaborations. We have prepared a diverse and interactive programme to provide different perspectives on decolonizing research collaborations, present different practical approaches and stimulate discussions among participants.