Tag Archives decoloniality

On the Racist Humanism of Climate Action

On the Racist Humanism of Climate Action

Mainstream climate change mitigation and adaptation policies are imbued with neocolonial discursive constructions of the “other”. Understanding how such constructions work has important implications for how we think about emancipatory ...

Transformative Methodologies | Listening differently, hearing more clearly: a decolonial approach to fostering dialogue between plural knowledges

Transformative Methodologies | Listening differently, hearing more clearly: a decolonial approach to fostering dialogue between plural knowledges

Recent debates on decolonising research have highlighted the importance of accounting for plural knowledges by seeking to foster a dialogue between them. Yet, a dominant modern rationalist approach informing how ...

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Some steps for decolonising international research-for-development partnerships

While partnerships between researchers and practitioners from the Global North and Global South can be and often are intellectually and socially impactful, they remain highly unequal. Coloniality pervades these partnerships, influencing who leads the research projects implemented in the Global South and whose interests are represented. Here, the conveners and panellists of a roundtable discussion on partnerships in academia that formed part of the recent EADI ISS Conference 2021 propose some steps for decolonising international research partnerships. 

Much of the very urgent and timely discussion on decolonising the academe[1] – recognising and changing the colonial relations of power that are embedded in teaching as well as research – has focused on representation, on diversifying the curricula, and on theorising from the Global South. But what about research partnerships and collaborations? This is a slightly overlooked issue in the decolonisation agenda, but one that is no less important.

In the field of international development particularly, but not only, collaborations between academic institutions in the Global North and academic and non-academic institutions in the Global South are often crucial to demonstrate research impact and to generate funding. But these partnerships themselves are fraught by unequal power relations. To truly decolonise research, it is necessary to decolonise every aspect of it – including the way in which we collaborate internationally.

At a recent roundtable at the EADI ISS Conference 2021 called ‘Partnership, participation and power in academia’, we sought answers to questions that included:

  • How do unequal power relations manifest in the design and operation of research?
  • What might we do to challenge these relations?
  • What would it mean to decolonise these research partnerships?

During the roundtable, participants highlighted key issues that arose in how international research collaborations are designed and implemented. These are summarised below. We start with reflections on how coloniality manifests itself through various stages of the collaboration process.

Agenda-setting: whose interests are really represented?

There are a number of programmatic and institutional issues that result in unequal relations between collaborators across the Global North and Global South, both within academic institutions and between academia and practice. Funding sources and structures are obvious culprits here. Not only are funders often situated in the Global North, the criteria for eligibility and affiliation means that these partners need to be the principal or lead investigators. As a result, more often than not, project outcomes and impacts end up being structured and valued by the parameters of funding bodies and university departments in the Global North with little regard for what might be important for partners inhabiting other geographies and institutional environments. So, for example, the inordinate emphasis in projects on high-impact journal publications may be at odds with the priorities of an NGO partner in the Global South.

Constrained research design processes

Moreover, grant applications typically require clearly defined questions, outcomes and outputs – in fact, proposals are often marked down when they demonstrate the slightest sign of tentativeness – and the time between the announcement of grant and submission deadlines can be quite limited. These issues mean that research partnerships do not always have enough time and space to jointly develop a research agenda that accounts equally for interests of partners across the Global North and Global South and to allow for the messy process that robust research often tends to be.

More knowledge is more power (when it comes to agenda setting)

In fact, because researchers in the Global North also have more tacit knowledge and institutional support to make a proposal ‘fundable’, they have more power in setting the research agenda. In such situations, the degree to which partnerships are equitable depends on the discretion and conscience of individual academics. 

Partners in the Global South: mediators or change agents?

There are more fundamental questions that arise from these issues: who is considered a researcher and what does it mean to be a researcher? It is now widely accepted that the ‘lone researcher’ never was – the work of academics has always been enabled by other individuals and networks of support. In the context of many North-South research collaborations, practitioner organisers and local communities based in the Global South often become mediators providing access to field data, data collecting agents and/or passive recipients of research findings. Academics everywhere, but especially in the Global North, need to find ways of sharing power with institutions, communities and individuals in whose name these collaborative grants are often established.

Decolonising international research partnerships: some steps

With these issues and questions in mind, and based on the roundtable discussion, we propose some steps to decolonise international academic collaborations and foster partnerships that are equitable, democratic, and lead to locally relevant impacts.

  1. Decolonise the research ecosystem

First, the research ecosystem of funding bodies, higher education organisations and research institutions needs to be transformed to eliminate systemic biases against research partners from the Global South. More often than not, grant guidelines require that project leadership and budget administration remain with the Northern partners while hiring policies for project staff (e.g. PhD researchers) frequently discriminate against Southern candidates. We propose:

  • Redressing the hierarchies of funding structures: building funding instruments that recognise academic excellence, merit, and local relevance, regardless of researchers’ nationality;
  • Designing funding instruments that prioritise project leadership by Southern partners, both academics and practitioners;
  • Reflecting on the ways in which our own attitudes and practices perpetuate the systemic injustices within the research ecosystem.
  1. Decolonise the research process

Second, it is necessary to think critically about the biases that permeate the research inception process – from articulating the research idea through conceptualisation to funding acquisition. Rarely does it happen that the Northern and Southern co-applicants have the chance to brainstorm the research idea together and articulate their needs and preferences.  For projects to be co-created in an equitable manner, we propose the following:

  • Debunking the myth of research projects as linear and allowing for flexibility, adaptation, and learning throughout the project cycle;
  • Recognising that a certain degree of ‘messiness’ is an indispensable part of collaborative knowledge co-creation and that project priorities, as well as desired outputs and impacts, might change during the project;
  • Creating spaces for informal interaction between researchers and practitioners from institutions in the Global North and Global South where innovative ideas can be developed and discussed prior to grant application submission.
  1. Decolonise the research outputs

Third, research projects in the field of international development are frequently expected to deliver both applied (positive social change on the ground) and scientific (contributions to theory) impacts, but it is only the latter that often determine project ‘success’. This results in a somewhat skewed project logic that prioritises scientific outputs over practical insights.

Research outputs may be decolonised by:

  • Legitimising alternative knowledge systems, recognising the plurality of methodological approaches, and appreciating the indispensability of grounded and localised practitioner experiences;
  • Decoupling academic and non-academic project outputs, as well as recognising their value and complementary nature.

Research partnerships: processes, not actor constellations

North-South partnerships are not an isolated issue – they are part of a complex and dynamic research-for-development system. For this reason, we propose approaching partnerships as a process, as opposed to simply a contract or institutional arrangement. This process starts with decentralised, inclusive, and democratic agenda setting, followed by resource allocation that acknowledges the indispensable and complementary contributions of all partners. Project governance needs to be democratic and fair and, finally, knowledge co-creation must be recognised as leading to both academic and non-academic outputs and impacts. Approaching partnerships as a process can allow us to prioritise locally defined development agendas, to include and appreciate all relevant stakeholders, and to build on their diverse knowledges, skills, and experience

[1] For example, https://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/about/decolonisation/

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Katarzyna Cieslik is a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on work, livelihoods and employment in the Global South, in particular in relation to technology/work/environment tradeoffs.

Shreya Sinha is a Lecturer at the University of Reading, working on agrarian political economy, political ecology and critical development studies with a focus on India.

Cees Leeuwis is professor of Knowledge, Technology and Innovation at Wageningen University. He studies processes of socio-technical innovation and transformation in networks, research for development policy, the functioning of innovation support systems and the role of innovation platforms, communication, extension and brokers therein.

Tania Eulalia Martínez-Cruz is an independent researcher and consultant at the Indigenous Peoples Unit at FAO, researching the politics of knowledge, gender and social inclusion/exclusion, climate action, nutrition and traditional food systems.

Nivedita Narain  is Chief Executive Officer, Charities Aid Foundation India, an adjunct faculty member at the Charles Sturt University, Australia and has worked with Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) for over thirty years. She has worked on gender, livelihoods, and human resources management for non-profits and setting-up development practice as an academic discipline.

Bhaskar Vira is a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on environmental and development economics; political economy, particularly the study of institutions and institutional change; public policy in the developing world.

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EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Questioning development: What lies ahead?

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Questioning development: What lies ahead?

Development Studies requires “an epistemological and ontological change”, write Elisabetta Basile and Isa Baud in the introduction to the recent EADI volume ‘Building Development Studies for a New Millennium’. The ...

Epistemic Diversity| Understanding epistemic diversity: decoloniality as research strategy by Olivia U. Rutazibwa

Epistemic Diversity| Understanding epistemic diversity: decoloniality as research strategy by Olivia U. Rutazibwa

How do we make sure that our efforts to diversify knowledge production go beyond a window-dressing/Benetton operation? How can we move beyond merely adding some colour and other markers of ...

Epistemic Diversity | From ‘do no harm’ to making research useful: a conversation on ethics in development research by Karin Astrid Siegmann

Ethical dilemmas are part and parcel of the research processes that researchers are engaged in. This article details a recent conversation between ISS students and staff in which they tried to make sense of some of the ethical issues that researchers face. While the ‘do no harm’ principle was emphasised as an overall yardstick, the discussion went beyond that, raising broader questions about epistemic and social justice.


With thanks to Andrea Tauta Hurtado, Zhiren Ye, Kristen Cheney, Roy Huijsmans and Andrew Fischer.


Scholars in Development Studies are quick to brag about how relevant their research is for the underdogs of society. The reality is that representatives of marginalised groups rarely knock at our office doors to ask for scholarly support. In fact, development research often does harm by justifying economic and social inequalities, reproducing stereotypes and stigma, and misrepresenting or even erasing knowledge about the lives of marginalised people.

How can scholars prevent such harm from being done through their research? This question was discussed by ISS students majoring in Social Policy for Development and staff members in a workshop on “ethical, integrity, and security challenges”. The discussion aimed to prepare ISS students for their fieldwork. While in our conversation the ‘do no harm’ principle was emphasised as an overall yardstick for our research, the discussion went beyond that, raising broader questions about epistemic and social justice.

Challenges to informed consent and ensuring anonymity

Roy Huijsmans’ example from his masters’ research on Dutch school-going children’s employment experiences illustrated that research participants’ informed consent is crucial, but also complicated by the power relations structuring the research arena. Teachers in his former school had facilitated meetings with their students. Several of these students, in turn, had expressed interest in and consented to participating in Roy’s study. When conducting telephone interviews with these children, however, in some cases parents became suspicious: who is that adult male calling their child? Roy’s experience raises the issue of whether it is adequate to understand informed consent individually. If not, what role do we give to the—in this case generational—power relations wherein consent is embedded? Can ethics protocols that require consent from parents or other gatekeepers alongside children’s own answer these questions?

In my own research, class-based power relations motivate special attention to research participants’ anonymity. Referring to a recent study on working conditions in South Asian tea plantations, I flagged that if workers’ and unionists’ statements could be identified, this could lead to their dismissal or worse outcomes. Our research team addressed this concern by not providing names—neither of people, nor of research locations. Andrew Fischer challenged me: would that really prevent identification? It is likely that few people are probably willing to stick their necks out as labour leaders, making those that do more easily recognisable.

One student followed up and asked how she could protect the identity of chemsex users— people having sex while using hard drugs—whose experiences she plans to investigate. Referring to the do no harm principle, Roy encouraged her to reflect on the consequences of research participants’ names leaking out: the Dutch government tolerates illegal drug consumption. Hence, in the current scenario, enforcement agencies are unlikely to arrest users. However, such political priorities can easily change over time. Andrew therefore recommended the anonymisation of transcripts, with their key to be stored outside the computer.

The quest for epistemic justice and diversity

In recent years, I have become increasingly concerned with the responsible representation of the lives, concerns and demands of the people who participate in my research, or, put differently, with epistemic justice. For instance, how will I represent the plantation workers who generously shared their experiences in our tea study? In a way that responds to the academic pressure to publish in highly-ranked journals with specific theoretical fancies? Or do research participants’ concerns guide my writing? This relates to questions that Marina Cadaval and Rosalba Icaza raise in their earlier post on this blog: ‘who generates and distributes knowledge, for which purposes, and how?’

Other participants in the discussion shared this concern for a fair representation. The student who engages with chemsex users’ experiences was acutely aware of the role of race in her research. In exploratory interviews, she learned how race shapes the exercise of power in chemsex users’ sexual relationships and how it either enables them to get support from or bars their access to the healthcare system. How to do justice to participants’ narratives without simultaneously repeating and reinforcing the underlying stereotypes?

For me, one way to deal with this quest for epistemic justice has been to engage in processes of activist scholarship, i.e. in collaboration and joint knowledge production with people who struggle for recognition and redistribution. Activist scholarship involves moves towards epistemic diversity, challenging the widely assumed supremacy of scientific knowledge heavily produced in Northern academic institutions. For instance, I have been involved in the campaign of a Florida-based farmworker organisation for making the Dutch retailer Ahold sign on to their programme for better working conditions in US agriculture. In dialogue with that organisation, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), I have written about lessons from that campaign for how precarious workers can effectively organise. Sruti Bala points out that this implies ‘to listen to articulations radically different from the frameworks that I may be trained in, but more than good listening is required in order for those articulations and insights to translate themselves into what we might call knowledge’. These processes of listening, dialoguing and learning didn’t lead to “consensus-based writing”, though. We had disagreements and I tried to make them visible in my writing.

Besides, there may be internal power hierarchies within the movements with which we collaborate. My colleague Silke Heumann earlier warned that through our decision of who participates in our research and who doesn’t, we run the risk of reinforcing existing power relations and of legitimising an elite’s perspective of a movement.

This approach may not be feasible for a masters’ thesis. What is possible in most cases, though, is to get research participants’ feedback on, critique and validation of how they understood our conversations or my wider observations about their lives. Time is a key resource in this effort to respect their knowledge as experts on their own lives. Taking time for research participants—rather than racing from one respondent to the next—enables us to conduct research in a more responsible manner. I want to integrate this principle more and more in my research due to the belief that this not only helps to prevent harm. Over and above that, it enables me to treat my research participants and their concerns with care. The more time I plan and spend for engagement with those who participate in my research, the greater the likelihood that it will embody epistemic justice.


 

This article forms part of a series on Epistemic Diversity. You can read the other articles here and here

csm_5abd70057687ec5e3741252630d8cc66-karin-siegmann_60d4db99baAbout the author: 

Holding a PhD in Agricultural Economics, Dr Karin Astrid Siegmann works as a Senior Lecturer in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Hague, the Netherlands. She is the convenor of the ISS Major in Social Policy for Development (SPD).

Epistemic Diversity | The challenge of epistemic poverty and how to think beyond what we know by Sruti Bala

Epistemic Diversity | The challenge of epistemic poverty and how to think beyond what we know by Sruti Bala

Researchers face the challenge of engaging with the topic of epistemic diversity. We know that we should consider diverse knowledges in our research, but how can this be operationalised? This ...

Epistemic Diversity | “I am where I think”: research and the task of epistemic diversity by Marina Cadaval and Rosalba Icaza

Epistemic Diversity | “I am where I think”: research and the task of epistemic diversity by Marina Cadaval and Rosalba Icaza

Epistemic diversity in research is sorely needed in the academia. But what is epistemic diversity and why is it so important? This post—the first of a series on epistemic diversity— ...