Equity in Global North–South research partnerships: interrogating UK funding models

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Adrian FlintUniversity of Bristol, UK

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Guy HowardUniversity of Bristol, UK

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Manish BaidyaKathmandu University, Nepal

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Tadesse WondimHaramaya University, Ethiopia

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Moti PoudelKathmandu University, Nepal

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Anisha NijhawanUniversity of Bristol, UK

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Yohannes MulugetaHaramaya University, Ethiopia

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Subodh SharmaKathmandu University, Nepal

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This article considers the degree to which achieving equity in Global North–South research partnerships is possible under current UK funding models. While there has been significant discussion with respect to the decolonisation of research, it will be argued that there is some distance between the language of equity articulated currently by UK funding bodies, and the realities of working as a project partner in the Global South. The article draws on the prior and ongoing experiences of a multidisciplinary team of researchers brought together by a UK-funded research project. In the interests of moving towards more equitable systems of knowledge production and dissemination, it explores the power asymmetries that can be inherent in Global North–South research partnerships, and the extent to which issues of coloniality continue to shape aspects of research agenda setting, project framing, impact, academic publishing and the division of labour within partnerships.

Abstract

This article considers the degree to which achieving equity in Global North–South research partnerships is possible under current UK funding models. While there has been significant discussion with respect to the decolonisation of research, it will be argued that there is some distance between the language of equity articulated currently by UK funding bodies, and the realities of working as a project partner in the Global South. The article draws on the prior and ongoing experiences of a multidisciplinary team of researchers brought together by a UK-funded research project. In the interests of moving towards more equitable systems of knowledge production and dissemination, it explores the power asymmetries that can be inherent in Global North–South research partnerships, and the extent to which issues of coloniality continue to shape aspects of research agenda setting, project framing, impact, academic publishing and the division of labour within partnerships.

Key messages

  • UK-funded Global North–South research partnerships need to be decolonised.

  • Existing UK-funded Global North–South research partnerships are characterised by structural power asymmetries.

  • The input of researchers based in the Global South is often reduced to that of data collection.

  • UK funding bodies need to prioritise appointing additional principal investigators based in the Global South.

Introduction

Research funding models in the UK are framed increasingly in the language of Global North–South partnership and cooperation. Demonstrating the international depth and breadth of our research networks is progressively more important; successful bids should highlight the extent to which proposed projects can be said to be discernibly Global North–South research partnerships. In theory, funded Global North–South research partnerships represent opportunities for the bringing together of minds, methods and data from across the globe. Such partnerships ostensibly allow for the establishment of international research networks, knowledge exchange and opportunities for intellectual cross-fertilisation, enabling the sharing of scarce economic and technical resources across a host of institutions worldwide. Capacity building in the Global South is frequently a key emphasis, with opportunities for training and further study regularly an integral aspect. While there are without doubt many tangible benefits to this form of cooperation, it is increasingly evident that there is also considerable room for improvement, not least with respect to the issue of Global North–South power asymmetries, which serve to unbalance profoundly the relationships within partnerships.

Drawing on dependency and postcolonial perspectives, we highlight the value of detailed political ‘audits’ (Enloe, 1996) of the power structures underpinning research partnerships funded by UK bodies. We focus on the realities of epistemic inequalities, and the degree to which UK funding models serve to entrench, albeit often unconsciously, ‘epistemic colonialism’. Against the backdrop of existing literatures (Gaillard, 1994; Hountondji, 1997; Boshoff, 2009; Mbembe, 2016; Noxolo, 2017; Chilisa and Denborough, 2019; Keikelame and Swartz, 2019; Asare et al, 2020; Martinez-Vargas, 2020; Walker and Boni, 2020), we evaluate our own collaborative experiences over the course of our individual research careers.1

Offering insights from our personal experiences of research partnerships, we set out to (1) contextualise the basis for Global North–South research partnership funding models in the UK, (2) engage with the evolution of these models, (3) locate debates surrounding Global North–South research partnerships within existing literatures and (4) highlight ongoing challenges for researchers operating within these frameworks.

Context and basis for this study

Questions and disputes regarding the nature of Global North–South research partnerships are by no means new (Moravcsik and Ziman, 1975; Djerassi, 1976; Szmant, 1978). However, current calls to decolonise research mean that these debates are now imbued with additional weight, with the system engendered (and reinforced) by current UK funding models demanding further scrutiny at the structural level (Costello and Zumla, 2000; Jentsch and Pilley, 2003; Ruth, 2010). While the funding of Global North–South research partnerships should, in conceptual terms, continue to be viewed positively, embedded power asymmetries bring the precise nature of current models into question (Boshoff, 2009; Kok et al, 2017; Asare et al, 2020) – broadly speaking, there is more work to be done. Following Enloe (1996), then, we offer, at a more granular level, an ‘audit’ of extant power structures experienced and observed by ourselves.

This article emerged – largely by accident – as a result of our collaboration as researchers from Ethiopia, Nepal and the UK, on a project focusing on the impacts of climate change on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) provision in Ethiopia and Nepal. The project involved a range of researchers from different disciplines: development, engineering, environmental science and public health. Our commentary here should be taken as a critique of the wider funding context in which our partnership took place, rather than of the funding body or project concerned. The ideas discussed here developed from informal conversations within our team, in which we weighed up our ambitions for, against the limitations of, our collaboration. The qualitative data for this article emerged from semi-structured interviews with each other, focusing on individual experiences both of our project and of other similar UK-funded research partnerships. The interviews were wide-ranging, with a view to capturing lived experiences. While by no means a ‘scientific’ or broad-ranging survey, we worked hard to capture the realities of working at different research ‘coalfaces’. Accordingly, this is a team-wide reflection on academic debates surrounding our and similar partnerships, rather than a personal account of one specific project or funding body.

UK research funding in the 21st century

With international research partnerships increasingly the standard, it has become the norm for UK funding bodies to demand cross-disciplinary, cross-institution and cross-boundary inquiry. In conjunction with an emphasis on broad networks, there is, for funded academic research to have ‘impact’, increasingly a parallel emphasis on the need to address ‘real world’ global issues: climate change, sustainability, poverty alleviation, security, health, education. Many UK funding bodies make their support contingent on the addressing of indicators such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), formerly the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).2

The UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and its Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)–Department for International Development (DfID)3 Strategic Partnerships are good cases in point. The UK government’s signature GCRF (launched in 2015 with £1.5 billion, initially to be spread over five years, now projected to run until 20234) aims to:

encourage and support new and existing partnerships between UK and developing country researchers, national and international development agencies, and policymakers in both North and South … It promotes meaningful and equitable relationships between UK research institutions and developing country partners that will help ensure relevance and the identification of realistic pathways by which research can impact on national, regional, and international development policy and practice.

(GCRF, 2017: 1)

Focusing on the SDGs, those framing the GCRF envisaged an international network of researchers – in both the Global North and Global South – who ‘want their work to help make the world a better place’ (GCRF, 2017: 1). The funding criteria stress the need for researchers to ‘co-create useable research’ that will be ‘world leading’ (GCRF, 2017: 1). Similarly, the ESRC–DfID Strategic Partnerships have, since 2005, funded over 200 international research collaborations linked to the SDGs/MDGs. The strategic partnerships emphasise equitable relationships with researchers in developing countries, insisting on Global South partners being included as principal or co-investigators, rather than simply listed as collaborators (ESRC–DfID, 2016).

For all the references to partnerships, that power asymmetries exist between researchers in the Global North and their Global South counterparts is indisputable (if often glossed over). Funders are aware of the disparities – in terms of access to resources if nothing else – that colour Global North–South partnerships. It is for this reason that GCRF documentation refers to ‘equitable’, rather than ‘equal’ relationships (GCRF, 2017: 1), intimating, therefore, that these relationships should aim to be as fair as possible, extant imbalances notwithstanding. A report commissioned by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) (the umbrella body responsible for overseeing the UK’s seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England) argues that for partnerships to be equitable, there should be an emphasis on: ‘humility, respect and honesty … responding to … communities and local groups in all dimensions of research; and the importance of stakeholder engagement throughout framed by a strong understanding of pathways to development impact’ (UKRI, 2018: 7).

However, while the articulation of ‘equitable partnerships’ is a recognition that care should be taken to create balanced partnerships, certain structural constraints serve to undermine well-intentioned efforts to put rhetoric into practice. Funding bodies’ parallel and, at times, competing priorities highlight – albeit often unconsciously – existing power asymmetries. For example, in an era when decolonisation debates have come to dominate the academic landscape, insufficiently considered language that potentially taps into colonial discourses can undermine attempts at equitable relationships. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO, 2020) website makes its position plain – its funded research ‘support[s] the delivery of UK government objectives’, which include enhancing the UK’s ‘global influence’.

GCRF and ESRC–DfID funding criteria serve to extend and entrench UK government ‘power narratives’ (these funding bodies’ parallel ‘equity’ and ‘partnership’ narratives notwithstanding). As part of DfID’s (2015) broader focus on tackling ‘global challenges’, its report UK Aid: Tackling Global Challenges in the National Interest, put forward the view that the UK’s wider development strategy would henceforth be ‘underpinned by a very clear guiding principle: that the UK’s development spending will meet our moral obligation to the world’s poorest and also support our national interest’ (DfID, 2015: 9). This emphasis on the ‘national interest’ sits rather uneasily among the other high-minded goals outlined here, especially with respect to notions of ‘equitable’ partnerships within the Global South. More specifically, the GCRF framework states explicitly that the funding is to advance the UK’s position in the global order through the use of low- and middle-income country (LMIC) partnerships aimed at developing and enhancing the UK’s research capability. The stated point of the GCRF and ESRC–DfID is, then, to a significant degree, to bolster the UK’s position in the world as a leader in terms of expertise. Rather than acknowledging historic global injustices and inequalities (including slavery and colonialism), and related current structural power asymmetries, the emphasis is seemingly less on driving equity in relationships than it is on furthering the national interest by way of charitable endeavour. By implication, the GCRF framework posits LMICs themselves as ‘challenges’ to be transformed through the application of developed country expertise. By extension, so this perspective goes, researchers in the Global South can overcome their countries’ problems only through cooperation with colleagues in the Global North (Noxolo, 2017). While it can be argued that some of the ‘national interest’ commentary is included to assuage UK electorate concerns regarding the value of development spending, the fact remains that such statements of intent shape the context and environment in which partnerships are developed and exercised.

The research core–periphery divide

The current emphasis on international research partnerships represents a significant improvement on that of the 1970s, when Moravcsik and Ziman (1975) railed against the selfishness and narrowmindedness of researchers in the Global North, accusing them of a ‘lack of imagination’ and ‘utter self-interest’ in their refusal to acknowledge how international partnerships might ‘make momentous social and political contributions to humanity’. As late as 1981, just 6 per cent of papers published in the US included international co-authors. The situation in Western Europe, while less glaring at 17 per cent, remains illustrative (Adams, 2013).

While Moravcsik and Ziman were calling for greater international engagement, concerns were also being raised as to the potentially exploitative nature of any such cooperation and, in particular, any power disparities that might lie at its heart (see, for example, Wade, 1975). Moravcsik and Ziman (1975: 706) themselves argued that:

the advanced countries continue to exert an overwhelming influence on the rest of the world in intellectual, cultural, social and spiritual ways. This non-material dependence is quite as demeaning, frustrating and ultimately alienating as economic and political exploitation. For this reason, continued scientific dependence on the advanced countries is an unacceptable future for any self-conscious developing country.

A closer analysis of the raison d’être for and constitution of contemporary Global North–South research partnerships suggests that the criticisms of 45 years ago have yet to be addressed adequately. For critical scholars, these concerns can best be conceived in the language of dependency theory; it is useful to think in terms of a ‘world scientific core and periphery’ (Boshoff, 2009: 414). As with dependency theory arguments more broadly, Global North–South research partnerships are, in terms of this interpretation, constituted to benefit the core (‘epistemic coloniality’). All academic core–periphery collaboration will inevitably disproportionately benefit the core due to the latter’s greater capacity to absorb, disseminate and act upon any knowledge produced. Even if the ‘benefits’ to the core are negligible in terms of economic reward, they nonetheless reinforce its primacy and dominance as a purveyor of expertise. For Paulin Hountondji (1997: 3) ‘the Third World is scientifically dependent in the same way that it is economically dependent’. Accordingly, knowledge production cannot be viewed as taking place in a vacuum; Global North–South research partnerships must be understood within the context of contemporary systems of hegemony (Mbembe, 2016; Walker and Boni, 2020). Epistemic inequalities must be recognised as such (Martinez-Vargas, 2020). From the dependency perspective, while mutual benefit may on some levels be possible, researchers in the Global South are able to engage only if they follow the lead of those in the core – researchers in the Global South lack the agency of their Northern counterparts (Hountondji, 1997; Boshoff, 2009).

Utilising the language of dependency theory in the context of Global North–South research partnerships is potentially contentious, creating as this does binary understandings of the types of relationships outlined: exploiter/exploited, coloniser/colonised, dynamic/passive, resource- and capacity rich / resource- and capacity poor. That said, when the ‘conditionalities’ affixed to the key UK funding pots driving knowledge production are examined more closely, it is clear that there is a discussion to be had.

Agenda setting and ‘impact’

One of the most significant criticisms of extant Global North–South partnerships is the dominance of the Global North with respect to agenda setting. The tendency towards Global North hegemony in this sphere underpins a situation in which the type and form of research determined and generated becomes part of a multidimensional feedback loop that reinforces the Global North’s influence on knowledge production. Despite the language employed by the UK funding bodies regarding ‘equitable partnerships’, it is for the most part UK fund adjudicators, research leads and journal editors who determine what is of research interest and what should form the basis of any given project (Last, 2018), arguably adding to a situation in which researchers in the Global South are ‘tied hand and foot to the apron strings of the West’ (Hountondji, 1997: 1). The major government-backed funding bodies in the UK, like the ESRC, are governed by senior management teams that are drawn almost exclusively from UK academic institutions. The GCRF’s Strategic Advisory Group, while more diverse, is nonetheless UK-centric in terms of the institutions represented on it. The relatively small number of individuals who make up the leadership teams of these bodies are, to a significant extent, responsible for shaping the research parameters of those wishing to tap into the funding on offer.

The parameters defined by the UK funding bodies are augmented and re-enforced by the priorities of individual researchers in the UK. In the UK, the pursuit of funding by researchers is largely motivated by research auditing exercises, the most important of which is the UK government’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), which, alongside ‘quality’ assessment, evaluates the ‘impact’ of research produced by UK academic institutions. The stated purpose of the REF (2020) is to ensure the ‘continuation of a world-class, dynamic and responsive research base across the full academic spectrum within UK higher education’. Performance in the REF is a key source of esteem and professional advancement; at the institutional level, departments will often bring on board ‘REF hires’ in order to bolster their REF scores, thus distorting how researchers are ‘valued’. An important part of a researcher’s ‘value’ has become the degree to which their work is seen to have ‘impact’. Impact is defined in broad terms, as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’ (REF, 2020). The REF’s definition tends to measure impact at the macro level, with less prioritisation afforded to material benefits at the micro level.5 While it would be grossly unfair to characterise the motivations of researchers in the UK in purely instrumental terms, the resultant reality is that many have little choice but to ensure that both their proposals and their findings are calibrated to reflect the REF criteria. Conversely, away from REF-imposed constraints, project partners in Ethiopia and Nepal articulated a desire to develop research that is more demonstrably and immediately focused at the community level than that often supported by UK funding bodies. These project partners measure their potential ‘value’ as researchers in more immediate terms, such as the contribution of their research to ‘social good’ – their ability to affect more specific improvements in local living standards, and as part of broader development drives. These reflections are mirrored elsewhere: African scientists, when polled as to their priorities, placed a heavy emphasis on producing work with significant social impact on the ground (Tijssen and Kraemer-Mbula, 2018). As one of our project partners put it, ‘value’ is ‘the personal satisfaction from doing something for the community’. Ultimately, the meaning of impact is often far more direct for our project partners than it is for many researchers in the UK and, ironically, it is the former interpretation that might be argued to best engage with the underlying spirit of the REF’s definition of impact.

Publishing and the dissemination of knowledge

Impact, in a REF sense, is derived largely through publications. The REF’s approach to measuring research hinges on both the quality (and, to a degree, quantity) of research outputs, with the outcome being that there is considerable pressure on researchers in the UK to ‘publish or perish’. The resultant goal is a consistent stream of publications, much of which would be impossible without recourse to research funds. Funding proposals therefore tend to be written so as to maximise the potential for REF-viable research outputs for researchers in the UK.6 Researchers are likewise incentivised to claim first authorship on papers aimed at publication in prioritised (high-ranked) academic journals. High-ranked academic journals are overwhelmingly those published in Europe and North America, with editorial boards populated heavily by researchers situated in these regions. As with the leadership teams of the major funding bodies, it is these editorial boards that decide what types of research are publishable (and therefore, ultimately, funding-worthy).

Project partners voiced their frustration with some of the obstacles to dissemination that they face when navigating international publishing without first engaging with partners in the Global North. Dissemination of one’s work represents a priority for any researcher. Publishing in high-ranked international journals represents the surest route to widespread dissemination and visibility, which project partners stressed as important to both their ‘social missions’ and potential further funding. However, structural constraints mean that it is often difficult for these researchers to access suitable dissemination channels. Researchers in the Global South are often dependent on partnerships with researchers in countries like the UK because high-ranked journals almost invariably publish in English. Regardless of merit, publishing in a language other than English almost inevitably means publishing in a lower-ranked journal (Levitt and Thelwall, 2010) – English is effectively the language of academia. It is notable that many English-medium journals are classified as ‘international’ even if their focus is largely parochial (O’Neil, 2018). The reverse is also true: many journals published in languages besides English are designated as ‘national’ even if the content is international in focus. Alternative publishing avenues for non-native English speakers (NNES) can therefore be limited. Papers in non-English-medium journals tend to be marginalised, sometimes to the point of being relegated to ‘grey literature’ (Bortolus, 2012; O’Neil, 2018). To make themselves more visible, journals that do not publish in English often include an English title and abstract for their articles. Anecdotal evidence from researchers from non-English-speaking backgrounds (China, Germany and Spain) based in the UK highlights the degree to which English has ‘colonised’ academia. A senior researcher from China explained that in order to publish in Chinese they would have to write in English and then translate into Chinese – despite Chinese being their first language. Similarly, a German researcher estimated that it takes them twice as long to write up their research in German as it does to do so in English; English has, out of necessity, become the ‘thinking’ language for these researchers.

The ‘dependency binary’ does, of course, obscure something of a ‘semi-periphery’ (Alatas, 2003) in research and publishing. Currently, researchers in countries like Brazil publish thousands of articles a year in Portuguese, which, while generating less international coverage, helps to position Brazil as a regional research hub (Céspedes, 2021). It is likewise the case that our project partners, in anticipation of their work effecting local-level change and ‘[making] life easier for a larger and broader population’, also target local journals and other publications accessed by civil servants and policymakers. At the same time, it is hard to ignore Robert Phillipson’s (1992) coining of the term ‘linguistic imperialism’ to describe the dominance of English as the lingua franca of research, resulting in what David O’Neil (2018: 149) refers to as ‘monolingualism in international publishing’. More pithily, Achille Joseph Mbembe (2016: 36) argues that ‘colonialism rhymes with monolingualism’ (see also wa Thiong’o, 1981).

The emphasis on English unquestionably provides researchers who are native English speakers (NES) with immediate advantages, while imposing significant disadvantages on those for whom researching and writing in English are additional, often time-consuming processes. It has been estimated that for NNES in the Global South to publish in English takes up to three times longer than if the same article was to be published in their first language (Bortolus, 2012). The pressure for NNES to publish in English, however, is intense. In China, as elsewhere, publishing in English-medium journals comes with added prestige and associated potential for career advancement. In this respect, NNES Chinese researchers find themselves either dependent on English-speaking co-authors or forced to rely on a host of often questionable professional translating services and ‘brokers’ that facilitate the submission and progression of work through the publication process (Luo and Hyland, 2019); journal editors can also be hesitant to work with NNES authors whose copy can, understandably, be more time-consuming (and therefore more expensive) to prepare for publication. For Chinese researchers, then, international partnerships make sense, providing as they do NNES researchers with access to NES co-authors. However, gaining the language skills of NES partners becomes costly if in the process first author credits are relinquished (Clavero, 2010; Luo and Hyland, 2019).

One of the broader dangers of an English publishing monoculture is that important multidimensional additions to knowledge might well go unnoticed internationally (Meneghini and Packer, 2007).7 Likewise, the vortex generated by English-medium journals means that engagement with international research in the Global South (on the part of civil servants, policymakers, NGOs, educators, students and other stakeholders) is restricted to those proficient in English (Amano et al, 2016). Project partners stressed that these restrictions make open-access publishing particularly critical. Here again, the associated costs make funded partnerships for researchers in the Global South almost a prerequisite.8

While publishing in English is the catalyst for many international partnerships, the incentives for researchers in the Global South to seek out partners in the Global North go beyond the challenges of language. Evidence suggests that Global South–South partnerships tend to be viewed as more parochial by high-ranked journals and, as a result, the research generated by such partnerships does not tend to feature in them as strongly as that generated by Global North–South partnerships (Ordóñez-Matamoros et al, 2020). This bias effectively discourages Global South–South partnerships, and thus knowledge production, that might, again, be both more multidimensional and also more appropriate to the challenges faced by communities in the Global South. As Girei (2017: 454–5) argues, ‘academic knowledge about Africa, whatever the field, is produced mainly by institutions and scholars outside the continent’. Partnerships between researchers in the same regions – facing similar economic, social and environmental challenges – are potentially better positioned to address extant complexities. Despite the tangible benefits of Global South–South partnerships, therefore, the reality is that, in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, levels of intracontinental partnership are low, with only 1 per cent of South Africa’s (the continent’s largest generator of published research) scientific publications being co-authored with researchers from other African countries – as opposed to over 50 per cent of partnerships with non-African partners (Boshoff, 2009). More junior project partners listed support in navigating the publishing environment as a key benefit of any partnership with researchers in the UK. Critically, greater insight into high-impact publishing is seen as crucial for subsequent career advancement and a greater degree of agency where the negotiation of future partnerships is concerned.

Global North–South partnerships: asymmetries in action

A measure of progress is increasingly evident where the creation of more equitable frameworks for UK research partnerships is concerned; we are not suggesting that the current model has been wholly unresponsive to change. The Newton Fund’s ‘Institutional Links’ grants call for joint principal investigators, one of whom must be based in a partner country in the Global South.9 The Medical Research Council (MRC) has begun offering large grants with a far greater scope for principal investigators based in the Global South (see, for example, its ‘African Research Leader scheme’10). The National Institutes of Health Research (NIHR) now insists on ‘joint leads’ for projects such as those covered by its Global Health Research Units calls.11 Smaller UK-based funding pots, like that of the Perivoli Africa Research Centre (PARC), are offering grants for projects initiated and led by researchers in African countries partnered with researchers in the UK.12 At the same time, impact and output criteria mean that structurally determined epistemic inequalities remain largely ingrained.

Global North dominance in research and knowledge dissemination is entrenched further through a labour hierarchy that favours (often unconsciously) the priorities of researchers in the Global North, with the result that the priorities of researchers in the Global South can, along with their contributions to knowledge, become sidelined. Multiple studies link the power asymmetries largely inherent in Global North–South research partnerships to a skewed division of labour that can disadvantage and devalue the work of researchers in the Global South (Costello and Zumla, 2000; Boshoff, 2009; Parker and Kingori, 2016).

Accusations of exploitation are not new (Martinez-Palomo, 1987; Edejer, 1999; Trostle, 1992). James Trostle (1992: 1322–3) argues how: ‘The systematic involvement of [Least Developed Country] scientists as implementors of research designs or purveyors of unique datasets can be called “scientific colonialism,” for it is typified by extraction and export of knowledge rather than fertilization and indigenous growth.’ Nearly 30 years later, it may be argued that not much has changed. A Lancet Global Health (2018: 593) editorial addressed the ongoing issue head-on: ‘No one likes a parachute researcher: the one who drops into a country, makes use of the local infrastructure, personnel … and then goes home and writes an academic paper for a prestigious journal.’

Researchers in the Global South highlight how they are often invited to join partnerships only once project frameworks are in place, thus minimising their input where project design is concerned (Kok et al, 2017). Project partners articulated reservations about how funding bids are written up. One partner drew attention to the tendency to consult local researchers belatedly, thus affording them little opportunity to shape research priorities. For example, a project focused on improved water sources in a particular area was awarded funding when the pressing need for that community was improved sanitation systems, a misinterpretation that could readily have been resolved in consultation with local researchers. Project partners pointed out that partnerships could be more effective if those on the ground were from the outset made more responsible for identifying research priorities.

That the language of colonialism lends itself with perhaps unsettling ease to the activities of researchers in the Global North doing fieldwork in the Global South is in itself revealing: short projects require research that is regularly described as ‘quick and dirty’; ‘flying’ trips to field sites are readily lampoonable as ‘sample safaris’; remote oversight by those in the Global North can be caricatured as ‘postal research’; researchers in the Global South can, in effect, be viewed as ‘data couriers’ (Munung et al, 2017: 9). Healthcare research has presented us with the ‘mosquito researcher’ who flies in to collect blood samples before flying out again to publish their results (Edejer, 1999).

It is increasingly acknowledged that the delineation of tasks and processes within partnerships could be more equitable. Researchers in the Global South have long protested about their roles being those of ‘glorified fieldworkers’ (Hountondji, 1997), and ‘local brokers’ (Baaz and Utas, 2019). The concern is that their contributions start and finish with the more mundane aspects of project realisation: sampling, conducting focus groups, distributing and collecting questionnaires, and operating as gatekeepers (Parker and Kingori, 2016). A sense of being integral to the more creative and visibly value-added aspects of projects is often lacking. Data collection is, of course, central to any research project. Access to new data sets represents a core aspect of many partnerships. However, the various steps to quality data collection can be undervalued, and those who undertake the sometimes onerous process are often not afforded sufficient credit for their skill sets, rendering them ‘ghost workers’ (Turner, 2010). Our project partners called for greater managerial and leadership roles for on-the-ground researchers, emphasising how enhanced local input could lead to more streamlined logistical outcomes for partnerships.

The bottom line is that inputs from researchers in the Global North are often taken to be more valuable than those from researchers in the Global South (Jentsch and Pilley, 2003). The tendency for UK-funded partnerships to be dominated (often unconsciously) at every level by researchers in the UK goes some way towards accounting for the relative lack of first (or single) author publications by researchers in the Global South emerging from such partnerships (Boshoff, 2009).

Towards greater equity through UK-funded research partnerships

Both the design and implementation of UK-funded research partnerships addressing challenges in the Global South can, at the expense of local researchers and communities, privilege researchers in the UK, impede research outcomes and undermine optimal knowledge exchange. If fledgling efforts to level out extant partnership inequalities are accelerated, it follows that the resolution of targeted challenges can be expedited, and that knowledge production more generally can be deepened and expanded.

If epistemic inequalities are to be addressed, further efforts must be made to acknowledge the career challenges faced by researchers in the Global South. Researchers can, of course, seek out employment opportunities in the Global North (which, indeed, some of us authors have done), not least on the back of successful involvement in Global North–South partnerships. At the same time, much has been written about the widespread negative consequences of ‘brain drain’ for the Global South (see, for example, Odhiambo, 2013), including the extent to which it is understood to fuel existing inequalities. A researcher’s decision to remain in the Global South often tends to be influenced, or at least reinforced, therefore, by a sense of social mission focused at the local level. Project partners hoping to continue working in the Global South linked their research to an ongoing commitment to local engagement: ‘my only interest is here’. At the same time, the sacrifices for remaining in the Global South can be significant and self-reinforcing, resulting in career precarity that continued association with Global North–South partnerships sometimes does little to ameliorate. A project partner highlighted how a lack of local resources can make recourse to multiple, and sometimes overlapping, Global North–South partnerships the only route to a viable research career (see also Asare et al, 2020), this despite the insecurity engendered by the short-term nature of many of these partnerships. The typical 18–36 month duration of many UK-funded partnerships obliges researchers to move from short-term project to short-term project, an inevitable consequence of the current funding model that draws similar criticism from the precariat in the UK. As with precariously placed researchers in the UK, but often even more urgently given the numerous other constraints under which they may be operating, researchers in the Global South seek greater project longevity. The reality is often the opposite, with researchers obliged to constantly seek out collaborators and continually ‘tender’ for funding. The resultant disruption to research is magnified when trajectories and specialisms are impeded by the relentless requirement to adapt to new projects and new areas of focus (with half-completed research invariably needing to be set to one side).13 As a result, one project partner questioned the feasibility of a fulltime research career, feeling compelled to investigate supplementing their income with commercial work.

Project partners determined to address ‘major community problems’ stressed the need for longer-term funding as a matter of urgency. However, the pressing challenges faced by communities in the Global South make it inevitable that the researchers who take it upon themselves to confront these challenges will invariably keep needing to turn to that which is on offer. In the interests of turning necessity into advantage, project partners stressed the importance of further training in how to best prepare research bids aimed at accessing UK funding (for those of us in the UK, there is ample institutional support on offer to help with the preparation of bids, something not usually available to potential project partners in the Global South). Project partners also highlighted the potential advantages of enhanced support during the subsequent stages of partnerships, including during the preparation of research for publication, which often takes place once a project has come to an end.

More junior project partners argued for a greater skills-transfer aspect to project partnerships, ideally in the form of courses and access to expertise across UK-partner institutions that would aid their development as researchers both during and beyond the life of projects. Currently, appropriate skills training is perceived to be insufficient, which is viewed as a hinderance to productivity, not least because junior researchers in the Global South can feel pressured by the expectation that they undertake a wide range of project activities, some of which they feel underqualified to perform. Junior project partners in particular also pointed to the benefits of greater contact (both formal and casual) between researchers in the UK and the Global South in the interests of cementing longer-term professional and personal ties. A great deal of time and energy can go into developing project relationships that frequently fall away once a partnership ends. Given the long-term nature of many of the challenges facing the Global South, this can be seen to be self-defeating.

Deeper local engagement on the part of UK-funded partnerships would help to offset the extent to which challenges faced by the Global South tend to be identified, framed and prioritised by researchers in the Global North; a project partner highlighted how current Global North–South partnerships may be effective in articulating problems and vulnerabilities in communities, but can tend to leave the resolution of these issues to others. In the interests of generating more resolution-oriented outputs, project partners expressed their desire to be more heavily involved in the writing-up aspects of partnerships. Also with a view to facilitating resolutions, project partners emphasised the need for far greater cross-partnership data sharing, expressing surprise at how often, across different partnerships, the same wheels keep on being reinvented.

With little evidence that UK research proposals are written with much input from targeted communities in the Global South, development challenges are likely to continue to be shaped (and, at times, constructed) by outsiders (Chilisa and Denborough, 2019). One of the dangers of this situation is that targeted communities may find themselves being treated as no more than ‘data fodder’. Communities tend to have a very clear sense of the challenges they face, and their deeper input during the planning stages of bids may prove beneficial where the creation of more appropriately tailored projects are concerned. To this end, a project partner argued for co-researcher roles for members of studied communities, especially with respect to agenda setting. Local research bases might, too, be strengthened: some of the PhD scholarships that invariably form an integral part of UK-funded partnerships could in future be attached to local rather than UK institutions, thus helping to alleviate rather than contribute to ‘brain drain’.

When those whose lived experiences and environments form the basis of the data sets utilised in research partnerships find that the results, if they are informed of them at all (a common complaint), do not speak directly to their needs, the outcome is a potential sense of ‘respondent fatigue’ (Ambler et al, 2021). Communities forming the foci of research partnerships are also often asked to commit significantly in terms of resources such as time, travel and levels of engagement (in, for example, focus groups, in-depth interviews, and questionnaires), with little clear personal reward. It is becoming increasingly apparent that communities in the Global South are tiring of ‘working for free’. Importantly, project partners felt that communities being researched need more direct experience of the rewards of participation; they need to see the tangible benefits of engaging with researchers. Fulfilment of requests for compensation in the form of training, skills transfers, infrastructure and equipment would appear to be a reasonable quid pro quo. However, this type of renumeration is not usually covered by UK funding bodies.

Conclusion

As UK research funding seeks to move towards a more equitable model, we argue that the structures underpinning both it and its associated outcomes require urgent examination, particularly where agenda setting and its uncomfortable resonances with coloniality are concerned. At the same time, we, the authors, value our UK–Global South partnerships and believe in the value of the research that we are producing; we do not suggest throwing the baby out with the bath water. That said, it is clear that asymmetries in how research is funded and assessed in the UK has skewed the model of UK–Global South partnerships in such a way – consciously or unconsciously – as to prioritise the agendas of UK funding bodies and institutions. It is also impossible to ignore how UK funding is used to produce research that cements the position of the UK as a dominant curator of expertise. The dominance of researchers in the Global North in publishing further reinforces these asymmetries, driving epistemic inequalities within UK–Global South partnerships, and beyond. It is crucial, if collaborations such as those on which we have worked both independently and together are to facilitate research that constitutes meaningful impact and contributions to knowledge, that epistemic inequalities need to be acknowledged. While differences in access to resources means that asymmetries will continue (partnerships will never be ‘equal’ in this respect), more can be done to ensure ‘equitable’ engagement within and, ideally, beyond partnerships. On a list of ‘low-hanging fruit’, (1) a key starting point would be more principal investigators based in the Global South, with the authority to shape and manage projects, (2) colleagues based in the Global South being more involved in the ‘value-added’ aspects of research rather than being employed mainly in the field, (3) greater resources being made available to NNES researchers, so as to (somewhat) level the publishing playing field, and (4) the inputs of communities in the Global South that contribute their lived experiences to projects being recognised as such, with associated benefits. Addressing these epistemic inequalities on a practical level would be a route towards the recognition of, and engagement with, the deeper structural imbalances of persistent coloniality in UK-funded research.

Notes

1

This article is dedicated to Tadesse Wondim, our co-author, project partner and friend, who sadly passed away in December 2020.

2

The Sustainable Development Goals replaced the Millennium Development Goals that were in place 2000–15; https://sdgs.un.org

3

In 2020, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) was merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to form the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

4

The slashing of the UK government’s international aid budget in 2021 led to heavy cuts to GCRF spending, resulting in a fair degree of uncertainly with respect to the ongoing viability of many projects. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced in November 2021 that ‘legal commitments for existing projects from 2022/23 will be met’; https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/relief-uks-very-high-quality-global-research-hubs-saved

5

There are signs that the major UK funding bodies are beginning to acknowledge the importance of a shift towards a more localised vision of ‘impact’. A member of our team is currently engaged in a GCRF water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project that moves beyond the standard approach to one that includes implementing research recommendations within the communities studied.

6

REF requirements can also represent a potential disincentive for interdisciplinary cooperation in so far as publications are scored within disciplinary units of assessment, with the result that interdisciplinary outputs can be difficult for panels to score – an aspect at odds with the interdisciplinary emphasis of many UK funding bodies (Manville et al, 2021).

7

Admittedly, in terms of attracting a global audience, this a difficult issue to circumvent. Seminal Kenyan author and academic Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1981) argued for writing in one’s ‘mother tongue’ and then relying on translation for wider dissemination. This, however, generates additional debates surrounding both the practice of translation and the motivation of publishers to seek out and fund such initiatives.

8

While some publishers have a fee-waiver for authors based solely in the Global South, many routinely charge upwards of £2,000 for ‘gold’ open-access publishing.

13

This holds true for the project that brought us, the authors, together. The research undertaken during the course of the project will need to be written up post-project, when time and new commitments permit.

Funding

This work was supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) by way of a QR-GCRF grant awarded by the University of Bristol (UK).

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers who offered us feedback on this work – their input was much appreciated. We would also like to thank Dr Jill Payne for her help with earlier versions of the article. Last, but not least, we acknowledge the funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) that brought us, the authors, together.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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Adrian FlintUniversity of Bristol, UK

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Moti PoudelKathmandu University, Nepal

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Anisha NijhawanUniversity of Bristol, UK

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Yohannes MulugetaHaramaya University, Ethiopia

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Subodh SharmaKathmandu University, Nepal

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