Confronting structural inequalities in South-North research collaborations

Lorenzo Cotula reflects on the need to address structural factors affecting collaborations across the global North and South, such as entrenched narratives, funding arrangements and deep-seated policy drivers.

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Lorenzo Cotula
Lorenzo Cotula is a principal researcher in IIED’s Natural Resources research group
11 May 2022
A crowd of women and men hold banners and shout in protest

Rural Indonesians demonstrate to demand land rights and an end to land grabs in 2012. Blog author Lorenzo Cotula learned from agrarian movements in Indonesia challenging the constitutionality of legislation promoting commercial investments (Photo: Indonesian Movement for Recovering People’s Rights)

In an interdependent world, research collaborations across the global ‘North’ and ‘South’ can help tackle difficult policy issues. But models whereby organisations in the North set research and policy agendas for the global South reflect colonial legacies and are deeply problematic.

Realities in and across the global North and South are extremely diverse – but as Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano noted, the racialised hierarchies upon which European colonisation historically rested continue to shape structures, mindsets and behaviours.

This affects not only economic and political relations but also the production of knowledge, marginalising Indigenous knowledge systems and global South scholarship. Conventional approaches to education perpetuate structural discrimination, entrenching it into deep-seated beliefs that successive generations come to take for granted.

As policy researchers, we must be mindful of how this influences thought and action, even subconsciously, and the power dynamics operating in our direct relations and surrounding contexts.

We must question prevailing patterns, engage with different histories, perspectives and ways of working, and acknowledge and, insofar as possible, address power relations – supporting models whereby global South actors fundamentally shape agendas, from research design to feeding findings into policy.

Learning from the global South

IIED collaborates with research institutions, non-governmental organisations and small-scale producer federations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This has been the most enriching part of my job.

Looking back on the work I did, as an emerging scholar, on the global rush to land, some of the most insightful experiences involved collaborating with researchers in Africa and Asia, who authored IIED reports on Cameroon, Ghana, Malaysia, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia.

I also learned from collaborations with legal empowerment practitioners on supporting bottom-up responses to the problems the research was exposing and on facilitating peer learning through lesson-sharing events and reports.

Examples include reports on how Indigenous organisations combined law and grassroots cartography to challenge commercial concessions in Ecuador; how trained volunteers helped defend land rights in Mozambique and Tanzania; and how agrarian movements in Indonesia challenged the constitutionality of legislation promoting commercial investments.

This collaborative ethos built on IIED’s earlier experience of publishing research by scholars from the global South, for example on land issues, with particular attention paid to bridging artificial divides rooted in colonialism, such as linguistic and juristic barriers in Anglophone and Francophone West Africa.

Towards new foundations: rethinking funding models

These collaborations generated evidence challenging dominant narratives and facilitated alliances for policy advocacy. They also debunked enduring tropes that characterise some policy research on the global South. 

Jargon in North-South collaborations often emphasises ‘capacity building’. This language is at odds with the obvious reality that global South actors have plenty of knowledge and skills to drive their work and share with Northern colleagues. Some of the most thoughtful analyses on the global land rush came from scholars in the global South – for example, Ghana’s Kojo Amanor and Dzodzi Tsitaka.

Acknowledging this has implications for researchers in Europe and North America. Attitude matters, including humility and a commitment to following Southern partners’ lead. But it is also critical to confront structural factors affecting how agendas are set.

For example, prevailing funding models mean Northern institutions often act as donor intermediaries, fronting project proposals and channelling funds to partners in the South. Coupled with increasingly exacting funder requirements, this translates into complex contractual arrangements that can distort lines of accountability and exacerbate the power relations present in all collaborations, even partnerships.

This situation requires proactive efforts to ensure project set-up does not get in the way of genuine research co-design and co-production. More fundamentally, there is a need to systemically rethink funding models.

Some of the more authentic partnerships I experienced entailed our collaborators accessing resources directly from global funders, with IIED having separate funding or being subcontracted by Southern partners for technical contributions or lesson-sharing.

This was the case in a project to promote accountability in land governance, implemented with partners in Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal and led by Dakar-based action-research organisation IED Afrique.

A project to support ‘preventive’ legal empowerment as pressures on land intensify adopts a similar approach: the Yaoundé-based Centre for Environment and Development (CED) leads the overall project, and work in Cameroon, while the Land and Equity Movement in Uganda (LEMU) leads activities in Uganda, with IIED providing methodological inputs and helping to disseminate lessons.

Planned and ongoing projects in Senegal, Mali and Indonesia follow variants of these approaches.

From evidence to policy

There are also implications for research-to-policy pathways. Some of IIED’s policy work targets global processes such as United Nations talks on human rights, climate, food and investment. But our collaborative work also generates evidence relevant to local, national and regional-level policies.

National policy support works best if done with experts in the country, who have the knowledge and legitimacy to lead. In Cameroon, for example, colleagues at CED and the Network for the Fight against Hunger are leading collaborative policy engagement to support land governance reform.

Similar approaches inform our work on agricultural policy in Guinea and Nepal. And much of the technical support we provide through a joint initiative with the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) involves collaborating with organisations in the relevant countries.

While questions are often framed narrowly around national policy problems such as local corruption or lack of inter-agency coordination, effective responses typically require broadening the scope to address the international political economies in which those problems are embedded – from global narratives to commercial interests, economic treaties and the conditionalities of financial institutions.

This is why there is a compelling case for us to tackle ‘development’ problems through systems thinking that links policy in the global North to realities around the globe. For example, trade agendas – often set by countries in the North, where global economic and political power is concentrated – disproportionately affect policy space and outcomes in the global South.

Working on policy issues in the global North can also enable more genuine two-way exchange. Many of the insights I have gained from thinkers and practitioners in the global South are highly relevant to addressing problems in the North, and North-South collaborations can facilitate global North uptake of innovation from the South.

Systematically rethinking prevailing models can help us build new forms of allyship across North and South and, through that, more effectively tackle complex global problems.

Thanks to Tracy Kajumba and Brendan Schwartz for their comments on this blog.