Every voice counts: addressing inequality in research and development
To address colonial perspectives and social and environmental injustices in research and development practice, we must be open to learning from and including different backgrounds, contexts and systems, and to recognising both past injustices and the privilege enjoyed by researchers from the global North.
This year, the ‘Dilemmas of Development’ webinar series, led by students from Sweden’s Lund University, focuses on addressing inequality and including diverse perspectives in development practice.
This is in line with IIED’s commitment to addressing inequality and becoming an anti-racist organisation, and both set out the need to unpack research biases that perpetuate colonial perspectives and social and environmental injustices, issues we explore here.
An unequal world
The World Inequality Report 2022 notes that global inequalities are as great today as they were at the peak of Western imperialism in the early 20th century.
The climate crisis has magnified these inequalities while shedding light on power dynamics that have persisted since colonial times. Widespread failures to ensure the world’s poorest populations and economies have access to internet technologies, financing and now COVID-19 vaccines has increased the institutionalisation of global inequality and discrimination.
To address this, we must analyse power dynamics and recognise that groups are left behind due to intersectional inequalities including race, ethnicity, sex, geographical location or income levels.
Recognition and access to resources
Let us take the case of Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs) and their efforts to protect the environment and mitigate the effects of climate change.
Around half of the world’s land is governed by IPLCs, and this land contains around 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Although most of the land is managed sustainably and provides highly valuable ecosystem services, only 10% of the land tenure is recognised under national law.
Recent studies have shown that only 1% of official development aid directly supports IPLCs climate mitigation efforts, while 99% of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the global South work on international NGO agendas on a sub-grant basis.
This implies that less than 10% of local NGOs are truly local, which damages the legitimacy, independence and objectivity of local civil society organisations.
Participation and representation
The struggle for effective participation and rights continues, undermining global solidarity, as disadvantaged groups are excluded at all levels. With the 2021 UN climate change conference, COP26, criticised as “the ‘most exclusionary’ climate summit ever”, people from developing countries and small island states, IPLCs, women, youth and people with disabilities continue to be under-represented in climate negotiations.
Furthermore, representation doesn’t equal effective participation, which is often tokenistic. The UK, for example, was proud that 45% of its team were women; yet many of these roles were related to event organisation or advising the main decision makers who were men. Of the UK’s 12-strong leadership team, only two were women.
Colonial legacies in research
Understanding the colonial history of research is key to grasping the power dynamics of knowledge production and addressing the positionality of researchers and practitioners. Rather than an innocent pursuit of knowledge, early research developed in the context of 'voyages of discovery'.
Through this context, the construction and positioning of the 'Other' in a broader global order gave rise to structural oppression by colonial powers and continues to be expressed through the coloniality of power (the construction of inferiority), coloniality of knowledge (the superiority of the Western knowledge system) and coloniality of being (the oppression of individual and collective identities).
Research methodology has not substantially changed from these origins. Until today, accepted forms of knowledge acquisition remain limited to designs that originated in the global North.
What needs to change?
Research has long been characterised as retrieving ‘information’ from the global South and transforming it into ‘knowledge’ from the global North.
Academics and researchers must take responsibility for changing the conditions of dialogue between different knowledge systems and emphasise reconstructing, revaluing and recovering local knowledge with adequate recognition of its ownership.
To conduct research or work in development practice, we must first address colonial legacies in the global knowledge production system and the relationship between methodology and power.
These are necessary starting points for recognising researchers from the global South, marginalised groups, local communities and Indigenous Peoples, ensuring their knowledge and contributions to advancing climate action and conservation are valued and respected in global knowledge systems and the politics of citation.
Indigenous and grassroots organisations have worked hard to make their voices heard and fight colonial legacies, unequal power dynamics and economic disparities. But 'othering' continues, and IPLC capabilities and knowledge systems go unacknowledged and unrecognised.
Researchers and practitioners have a responsibility to lead the necessary transformation of consciousness and change the narrative by bringing critical reflections on privilege, positionality and responsibility into practice.
Being open to learning from and to include different backgrounds, contexts and systems and the recognition of past injustices and the privileged position of most researchers from the global North are the first steps towards decoloniality.
Everybody matters, every voice counts
Organisations and communities from the global South are not objects of study or providers of information. Rather, they should be treated as communicators, analysts, researchers, and theorists; because they have the lived experience but they are the most marginalised – economically, politically, and socially – and the most vulnerable to climate and other stresses.
Using an intersectional approach to address the interconnected nature of social categories helps to address overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage and respond to climate and environment policies that exclude people who face overlapping discrimination unique to them.