By Maru Mormina and Romina Istratii
Why do many countries in the Global South remain behind when it comes to knowledge production and use, despite decades-long efforts to strengthen research capacity?
We think this is because the North still looks at the South with a ‘deficit mentality,’ according to which the latter has the problems and the former the solutions. From this standpoint, northern-led capacity development initiatives fail to recognise the South’s rich and diverse knowledge traditions and systems. Instead, they continue to impose monolithic blueprints of knowledge production, therefore re-inscribing colonial patterns of intellectual Western hegemony.
Of course, in many countries, research systems need support but current approaches are at best producing mixed results. A decolonial lens can help us identify alternative models.
Decolonising research capacity development in principle
The decolonisation discourse is often misused and overused. Nonetheless, it has helped to advance racial justice claims and frame geopolitical struggles. Decolonial critiques of knowledge production, in particular, have effectively mainstreamed the idea that knowledge exists in the Global South. And that it’s useful and valuable for everyone, not just for locals.
When applied to research capacity development, these critiques make the coloniality of interventions and their underlying ‘deficit view’ visible. This view is often deeply ingrained in both Northern and Southern mindsets.
Decolonising research capacity development in practice
Decolonisation touches upon the political, historical, economic, social, and the personal and affective dimensions of our collective identities. We authors are Southerners by origin, but we work at Northern universities. So, in some ways – perhaps inevitably – we’re cogs in a system designed to maintain knowledge imbalances.
By occupying this liminal space, caught in the complexities and contradictions of decolonisation, we’ve learnt to be mindful of our own imbricated positionalities. We’ve also learnt to be cautious of any language, assumptions or approaches that are mainstreamed as panaceas for international problems. For us, decolonising research capacity development starts with a reflection about its practices and fundamental purpose.
Research capacity development seeks to support the production of socially valuable knowledge, which advances the long-term wellbeing and resilience of individuals, communities and societies. But how can we achieve this in practice? Being mindful of the need to avoid one-size-fits-all answers, we discern the following three broad principles, which are informed by decolonial thinking:
- Epistemic pluralism through cognitive justice
- Equity of access through systems strengthening
- Sustainability achieved through localisation.
1. Epistemic pluralism through cognitive justice
We can only get a better grasp on what social justice demands by tapping into different forms of knowledge. Yet, research capacity development strategies often privilege certain types of knowledge, whilst rendering others invisible. Decisions about which and whose capacities should be developed create winners and losers. Cognitive justice and epistemic pluralism, thus, need to be at the heart of research capacity development planning.
Epistemic pluralism requires capturing a more diverse pool of talent by widening access beyond already privileged individuals. One way to achieve this may be to diversify research funding away from the few ‘centres of excellence’ that currently receive it.
Cognitive justice means recognising the knowledge contribution of different groups. A commitment to cognitive justice requires us to broaden the scope of research capacity development interventions to include a diversity of knowledge producers. This means not just academic institutions, but also non-governmental organisations, think tanks, etc. It also requires us to include knowledge users eg., civil society and policymakers. The inclusion of such knowledge users and producers will create a strong and diverse knowledge force. This is necessary to ensure inclusive and legitimate deliberation on what socially valuable knowledge looks like in particular contexts, countries or sectors.
2. Equity of access through systems strengthening
Few recognise the potential of research capacity development to deepen domestic inequalities, especially in Southern countries. This is a particular risk if the benefits of knowledge production are unevenly distributed. For example, technological innovations mostly benefit those with the financial resources to adopt them early. The Green Revolution illustrates this. Without equity as a frame of reference, efforts to strengthen research and innovation capacity may end up deepening existing inequities or creating new ones.
Ensuring fair access to the benefits of knowledge production requires a strong social contract between these key actors:
- The institutions tasked with creating knowledge (eg., universities and think tanks)
- The institutions tasked with translating knowledge (eg., industry and government)
- The governance institutions tasked with enabling the process, through appropriate regulatory frameworks and infrastructure.
This means that strengthening knowledge production alone is not enough. Equity asks us to think of research capacity development in systemic terms. Systems strengthening requires interventions not to focus on the actors in isolation – knowledge producers, knowledge users and governance institutions – but on the linkages between them. Strong, functioning relationships between these three parts of the knowledge ecosystem is what enables both knowledge production and a fairer diffusion and distribution of its benefits.
3. Sustainability achieved through localisation
We understand sustainability as the ability to meet the diverse needs of existing and future communities efficiently and at an appropriate scale. Therefore, sustainability is about continuity and productivity.
Continuity: Systemic research capacity development approaches require continuity of funding, resources and human capital, rather than subordination of research capacity development to skills development for specific tasks in research projects. These approaches also require flexibility, because capacity development is never a linear process. So, research capacity development cannot be ‘owned’ by Northern institutions, whose primary interest is the delivery of research, but by Global South actors themselves. This is so that capacity can be continuously developed to deliver on the ever-changing local priorities.
Productivity: Research productivity in the Global South will always fail to match that of industrialised societies if capacity is measured against the cognitive, rigidly defined and quantifiable skills associated with Western notions of excellence. By adopting this notion of capacity, research capacity development reinforces the ‘deficit view’ and imposes a scientific monoculture that doesn’t accommodate different forms of knowledge production. Instead of encouraging isomorphic mimicry, research capacity development should support context-appropriate ways of producing and evaluating knowledge. This also requires local ownership.
Localising research capacity development: True localisation means shifting power so that ideas are developed in local communities, to address their own needs. This requires systems and processes of knowledge production that are not vulnerable to external interests. Because these interests are usually leveraged through foreign investment, localisation can only be achieved by breaking the reliance on international research funding. Clearly, local financing is a political decision that each country must make independently – do they encourage home-grown knowledge production or continue relying on international organisations? Enhancing the demand for local knowledge requires cultural and societal change to overcome the deficit mindset.
This brings us full circle. The localisation of knowledge production requires approaches to research capacity development that are not homogenising, but responsive to changing local realities. Such approaches must harness a diversity of talent and be systemic, so that effective spaces can be created for science and society to redefine their social contract.
What do you think? Do you agree with our analysis and suggestions for decolonising research capacity development? Do you have other suggestions to share? Are you aware of working models to emulate?
To find out more:
This i2Inisghts contribution is adapted from Maru Mormina and Romina Istratii (2023). “Decolonising research capacity development”, in On Think Tanks. (Online): https://onthinktanks.org/articles/2838554-2/. A longer essay by the authors provides a more detailed analysis of the legacy of colonisation and can be found at: Mormina, M. and Istratii, R. (2021). ‘Capacity for what? Capacity for whom?’ A decolonial deconstruction of research
capacity development practices in the Global South and a proposal for a value-centred approach. Wellcome Open Research, 6: 129. (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.12688/wellcomeopenres.16850.1
Biography: Maru Mormina PhD is a senior researcher and ethics advisor at Ethox Centre, Nuffield Department of Population Health, Oxford University, UK. She is interested in how processes of knowledge production and use in public policy are shaped by patterns of epistemic injustice, both in local and global contexts. She has investigated the intersections between global inequalities in knowledge production and colonial and postcolonial structures, particularly in the context of research capacity development interventions. Currently, she is investigating the use and non-use of expert knowledge in public policy during crises. Much of this work has centred on the recent Covid-19 pandemic.
Biography: Romina Istratii PhD is a UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) Future Leaders Fellow in the Department of Religions and Philosophies, Co-Chair of the Centre for World Christianity and research associate of the Department of Development Studies at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, UK. She is co-Founder of ‘Decolonial Subversions‘ and Research Strategy Lead at the global cooperative EqADi. Relevant research interests include the decolonisation of epistemology and methods in international development research and practice, research reflexivity and ethics, cross-cultural knowledge exchange and equality, diversity and inclusion in international partnerships.
21 thoughts on “Decolonising research capacity development”
This blog, and the one by Kate Harriden (May 2, 2023) on decolonising your writing resonates with a research program I’m involved in on the New Zealand bioeconomy in the digital age within a crown research institute. As part of this program, we have engaged with a collective of Māori (New Zealand indigenous) woman-led organizations. Originally, the program asked now does digitalisation in the agri-food sector help Māori, co-designed with the Māori collective. As the program has progressed, the challenge has shifted to how does te ao Māori inform digitisation, and the Māori collective has become a partner in the science delivery. Like many science programs involving indigenous people, a critical part is that common understanding of each other’s perspectives – standing in another person’s shoes. In New Zealand, the relationship between the crown and Māori is covered by a treaty which confers an obligation to do this. As part of this work, key learnings I have, in no particular order, include:
• It is difficult (impossible) to fully understand colonisation unless it happens to you. However, we can try to understand the impacts and a way forward.
• Reciprocity is important – helping each other has helped in the process of building respect.
• Context is important, and this context varies between organisations and communities (Māori is not singular). Hence there is no precise recipe to follow, and the process used to engage is important.
• Wānanga (engaging in the process of sharing and reflecting upon current understandings that leads to decision-making for future success and the creation of new knowledge) is important part of the process, in part as it puts all the assumptions and bias out front.
• Building capability in the Māori community to engage with science is required but takes time and resource. Many Māori engage in their ‘spare’ time whereas it is paid employment for scientists.
• Defining the of engagement, from a service science provides to a Māori organisation or community to a partnership in developing and delivering a science program.
From a digital perspective, a challenge is understanding how information is managed particularly given that that the connection between the taonga (prized or valued) species and data always remains. Mistreating the data, or outputs from that data, is akin to mistreating the taonga species. Underlying the challenge is understanding the impact of the way we do and deliver science. Digitally, can we increasing move to providing the science that enables users to identify the information they need to answer their problem to their level of satisfaction to meet their aspirations.
Please note that the above are my personal views, and although there are challenges, I have found a great experience. There is a body of literature that describes these interactions more eloquently.
Thanks, David, such a rich experience. Your key learning points should be a guide for anyone engaging with decolonisation. Ultimately, it is about mutual respect and understanding as far as understanding can go, given that as you rightly say, colonisation is impossible to understand unless you’ve been colonised.
Nowadays, many prefer to use the term ‘capacity sharing’ to the more value-laden term of ‘capacity building’ (and similar terms of capacity strengthening or capacity development). This ultimately reflects the fact that the purpose of any engagement is and should always be mutual learning, thus your point about redefining the term from service provision to collaboration is key.
New Zealand is exemplary in many ways, especially in their commitment to equity in settler-indigenous relationships.
I find capacity building, sharing or development can all be loaded terms, depending on the context, but point taken. Ultimately there has to be a shift in power from western science to indigenous people for equity and mutual learning to occur. Initally we tried sharing power, but in some respects that was colonisation under a different name. The use of the term partner rather than collaborator is important as it indicates where we are transferring power, but we are still on the first rung.
Thanks Maru And Romina. Like others, I find a lot that resonates in this post and much to agree with (and in your earlier work) – deficit mentalities, the privileging of knowledge which looks and feels like “northern science” and is designed to be accepted into Northern journals, the concentration of funding and support in a small number of apex centres which can seriously distort local systems with many excluded from a few small islands of opportunity. You are both much more deeply engaged in decolonisation literature and debates than I am, but I’m also wondering how Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s work fits here – which would probably assert that (in that case) African scholars have also had agency in shaping this system, and it is dangerous to see it as entirely Northern-driven. Francesco raises an interesting and important challenge which connects to that in some ways, about the relative under importance of Northern ODA-based funding. Though I would guess that it’s not simply how much you spend, but how you spend it, and what that spending does to encourage or perpetuate certain patterns of research and publishing, certain flows of funding.
Of course, the very nature of systems and systemic approaches obviously means there are no simple solutions or single fixes, and knowledge systems don’t exist separate from financial and economic and political systems, which makes it even harder to see the way through. But I’m increasingly struck by the extent to which the whole way that excellence is conceived and measured – as you point to above – does so much to distort both the big investments of funders and national governments, the modes of engagement of universities and institutions, and the actions of and choices made by individual researchers themselves – if choice is even the right word, when so many researchers feel obliged to follow a certain path to advance their careers in a distorted system. We’ve just published a survey of ~8,000 early career researchers in the South, and one of the things that they told us is that they are eager to contribute to science and to make a difference to society, that they are mostly assessed by the number of papers they produce, or the journals they publish in (https://www.inasp.info/publications/voecrs-2023-summary). Neither of these measures – given the way the publishing system works – align well with the knowledge needs of their communities and nations.
I wonder what how different systems might look if a group of countries and their national regulatory and funding agencies — and it would probably have to be a group, rather than single nations to give it the collective confidence and strength — radically changed their measures of excellence and modes of assessment. They might ditch any link to journal publishing in promotion and reward, discard the pursuit of “global rankings”, and invest in research and researchers doing work that was rigorous, relevant, engaged (IDRC’s – International Development Research Centre’s – research quality plus framework does a good job of conceptualising this; I realise that’s again another Northern-published model, but I think significantly conceptualised by Southern scholars). They might still agree funding partnerships with Northern agencies and universities, but would insist on this as a foundational principle. Perhaps they’d see which partners were serious about working to advance their knowledge needs and ambitions, and they’d free their best minds to work in different ways… an official of a northern funder once told me that (for all the ways that funders apply their own agendas), a challenge for those with funding was often that it was hard to find clearly articulated strategies within/against which to fund.
I wonder if there’s a model here from the climate change negotiations. As I understand it, a powerful mechanism was to invest in the negotiating capacity of smaller states, so they could hold their own better in international meetings, and could access the advice they needed. Maybe that’s the kind of system-level investment we need from an enlightened funder or funders.
Thanks in any case for provoking some thinking and a useful exchange in this thread.
Dear Jon, Maru is better positioned to speak on systems theories and thinking, but I do wish to agree with the points you raised and add that both Maru and I acknowledge the agentival capacity and significance of the decision-making of Southern researchers, academic institutions and governments and seek to offer a complex aetiology, avoiding single-brush explanatory theories. As we noted above, many of the normative assumptions (about the superiority of Northern science, the need to publish in high-impact journals, etc.) are shared across borders: (neo)colonial/ethnocentric norms and standards are propagated discursively through political and ideological agendas, funding structures and governance models and scientific and publication norms that are difficult to eschew. While there is no question that African scholars have played a role in developing the academic and research systems found in Africa, as Achille Mbembe (2016) has noted, many African universities have been structured around the western model: assessment-based, productivity-based, evaluation-based. In contrast to their Northern counterparts, however, they have historically faced capacity limitations and their researchers/academics have had no or limited protected time for research (especially research that agrees with their own priorities and not a Northern funder’s priorities).
I also want to acknowledge the role of domestic politics and priorities, and the influence of each country’s political history in the development and maintenance of the current system. When my colleagues and I discuss the underrepresentation of Eastern European nations in global scientific production, for example, we partially attribute this to the unequal system of funding and asymmetric ‘academic capital’ (a term used by my colleague Márton Demeter) that researchers in Western and Eastern Europe start with to explain this underrepresentation, but equally, we speak about the lack of political interest or structures in many Eastern European societies to invest in research infrastructures and to promote local/regional scientific research. A systemic approach that considers the interlinkages between domestic, regional and international politics and inter-state economic inequalities is necessary to start to understand how the current scientific production and research development model persists.
I agree with you that regional initiatives (led by local/regional priorities and diverse representatives) would be important as a single country or funder can hardly change/subvert this system. These regional initiatives, potentially supported by a regional fund, would set alternative standards to start to subvert the current binary system of centre/periphery. Ideally, regional initiatives in Africa would then collaborate with regional initiatives in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and other regions of the world to create alliances and foster collective action that might start to destabilise the current order. Perhaps, looking at BRICS versus OECD models of aid and their consequences might offer some parallels for what an alternative system of research funding and capacity development might look like and how this could be propelled within the existing status quo.
Thank you for this insightful post. It made me think of my own positionality, and my role as a researcher working in transdisciplinary settings. In your experience, have you seen any strategies in which transdisciplinary research has contributed to decolonising research (capacity)? We have discussed, together with Daniel Marin and other colleagues, how transdisciplinary processes in some Latin American countries had the opposite effect and were adopted even to reproduce power asymmetries, even also by some universities that took the term “transdisciplinarity” as a buzzword.
I will appreciate your comments or experiences in this respect.
Thank you for opening such an interesting discussion!
Dear Bianca, Maru and I had considered including a few project examples in the original paper, but given that it was already lengthy we opted to not discuss it at that time. As one example, I currently lead Project dldl/ድልድል (https://projectdldl.org/), which I specifically set up to bridge gender and development studies, public health and religious studies to strengthen and develop religio-culturally appropriate responses to domestic violence in Ethiopia and the UK. This is an inherently transdisciplinary project that also seeks to promote a transboundary approach to the analysis and study of domestic violence in order to inform interventions in diverse settings of the world. The project works through a innovative model of mutually enriching partnerships with academic, charity, government and research organisations and partners in Ethiopia and the UK.
The project purposefully and intentionally reverse the one-way knowledge transfer in domestic violence definitions, theorisations and practical responses. Mechanisms to achieve this include:
– The project is structured to achieve and sustain this over time.
E.g.: design of work packages proceeding from Ethiopia to UK, collaboratively formulated contracts, decentralised model of programme design and implementation
-Two-way knowledge exchange
E.g.: international conference in Ethiopia and the UK, exchange of ‘specialists’; webinars by East African and UK/international speakers and communities
-Equitable team development
E.g.: Fellow development, staff development & partners’ development, trainings jointly decided, listening-focused mentoring, development that leverages on local resources and knowledge exchange
We are currently working on a synthesis of the evidence on impact so far, which should be released soon. However, I can agree with you that despite the careful design, the collaborative and radically subversive model that we employ, power hierarchies or dynamics cannot be simply eliminated as they constitute the very context we operate in. I refer here both to power asymmetries grounded in funding structures and governance systems (since the budget is ultimately controlled by the host institution), and to power asymmetries experienced within organisations that we work with in Ethiopia or the UK (e.g. power inequalities between high-ranking and lower-ranking staff, despite our intentional decisions not to favour power-holding individuals), and power dynamics that affect my own interaction with certain partners (e.g. being a woman and working primarily in a dominant patriarchal cultural context). I could discuss in length the limitations I have seen, but these would need to be contextualised properly in a description of the contexts we work in, and there is no space for it here. What I have stressed before is that, ultimately, international research partnerships that seek to be mutually enriching require a humane approach that understands people’s conflicting priorities within the organisational cultures they exist in and the complex psychological mechanisms involved in human decision-making. Partnerships require humility, reflexivity and good-will to be cultivated over a long period of time, and like all human relations, some fail and some thrive – not always because of underlying and inevitable power inequalities, but because many parameters contribute to two parties following different paths of action at any given time. Hence, I’d argue, there is no panacea for promoting healthier models of international research collaborations – transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary or any other single-focus approach. It is about one’s personal ethos in human interactions: if this ethos is consistent, it can start to challenge unequal models of relationality in an embodied manner that can inspire others to do the same, fostering also some organisational culture change.
in addition to Romina’s very thoughtful reply, I will just add that I find concepts like transdisciplinarity or co-production (even capacity development) highly problematic. As you say, they can be used as mere buzzwords but without any significant content. As such, I would question whether the transdisciplinary processes you mention are truly transdisciplinary or just a veneer to hide unchallenged power asymmetries.
I am very sympathetic to your analysis: it resonates with much of what I believe and see during the last decade an a half, particularly when it comes to the ‘intentions’ shaping the design of research capacity development. Yet, I wonder whether international funding towards research and research capacity strengthening in the so-called global South has ever been significant and large enough to justify the amount of attention, and by consequence also the type of critique, it currently attracts. The complete lack of data on ODA (Overseas Development Assistance) going towards Southern research (donors not not track how much they spend on these efforts as a distinct category in their work, and do not share this data) is a red flag. One could argue that it was never large or systematic enough to give itself a chance to succeed at the scale it claims. (This fact, in and of itself, should trigger some deep questioning). Attempts at decolonizing research capacity development as a discourse and a sector need to come terms with the spotty, small-scale, inconsistent and in most cases project-base nature of these funding flows. Some donors have excelled at trying alternatives, developing de-facto ‘decolonised’ approaches to support Southern researchers, but in most cases they remain pilots (for lack of financial support, internal or external). In other words, the critique is spot on if we focus on the (limited) visions and intentions that shapes one international funding windows or the other, but (hélas!) there might not be enough research capacity development flowing North to South to even expect systemic effects, positive or negative. Believing otherwise might credit Northern donors for much more than they have actually put in place.
This realisation could help provincialize this discourse, and put in perspective the general importance of Northern funding sources for research capacity building across the globe.
The trajectories different countries and institutions have taken to ‘build’ research capacity have much more to say about the question of research capacity development than the efforts of Northern donors to help the process in the global South. I propose we shift the standpoint itself from which we look at these questions. Let me end with a provocation: what if, in fact, research capacity in the global South had developed ‘despite’ Northern efforts to strengthen it?
Thanks for your contribution!
Always good to be provoked! Research capacity development has not been adequately supported through long-term funding commitments, agreed – indeed, we make this point in the essay. It is patchy, project-based and inconsistent (both in terms of quantity and quality of interventions), and there may be a reason for this. If a bit of cynicism is allowed in this forum, weak research systems in the South maintain a profitable epistemic dependency on the North (a good example of this were the failed attempts to waive patent protections in order to expand Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing in the Global South).
However, I don’t think this is the whole story. The question of insufficient commitment from the Global North can also look different if we shift the standpoint and look at the commitments from Global South governments to nurture their own research systems. Unlike, say health or education, research can be more easily off-shored to the Global North. Many governments are just not sufficiently incentivised to support their own research systems through proper investment in research and higher education as they may be for health systems or education systems, both examples of public goods that must be provided by the state, whereas knowledge needs can be more easily satisfied through ‘imports’. You will be aware of the booming industry of international consultants, sometimes (often?) favoured by governments over local expertise. This undermines capacity development as much as the lack of commitment from Northern donors. So, yes, I’d agree that research capacity in the South (at least parts of it) has developed despite Northern efforts to strengthen it, but also despite (some) local governments’ efforts to undermine it.
Finally, I accept your critique that our critique of research capacity development may give disproportionate attention to an issue that is perhaps not very prominent in ODA (Overseas Development Assistance) budgets. This is absolutely true if we judge prominence in terms of financial commitments, but not if we judge it in terms of rhetoric. The strong narrative of equal partnerships, mutual learning, etc, used to package North-South knowledge exchanges, includes research capacity development as a means to deliver on a false promise of equity. These exchanges are highly unequal and will remain so until structural change happens. Yet, a bit of capacity development here and there provides a facade of equity that in reality hides what are often highly extractive practices. In most cases, those engaged in research capacity development do so unaware and uncritical of the colonial underpinnings of this practice, so in a way, our critique as Northern-based knowledge actors is above all a hard look at ourselves.
Agreed, Maru. I am also taking for granted that local investments in research are also below the very minimum required in most countries, abysmally so. (Maybe we should join hands to look together at the rhetoric around research capacity strengthening in Southern countries, and see if there is any clue we can draw from that. I suspect one would find a lot about ‘innovation’, ‘technology’ and ‘competitiveness’, and much less rhetoric about research capacity development as a policy object or an object of discussion. Unless it is instrumental, of course, to work with international funders, as if it were a boundary object).
In sum, I see no contradiction between the two parts of the story, with one exception: what do we consider the work of the big international consultancy companies every government around the world relies on? Ultimate, these are global corporations that open offices locally, with local staff and management. They import a way of ‘producing knowledge’ and a specific definition of what counts are ‘useful knowledge’, but it’s all done locally, by ‘locals’. It’s so much more than helicopter research!
To be continued 🙂
Hi dear Maru & Romina,
Thanks for sharing this approach to the problem of colonizing knowledge.
I do agree with the way you tackle this issue with the notion of scale, it seems and works very appropiately, understanding the interconnections between the local scales and the global scales and their feedback loops.
Regarding your question about other models for decolonizing approach I have developed one with 5 professors (Bianca Vienni, Inta Rivas, María Goñi, Cecilia Hidalgo & Haydee García) that might be interesting for you. Here it is: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-022-01203-7
Daniel, thanks so much for the comment and link to the article. I was only able to skim it but found it very relevant so I will read it in more detail. Co-production models as the ones your case studies analyse can certainly be thought of as decolonising approaches, as they shift and distribute epistemic power and expertise among a more diverse ecosystem of knowledge actors. However, we need to be careful of not stretching the concept too much that it loses meaning. Decolonisation is a response to what Walter Mignolo calls the enduring matrix of power, that is, the intersection of economic, political, racial, gendered, cultural forms of domination rooted in historical processes but sadly persisting in the present and often perpetuated by local dynamics. That’s why, as you put it, the interconnections and feedback loops between the local and the global are so central to any notion of decolonisation. Co-production of knowledge certainly has a decolonising role in disrupting and subverting these power dynamics.
Thank you to the authors, for a very thought-provoking article, which I enjoyed and feel overall in agreement with. I’m glad to see strong emphasis on cognitive justice, and on equity; and the questioning of the assumption that providing support (wherever that may originate from) to specific actors within a knowledge ecosystem then leads automatically to equitable outcomes. Power imbalances globally are often reproduced and perpetuated at “local” level as Paolo Freire outlined so clearly in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Incentives to change power imbalances are not always easy to identify, intrinsic motivation seems very important. If actors within a particular context see value in acting more equitably in regard to each other, in pursuit of a shared goal which can be best achieved by travelling together rather than alone, then progressive change seems more likely. External incentives from outside the context may sometimes be helpful in reinforcing changes of behaviour already underway, but they are rarely good at initiating or sustaining long-term transformations. Just as an example, the Think Tank Initiative was a progamme (from IDRC, Canada) that provided over 40 think tanks in 20 countries with core, non-earmarked funding for 10 years (2009-2019). This support allowed the institutions to attract, retain, and build local talent; develop an independent research program; and invest in public outreach to ensure that research results informed and influenced national and regional policy debates. The core principle was that local solutions were needed to address local problems. Without flexible, long-term funding, many knowledge actors are just not able to engage in processes of co-creation of knowledge over time. Insights and lessons can be found on the website (https://tti.idrc.ca/) which indicate that enabling institutions to define their own agenda, informed by the context they are in, with other actors in their communities, can help bring about locally relevant outcomes and impact.
I think it is also important to recognise, as the authors indicate, that there are many interpretations of decolonisation, and many associated agendas which are not all necessarily aligned – but are also very crucial to engage with. Crystal Tremblay and I reflected on similar issues in an IDS working paper we published last year, “Decolonising Knowledge for Development in the Covid-19 Era” (https://www.ids.ac.uk/publications/decolonising-knowledge-for-development-in-the-covid-19-era/). In the paper we aimed to explore current and emerging framings of decolonising knowledge for development, with the intent of helping to better understand the importance of diverse voices, knowledges, and perspectives in an emerging agenda for development research. Through a series of collaborative conversations, we identified six core ways through which we believe it is possible to make progress in decolonising knowledge.
1. Ensure solutions are shaped/created by those who experience the challenges being addressed, if they are to succeed and be sustained.
2. Establish reflective spaces for inclusive processes, in which participants are aware of and interrogate their privilege and how they can use it to make change that disrupts inequalities. Check and challenge policies and practices that discriminate.
3. Find connections and ways in which we belong with each other, as communities, on this shared journey towards
4. Appreciate that the benefits of decolonising knowledge are not obvious to everyone. Nor are they desired by those who believe they may “lose” status or privilege. Through sharing evidence and experience, demonstrate the value of decolonised knowledge for liberation and a more positive future for all.
5. Bring needed resources that include:
• Patience, humility, time – to allow for the discomfort of “unlearning” and the wonders of continually “relearning” with others
• Transparency about how we live and model diversity and inclusion in our activities and in our organizations and communities
• Courage to interrogate history and privilege and to work toward change
• Power sharing – be ready to give up what we hold individually and realise the outcomes will ultimately be positive for all
• Recognition of people as knowers of their own experience
• Financial investment where needed; to decolonise knowledge, we need also to decolonise wealth – this is what economic reconciliation looks like.
6. Ultimately, this gets personal. We need to work on ourselves: “Am I OK with the status quo? Am I part of the problem?”. As we seek the answers to these questions, are we ready to personally stand up and work with others in our organizations and in our communities?
We are still reflecting on all these issues! Thanks again to Maru and Romina, I will definitely read the full paper the article is based on, and look forward to these conversations continuing.
Peter, thanks for such an insightful response. We are much in agreement. The experience of IDRC is illustrative of the kind of argument we made in our paper regarding the sustainability of capacity development interventions. We see again and again how research capacity becomes an add-on to research projects, often lasting 3-5 years, instead of being a long-term investment into people and institutions. There is of course a case for time-limited focused support (for example to support the development of specific technical capabilities often associated with the execution of a research project) but this should be part of a mix of short and long term ‘interventions’ at various levels: individual, organisational and institutional.
Your point about the role of external incentives being effective only when there is an underlying commitment is particularly insightful. Capacity development is ultimately a process of change that starts from within individuals and organisations. However, external incentives can also act as a catalyst to kick-start that process, or to generate awareness that change may be necessary. I guess, this requires a delicate ethical balancing act to incentivise change but without imposing particular blueprints or agendas.
Thanks also for flagging to us the IDS working paper, which we will read with great interest. Whilst our focus is specifically on capacity development interventions, this sits within a broader argument relating to the decolonisation of knowledge, which your six points summarise well. Decolonisation is ultimately about shifting power (as point 4 nicely suggests) and this cannot be done without the individual ethical commitment to challenge the status quo and work towards structural change (which, yes, includes the decolonisation of wealth). For this reason, decolonisation is inherently political. As Tuck and Yang reminds us, ‘decolonisation is not a metaphor’. It requires us to get uncomfortable and to get practical.
Dear Peter, in addition to echoing Maru’s points, I wanted to add that I have read the important IDS paper you shared, in which you and Crystal had kindly cited the SOAS Decolonising Research Initiative (https://www.soas.ac.uk/research/research-vision-and-strategy/decolonising-research-initiative) that Dr Alex Lewis and I launched in 2019 precisely to start problematising the norms, practices and attitudes underlying much research development in international partnerships, but also to draw attention to the important structural parameters – including funding distribution and financing mechanisms and patterns – that contribute to the epistemological prevalence of western (or west-centric) knowledge systems internationally.
To your important list of core ways, I would like to stand especially on the comment that the very discourse of decolonisation is not necessarily relevant to all, or understood in the same way by everyone. And it is not just those who may perceive a risk of losing status or power, but also those who may very well wish to see the status quo change. In my long-term work in Ethiopia, many of the partners, collaborators and stakeholders I have worked with – oftentimes, newly established charity or research organisations – were first introduced to the concept in conversations we had as part of our collaborative projects. When we start discussing the motivations behind and aims of a decolonial approach to research and international development, my interlocutors tend to find resonance with their own experiences and very much ascribe to these aims, but they often also have conflicting priorities to attend to, or structural limitations they face as a result of organisational and governance systems they belong to (in addition to systemic forces many dictated from the outside). Promoting a decolonial approach hardly becomes a priority for such partners, especially since they are newer organisations and are incentivised to enter into international (often unequal) partnerships or contracts with funders/donors to grow and to achieve some sustainability in the long-term.
I have reflected on this long and hard – instead of focusing on a single terminology or paradigm to move toward, it might be more realistic/appropriate to aim at creating humane relationships based on respect, humility and reflexivity (around the limitations of our and others’ positionalities within a system we do not necessarily control) and foster creative and dialogical partnerships that can enable genuine collective reflection and sharing of ideas and thoughts over a long period of time. Such partnerships, like all human relationships and friendships, can be difficult to sustain and require commitment, compromise, forgiveness and a willingness to keep learning. I believe only when we are willing to truly learn by ‘shedding’ the clothing of the ‘expert’ or knowledge-holder, can we foster partnerships that inspire and generate sustainable impact. Evidently, pressure must be applied to all aspects of the system that maintains knowledge inequalities (inter alia, to achieve a better distribution of funding and a decentralisation of funding agendas in the world). Still, perhaps by changing individual and group behaviours, attitudes and norms first, we might be able to reshape organisational cultures, ultimately feeding more structural and systemic normative changes.
I was very surprised that religion wasn’t mentioned as a critical factor in “knowledge” production, especially in view of the destructive stances of many religious leaders and congregations about the covid-19 pandemic, vaccines, immigration, abortion, climate science, etc.. Millions of supposedly religious people, and voters, used social media and religious channels to popularize toxic lies, disinformation, racist intolerance, and belligerent political polarization. For literally millions of people, their Faith was a basis for anti-democratic protests and sedition, huge campaign donations to election deniers, assertions of white supremacy, distrust for public health research and policies, and rejection of the role of democratic government because they see government as a satanic attempt to displace God’s authority over social affairs. This has created a very dangerous, anti-science atmosphere for research design and national healthcare planning.
I live in Latin America, and any theory of decolonization has to be directly related to the role of the Catholic church in establishing Spain’s authority and supposed moral superiority over indigenous culture, in destroying traditional indigenous spiritual practices and beliefs, in legitimating slavery, and in supporting authoritarian government and economic institutions that created and enforced a caste system of radical inequality and injustice. All of these radical injustices are fundamentally related to the imposition and legitimation of colonial “civilization” and religion as the mandatory knowledge bases for socio-economic organization.
The role of the Catholic Church in Latin America has been and will continue to be the subject of many volumes…. however, our post is very narrowly focused on research capacity development interventions (i.e. the kind of interventions whereby researchers and agencies from the North seek to transfer knowledge and know-how to researchers and institutions in the South). The involvement of the Catholic Church, or indeed any form of organised religion, in these activities is null, and this is why they are not mentioned in this post.
Thank you for making a note of this. The role of religion in politics of colonialism (or/and, in some cases, politics of decolonisation) is well-acknowledged and should indeed be integrated in any analysis of decolonisation efforts, especially in former colonies where western missionaries promoted colonial administrative power with the Bible in hand. Indeed, within Latin America (as well as Africa and Asia) accounting for the imposition of Catholic Christianity and its damaging effects on indigenous beliefs systems, gender structures and lifeways would be essential. As Maru said, this is a very brief essay that cannot discuss, with the nuance required, the full gamut of factors that would need to be integrated in an analysis of the current system sustaining knowledge inequalities. It is important, nonetheless, to acknowledge that the very paradigm of international development is, arguably, the continuation of western missionary activity in the world. As has been argued by scholars in this area of studies, since mission work had been deeply imbricated in colonial politics, a new paradigm of philanthropy had to emerge that would be less self-indicting.
A point of caution is due, nonetheless. An analysis of the role of religion in colonial histories must be done with an understanding of religious diversity in the world and the historical and context-specific nature of the interactions between religious, cultural, political and societal factors in different countries of the world. Not all religious/Christian traditions were imposed from the outside by colonial forces (e.g. Orthodox Christianity in today’s Ethiopia – although as a dominant national Church this institution has not eschewed being imbricated in domestic politics and hierarchical power relations). It is important to account also for diversity in theological, exegetical and hermeneutical traditions, and how these have been embodied by real people and communities vernacularly, as well as complex and multidimensional interactions with gender, ethnicity, or other identity markers in different contexts/communities. If the aim is to promote the decolonial vision of a pluriverse, it seems appropriate to combine a critique of western religious impositions with an understanding that such a critique has its geographical limitations.
Thank you for the clear reasoning presented in this short article, I shall follow up the whole essay. The points made are very valuable for those of us from the South working with colleagues from the North and not only in knowledge production. It seems similar arguments can be made about many other behaviours like leadership, management and resilience. I am currently working with a multinational group with participants from the so called north, south, and in-between regions and will introduce them to the article.
Thanks Bruce. You are absolutely right that the question of decolonisation applies to areas other than knowledge production. A wise colleague said to me that to colonise is to deprive groups/nations/cultures from their agency and right to self-determination. From this follows that to decolonise means to rebalance power so that agency is restored. As academics, our experience of such imbalances is most evident in the business of knowledge production but unequal power is ubiquitous across the whole spectrum of geopolitical relationships (economics, business diplomacy, politics, aid, etc.). It’s interesting that you identify the ‘in between regions’, which I take it refers to the so-called emerging economies (China, India, etc.). The axis of power is definitely shifting towards a more multi-polar order. How will this change these colonial dynamics? Who knows.