February 7, 2023

Opinion

Decolonising research capacity development

The capacity to produce and use knowledge remains low across many countries in the Global South. However, efforts to build, strengthen or develop research capacity have produced mixed results. 

We think this is because current approaches to research capacity development (RCD) are underpinned by a colonial ‘deficit’ mentality that doesn’t recognise the rich knowledge traditions and systems of the Global South. Instead, they re-inscribe Western hegemony through the imposition of monolithic blueprints of knowledge production. 

Viewing RCD through a decolonial lens can help us move away from this model and find alternatives grounded in a commitment to cognitive justice, equity and localisation.  

Behind the buzzword hype: the lingering legacy of colonisation

RCD is a popular buzzword among universities, think tanks, consultancies and other knowledge-producing entities, typically based in the Global North but with operations in the Global South. Many of these organisations have an unflattering history of ‘parachuting into countries to extract local knowledge, which they’d then present back, repackaged as ‘the’ solution for their intractable problems. 

Unsurprisingly, these approaches have become unpalatable since anti-colonial sensitivities have taken root. They were replaced by RCD: a more acceptable, egalitarian and less colonial alternative, aimed at supporting local knowledge production through the sharing of skills and resources

Yet, many RCD projects do not achieve this aim. Sometimes, they even increase dependency on the expertise of the Global North. In part, this is because many projects are still delivered vertically, with a ‘West-knows-best’ mindset, which has proved hard to banish.  

So, when we look behind RCD’s guise of knowledge sharing, a very different reality emerges. Namely, that it’s an intervention embedded in colonial dynamics, which reinforces old assumptions about Western epistemic superiority.

But these assumptions don’t emerge and aren’t sustained in a vacuum. Since the 18th century, the idea that knowledge (especially science) is a driver of social change has been prominent in the West. It has defined how the West sees itself – progressive and developed – in relation to the ‘backward’ and ‘undeveloped’ ‘other’.  It has also inspired the knowledge-based development paradigm that became predominant from the mid-20th century: a linear flow from scientific and technological innovation to economic growth.

This model has been pushed into the Global South as a universal, normative ideal to which non-Western countries must aspire. This has created a dependency – often exacerbated by RCD – on a particular type of knowledge: Western, scientific and technocentric. In the process, other ways of thinking and knowing became marginalised. For this reason, decolonising RCD is imperative, as we explain in this essay.  

Decolonising RCD

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 locals. 

When applied to RCD, these critiques make the coloniality of these interventions and their underlying  ‘deficit view’ visible. According to this, the Global South has the problems, whereas the Global North has the solutions.  This view is often deeply ingrained in both Northern and Southern mindsets.

In practice

Decolonisation touches upon the political, historical, economic, social, and the personal and affective dimensions of our collective identities. We’re 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 RCD starts with a reflection about its practices and fundamental purpose. 

RCD 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: 

  1. Cognitive justice and epistemic pluralism 
  2. Accessibility and systems strengthening 
  3. Sustainability and localisation.

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, RCD 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 RCD 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 RCD interventions to include a diversity of knowledge producers. This means not just academic institutions, but also NGOs, think tanks, etc. It also requires us to include knowledge users – e.g., 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.

Equity of access through systems strengthening

RCD is touted as an intervention to reduce the North–South knowledge gap, but few recognise its potential to deepen domestic inequalities, especially in Southern countries. This is a particular risk if the benefits of knowledge production are unevenly distributed. E.g., 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:

  1. The institutions tasked with creating knowledge (e.g., universities and think tanks) 
  2. The institutions tasked with translating knowledge (e.g., industry and government) 
  3. 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 RCD 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. 

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. Current RCD approaches are, sadly, neither. 

Continuity

RCD is often absorbed into, and subordinated to the aims of, research projects. The result is a model of RCD that’s mainly designed to facilitate the delivery of research (e.g., through skills development for specific tasks). Also, one that needs to fit into a project’s linear theory of change. This is incompatible with the systemic approach to RCD we outlined above.

Systemic RCD approaches require continuity of funding, resources and human capital. They also require flexibility, because capacity development is never a linear process. So, RCD 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. This is only possible through local investment – more on this below. 

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, RCD reinforces the ‘deficit view’ and imposes a scientific monoculture that doesn’t accommodate different forms of knowledge production.  Instead of encouraging isomorphic mimicry, RCD should support context-appropriate ways of producing and evaluating knowledge. This also requires local ownership. 

Localising RCD

Localisation can mean simply shifting power to local actors so they can implement ideas or priorities decided elsewhere. But 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? But 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 RCD 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. 

About the authors:

Maru Mormina:  Senior researcher and ethics advisor at Ethox Centre, Nuffield Department of Population Health, Oxford University

Read more from: Maru Mormina Romina Istratii
Related topics: Research

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