Economic advisory work: knowledge inequities in the Global South

SERIES Political philanthropy 7 items

Providing economic advisory support to governments in the Global South is one way that philanthropic organisations can engage in ‘political philanthropy’, which aims to shape policy and drive systemic change. 

However, it’s crucial that these organisations acknowledge the existing knowledge inequities and how they significantly limit the ‘world of ideas’, undermining calls for greater ‘localisation’, ‘locally owned development’ and ‘equitable partnerships’ in the development sector. 

Our recent review highlights how southern researchers and consultants – especially women and those outside the main epicentres of research – encounter significant barriers to producing knowledge and being recognised as credible. 

Why do knowledge inequities matter?

When providing economic advisory support, this narrowing of expertise has a real impact. It affects the types and sources of evidence that policy-makers draw on, and how and where they seek expert advice. +

Consequently, it limits and homogenises the ‘world of ideas’ used to inform critical policy decisions and the allocation of resources. 

This becomes even more crucial when problems are complex and ‘wicked’, as such problems require input from multiple disciplines/contexts and genuinely new thinking. 

It’s also problematic when successful design and implementation require the unification of different interest groups.

This limited voice and presence for local experts sometimes means southern countries lose out on opportunities to take ownership of their economic and development agenda or to negotiate better terms within a highly competitive global economy. 

The over-prioritising of foreign expertise further hinders the future evolution of knowledge systems – in terms of how priorities are determined, what’s funded, who’s trained, what knowledge is produced, and how those knowledge systems are sustained. +

Where do knowledge inequities come from?

Knowledge inequities stem from various intersecting historical conditions, including, in some parts of the world, the legacies of colonial and post-colonial knowledge hierarchies, and biases such as location or gender. 

Within countries, physical proximity to metropolitan centres, being better connected to global networks, and having studied and/or worked abroad or for international agencies also mean some people are better able to position themselves as brokers of knowledge and expertise. 

Moreover, donors and decision-makers’ selection of experts isn’t always based on their technical competence or the quality and value of their services, but on perceptions of trustworthiness, credibility, reliability, and the assessment of ‘positive externalities’. 

In the international development field in particular, funders’ employment and procurement practices often reinforce structural inequities in knowledge systems as they seek to obtain quick-wins and to avoid risks when pairing experts with government agencies. 

Furthermore, reproduced biases and mechanisms of familiarity, connectedness and convenience often prompt the donors to work with foreign, male, ‘white’, well-connected, and/or urban-based experts. 

Decision-makers in the Global South may also be incentivised to work with international experts who can facilitate access to funding or other concrete benefits. 

Or they may prefer to work with foreign experts who offer a connection to institutions and policy communities that they wish to belong to or retain a relationship with. +

What can be done about knowledge inequities?

Focusing on redressing knowledge inequities is timely, considering the growing recognition of the need for both inclusivity and diversity. 

Overcoming deeply entrenched inequities, however, is a complex and resource-intensive process, without a clear solution. 

Moreover, there is a marked tension between politically viable approaches and equity-driven policies and processes, particularly in a space where governments hold more power.

Still, we believe philanthropic organisations and knowledge brokers can take the following four actions to intentionally address the field’s knowledge inequities in the Global South:

1. Strengthen the supply of relevant expertise and the demand for diverse sources of knowledge 

One clear opportunity is through long-term investment and the reinforcement of alternative structures to address inequities. For example, by piloting innovative practices and progressive approaches. [Investments in university systems may seem too long term but remain the only full-proof solution to guaranteeing a critical mass of expertise. This could include earmarking investments to incorporate young graduates from minority groups and to support women in developing their careers. Initiatives like the Brussels Binder help raise the visibility of women in the field and organisations like Mawazo Institute are working to build the skills and positioning of women across disciplines.[/note] 

However, this will need to be accompanied by strategic partnerships with stakeholders – such as funders, national organisations and regional bodies – to build stronger economic knowledge systems.

2. Redefine ‘expertise’ 

The term ‘expertise’ needs to move beyond single indicators, such as published journal articles. 

This could be achieved by reassessing the diversity of economic consultants on the roster to consider factors such as location/origin, gender, race, age, epistemological paradigm and methodological expertise. +

3. Understand national contexts 

To comprehensively understand national contexts, individuals who possess a good understanding of the local culture and politics could be proactively engaged. 

This could involve pairing established consultants with those who could offer a different perspective to government policy dialogues and decision-making processes.

4. Generate more evidence on how economic advice impacts political and policy processes

This evidence could be used to bridge the gap between a government’s economic policy advice needs and the experts it selects. 

There’s much to be gained by engaging a diverse range of expertise and ensuring the representation of marginalised groups. 

For example, it would increase diversity in public and policy debates and improve socio-economic outcomes.


This blog post is based on the full review, ‘A narrowed perspective: A review of (in)equities in knowledge systems related to economic advisory work’, by Leandro Echt and Jonathan Harle, INASP.