Local research for local problems – who gets the money?

8 August 2023

Picture this scenario: researchers based in a remote German village are awarded a significant sum of money to investigate and find solutions to the challenges faced by the United States’ (US’) primary education sector. 

The principal researchers in the project are well-regarded in their field. They spent a year collecting data in North Dakota during their graduate studies and have visited the US frequently over the years – but they have never lived there. Yet, they are given millions of dollars to explore the complex challenges faced by students, parents, educators and communities across the entire US.

Needless to say, the American researchers are not happy about this. They reach out to the funder to complain and argue that, if anyone should be studying the US, it should be them. 

I would agree with American researchers. I think everyone would agree that there is something “not quite right” with this.

Yet, millions are routinely awarded to US and European universities and think tanks to study communities across the Global South and generate solutions to the challenges they face.

In early 2023, OTT looked at the funding portfolios of the African Education Research Funding Consortium to better understand how their funds are allocated. +

Our analysis revealed a concerning but unsurprising trend: despite about half the grants being awarded to African organisations, the actual amount of funding going to them is significantly lower than that going to their counterparts in the Global North. This disparity raises questions about the effectiveness and fairness of the current grant funding landscape in the education sector.

I’m not arguing that there are no roles for US or European researchers in the search for and delivery of solutions for the challenges faced by the Global South. For example, German researchers may be capable of introducing new perspectives, methods and options to the US education policy debate. But these must reflect a more equitable global research system.

It’s now time to question and challenge this status quo, redirecting funds and support towards the actors who are best equipped and have the legitimacy to drive transformative change in their own communities, whether in Africa, Latin America, Europe or the US.

In this article, I’ll explore the factors contributing to this funding disparity, the potential consequences and the steps that can be taken to bridge this divide.

Grant funding: disparity between the Global North and Global South 

I recognise the label “Global South” is a contentious one and I use it fully aware of the arguments both for and against it. For a further discussion on this, listen to my conversation on Meet the Influectuals: The Global South

The data show a clear funding gap between African organisations and those based in Europe and North America (US and Canada).

When we looked at the funding for research on education in Africa, we found that, although the African grantees in our sample receive 45% of the number of education research grants, they only receive 19% of the total funding. Conversely, North American  grantees receive 38% of the grants and a staggering 81% of the total research funding.

In fact, on average, North American grants to study education in Africa are 4.5 times the size of African grants.

See the table below for the portfolios as of January 2023 for the education research grants: the number of grants v the amount awarded, by region. 

Region  Number of grants % of analysed grants Aggregated grant value (USD) % of total grant value awarded Av. size of grant (USD)
Africa 26 45% $11,014,567 19% $423,637
Europe, US & Canada 32 55% $46,895,523 81% $1,465,485
Europe 10 17% $4,887,999 8% $488,800
US & Canada 22 38% $42,007,524 73% $1,909,433
Total 58 $57,910,090

Source: OTT for the African Education Research Funders Consortium

It’s worth mentioning, however, that the sample includes a South African foundation, which provides significant funding to local organisations. So, the picture for the funders from the Global North is actually much worse.

The power dynamics in global education funding

The imbalance in grant funding is, in part, a reflection of the power dynamics within the global education and the wider global research sectors. Traditionally, funding and expertise have been concentrated in the Global North, with international organisations, research centres, think tanks and private foundations based in the Global North often setting the agenda for educational research, globally. 

These actors have access to resources, networks and influence, which enable them to secure larger grants and to shape the direction of funding.

But this access is not necessarily based on merit alone. When we explored the funding practices of some of the funders in this sample, we found that about half followed closed processes to award their grants. These practices tend to benefit those who are well-connected to them in the first place. 

Important implications

This funding gap has serious implications for research on education and, ultimately, on educational development in Africa. This is also true in other areas where this imbalance is present. 

It can have detrimental effects on local capacity and ownership over research and development processes. By prioritising the Global North, local actors in the Global South are often side-lined and left with limited resources to address the unique challenges they face. Smaller grants mean that African organisations are likely to have fewer resources to execute their projects and to develop their organisational capabilities, thus hindering their ability to create meaningful and lasting impact.

Furthermore, this disparity in funding can exacerbate existing inequalities and perpetuate a cycle of dependency on external actors for knowledge and expertise. Well-resourced universities and think tanks in the Global North retain a position of power and influence over resource-strapped research organisations in Africa. Inevitably, they become magnets for the bright minds emerging from African universities

The greater attention to and influence of northern researchers also creates a disconnect between the priorities of funders and researchers based in Europe or the US and the realities on the ground. Ultimately, this undermines the effectiveness and sustainability of education interventions.

Addressing the funding gap

Bridging the divide involves prioritising local actors, strengthening local capacity and re-evaluating existing grants. But this appears to be easier said than done. 

There are few (if any) funders who would argue against shifting research funding closer to the communities that the research intends to serve. But why does it seem so difficult to deliver this vision?

In fact, we would argue that some current efforts to address this imbalance have the opposite results.

Take, for instance, efforts to train or help African researchers to write funding proposals to access US- or European-managed research funding. At first, this may seem like a good idea as African researchers will be able to access more funding directly. But who controls the funding and the rules that decide who gets it and how? US or European researchers. 

As Laura Boeria from Instituto Veredas said at the OTT Conference 2023, many of these efforts force researchers in the Global South to perform in ways that award them credibility in the Global North. But this is of little relevance to their own contexts and needs. 

In other cases, well-intentioned drives to shift funds quickly (and suddenly) have negative effects on the health and resilience of local organisations. 

To address the funding gap and, crucially, to support more equitable and effective research and local research capacity, funders need to take bold yet practical actions. 

They may consider the following recommendations, which are drawn from the discussions in the Forum for Education Research for/by/in Africa:

1. Prioritising funding for local actors through locally relevant filters and processes

Funders should prioritise grants for local organisations, recognising their unique knowledge and expertise and their ability to respond to context-specific challenges. 

This may involve re-evaluating funding criteria to accommodate different organisational characteristics and different approaches to research practice. This would increase the proportion of funds allocated to local actors and offer large, long-term grants and contracts to these organisations.

Crucially, the criteria that funders use to assess the quality of research needs to change. The IDRC’s (International Development Research Centre’s) RQ+ is still my favourite alternative.  

2. Strengthening local institutional capacity

In addition to increasing the funding for local actors, funders should invest in building the capacity of key institutions within the wider research system – like science and technology, policymaking bodies, science granting councils, and higher education systems and organisations. 

This may involve providing technical assistance, training and mentorship to support these institutions in developing robust systems and processes.

Crucially, funders need to accept that this approach will be very hard – if not impossible – to use in delivering short-term impact. But they also need to be bold in defending it. 

3. Promoting equitable knowledge exchanges and collaboration 

Funders should encourage collaboration between local actors, globally. And local organisations and researchers should take the lead in driving the process. This can help to ensure that the exchange is equitable, fostering mutual learning and understanding and building stronger partnerships, which are centred on the needs and priorities of the Global South. 

In practice, this could involve untying funding for collaboration from research projects, funding organisations’ collaboration efforts directly instead. This would allow them to freely decide where to look for support and cooperation. 

4. Re-evaluating existing grants to northern organisations

Funders should critically review the existing grants that have been awarded to organisations in the Global North, which are researching the Global South. They should consider the added value they offer compared to what local organisations could potentially provide, often (although not always) at a lower cost. 

This process should involve assessing the relevance, efficiency and effectiveness of these grants in relation to the intended beneficiaries and the broader goals of educational development.

A re-evaluation should not be understood as a recommendation to cancel current or future grants to northern organisations. Rather, it is a recommendation that small and meaningful changes could be made to increase the power of local partners in relation to setting the agenda and choosing the most locally relevant research methods. 

5. Establishing clear yet feasible targets for shifting funding

Funders should set specific, measurable and achievable targets for increasing the proportion of funding that’s allocated to organisations that are closer to the intended beneficiaries of the research. 

These targets should be accompanied by a clear and public roadmap, outlining the steps and milestones needed to achieve this shift in funding. The regular monitoring and reporting of progress towards these targets would ensure transparency and accountability in the funding process.


The African Education Research Funding Consortium is a dedicated space for the African education funding community to exchange ideas and learning among members, identify promising ways to support policy research in the region, and facilitate member organisations to implement these five key recommendations based on their current portfolios. Are you a funder interested in learning more about the consortium? Please click here.

Disclaimer: The data used in the analyses mentioned in this blog were collected from a small sample of philanthropies that are part of the African Education Research Funding Consortium. The recommendations made in this blog are OTT’s interpretation of the discussions at the funders consortium and does not reflect the opinions of the members of the Consortium.