Research on knowledge translation in the Global South: lessons learnt  

24 July 2023
SERIES Knowledge translation in the Global South: reflections on the future 10 items

There’s a gap between what we think we know about researchers in the Global South and the empirical reality. This is a result of a body of literature, which is mainly produced by institutions in the Global North. But it’s also due to a lack of vocabulary, which transcends geographical and developmental categories. Our research on knowledge translation (KT) in the Global South has been an attempt to overcome this gap.  

Primary research report: Bridging text with context: knowledge translation in the Global South

Final synthesis report: Knowledge Translation in the Global South: Bridging Different Ways of Knowing for Equitable Development

KT’s various labels

During our research, we spoke to practitioners across different countries and sectors who believe in the value of using knowledge and evidence to improve social conditions without labelling it as “knowledge translation”. 

Although they use many different labels, they’re united by the common idea of “moving evidence closer to its users” – as suggested by one of our informants. These alternative labels include evidence use, evidence-informed decision making, knowledge transfer, knowledge-to-policy, knowledge brokering, research uptake and science-to-policy. 

This variety of labels also suggests a diverse approach towards KT. But identifying how the mechanisms of KT in the Global South differ from those in the Global North remains a complex task. Culture is a significant factor in shaping the strategies and tools being deployed. For example, the use of storytelling proved effective in Cameroon (see the Evidence Tori Dey project).  

But political economy factors may also appear as another common problem for southern researchers (see the case of Sugary Beverages Tax in South Africa). However, we could argue that this is a prevailing barrier towards KT in high-income countries too. 

Understanding operational contexts 

The main factors affecting KT practice in the Global South refer to the institutional contexts in which KT practitioners operate. These contextual factors also influence the roles that different stakeholders can play in generating, communicating, making sense of, or using evidence.  

In general, our findings on KT mechanisms in the Global South indicated that researchers are working under conditions that, in the most extreme cases, debilitate the power of knowledge. They usually undertake KT while having to address a multitude of challenges, which are out of their control. For example, those linked to political, economic or governmental factors. 

But what practitioners can control is the formulation of the message and its intended audience. Most KT processes may start with a rudimentary policy brief. But when researchers are given enough inspiration and resource, they often try to be more creative and assertive by using storytelling, art and collaboration to expand the usual translation process and the public’s engagement. 

This operational context also defines what counts as success. We concluded that, when KT practitioners have a clear purpose behind the translation process (e.g., they’ve identified a clear main target audience and the tools needed to tailor their message), the KT is more likely to be successful. 

Future support

Support is most strategic when it is aimed at improving the system rather than when it’s project-based. It’s important to actively consider the impact that the wider system will have and how to address it when designing or deciding to support KT efforts, even if these are narrowly defined as demand-, supply-, or intermediary-led.

Based on our findings, we suggest looking at a broader and more nuanced understanding of KT. One which gives greater attention to its function or purpose (e.g., facilitating the use of evidence) than to narrowly defined activities or roles. In many instances, KT activities are undertaken by practitioners who occupy multiple roles due to an incomplete knowledge system, with institutional voids and missing roles. 

Thus, we suggest that KT interventions that focus on narrowly defined supply-side, demand-side or intermediary actions are not the most effective: they don’t address system-level weaknesses and shortfalls. This understanding warrants a wider perspective on this matter, a more systemic one. These systems, which are shaped equally by cultural and non-cultural factors, are the main contexts currently influencing KT outcomes so it’s important that they’re understood. 

What funders can do

1) Encourage their local partners to experiment and test innovative approaches, which can foster innovation and help grantees to move out of their comfort zones. 

Inclusivity can be achieved from the outset by involving KT practitioners in its identification process and allowing them to co-create the design of projects, including setting up relevant change indicators. 

2) Intervene by supporting organisations that more effectively represent the needs of marginalised communities and populations. 

Funders should encourage grantees to communicate and engage with knowledge users from the design stages of their work by investing in the relationship-building process between the researchers and the users, including facilitating direct engagement among KT practitioners.

3) Set priorities when aiming for improved practice. 

This is where views may differ. But we suggest that funders should rely on partners’ and researchers’ own assessments of their contexts to determine how best to incorporate the KT function and purpose into their work. 

Final reflections 

This research has highlighted the precise contexts impeding southern researchers from using evidence efficiently and in a more inclusive working process. It has also identified the missing components in the Global South’s knowledge systems. In these ways, we hope that this research has managed to advance the conversation about KT.