Same goals, different hurdles: Understanding knowledge translation in the Global South

16 December 2022
SERIES Knowledge translation in the Global South: reflections on the future 10 items

This article was originally published by Transforming Evidence and can be viewed here.

Interviews with those working on knowledge translation in the Global South reveal similarities and differences from the Global North. Here we consider the specific challenges and how collaborative research can lead to improved practice everywhere.

Incorporating evidence from research into the policy space or the public discourse to better inform decision-making is commonly understood as a goal of knowledge translation (KT). There is a major assumption that such exercises come with many challenges, especially when you are a researcher in the Global South, where KT faces particular tests within the social, political, cultural and economic realms. These often do not fit with the prescriptive and technical frameworks frequently imposed by funders from the Global North. 

Our research on knowledge translation in the Global South, undertaken in partnership with IDS, investigates these assumptions while addressing other important questions on how KT works. We’re working to understand the unique obstacles in doing KT in the Global South compared to institutionalised contexts in high-income countries. Communication and engagement are central in this inquiry, though all aspects of the KT spectrum are being looked at. We have previously reflected on the new approach we’re taking with our research and our focus on developing a more diverse and inclusive understanding of KT practice. Preliminary findings of our primary research suggest this approach is yielding some interesting results.

Common KT mechanisms

Our research has acquired insights through interviews with practitioners, funders, and other actors willing to reflect on and improve upon existing practices. Some of our current findings not only confirm the differences between doing KT in the Global North and Global South but also underline their similarities. 

The impact of the political system on the basic mechanisms of evidence use, for example, are quite alike. Whether one works in a country of the Global South or North, one needs to identify influential actors to engage, the right channels to lobby, the most effective means of communication, and the right policy that needs changing. In this sense, researchers all over the world face the same struggles. 

We also take note, for example, of a growing trend in both the Global North and South to eliminate boundaries between the realms of science and the public. More events on research and science communication have been held in increasingly public settings, such as exhibitions and talk shows, often involving the use of technology and digital platforms. Both KT in the Global South and North are increasingly driven by research and science and a desire to promote evidence-use for better policy-making, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The specific challenges      

The main insights we have gathered this far, however, suggest that KT actors in the Global South face significant challenges that set them apart from their counterparts in the Global North. These challenges, as far as we have come to find, are:

  • weaker and less established institutions (such as scientific communities, scientific advisory systems, the civil service, the media, political parties, civil society, etc.) 
  • limited, if not unavailable, (public) domestic funding for research and communication
  • political contexts dominated by patronage, informality and vested interests 
  • limited government capacity to use evidence

Having to work within a less established and disjointed science and research ecosystem is probably the main challenge KT actors face and includes the absence of a reliable, open and credible database as a foundation to undertake research across many sectors. Also, without the presence of other established research organisations, in or outside of academia, KT practitioners often find themselves isolated and working without strong allies. 

This condition is further exacerbated by low public funding for research, as national budgets often prioritise spending for more basic services and infrastructure. This may well result in an over-dependence of researchers on international funding – a situation often used by authoritarian regimes to frame the involvement of development aid as a ‘foreign intervention’ in national interests, as has been the case in India, Indonesia, or South Africa, to name a few examples. 

Another barrier researchers in the Global South often face is a political system strongly shaped by patronage and clientelism. Efforts to translate knowledge take place against the backdrop of political systems that favour the interest of a few elites who often make decisions behind closed doors with little room for the use of evidence. In other words, policy and decision-making are driven by political interests, especially in sectors with heavy economic interventions and short-term gains in mind. 

However, over the course of our research, we have also realised that doing KT      may not be that different between the Global South and North – especially with actors confirming that it      has a common goal, bringing evidence closer to its users. 

The importance of context (beyond the buzzword, please!)

Coming back to the premise of identifying the specific KT hurdles in the Global South, this research builds on the assumption that the Global South can still improve its practice of using evidence to improve domestic policies. While this is driven by all the right normative motives, understanding the perspective of Southern researchers requires more than just theories of change or the right conceptual framework. Many practitioners who have taken part in this research point to persisting gaps in understanding between funders in the Global North and the people delivering on KT – practitioners, communities, academia, the bureaucrats, and the media. Cultural aspects on how to measure ‘success indicators’, for example, is a potential sticking point but not a reason for funders to disengage. 

It is, therefore, no surprise to hear that Southern researchers want to do KT, as one informant puts it, ‘on their own terms’. This points to the importance of understanding the exact hurdles Southern researchers face while acknowledging their potential agency to devise locally effective knowledge translation mechanisms. As such, we hope that this collaborative research can highlight what current studies have so far failed to point out: how the global development community, and funders, in particular, can be part of an improved practice rather than perpetuating existing ones.