How can Covid-19 be the catalyst to decolonise development research?

June 4, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Melanie Pinet and Carmen Leon-Himmelstine of the ODI

Covid-19 is an unprecedented moment, halting life as we know it. For the global development community, the effects have been profound. Several NGOs have had to scale back or completely stop their operations overseas, while local actors and civil society are rapidly organising to respond to the crisis through their own creative ways.

For those of us who work in international development think tanks, research that requires fieldwork has been paused and left us fully reliant on local researchers. That has helped us recognise that ‘normal was the problem’. The ways in which we used to work and conduct research in development reproduced colonial practices that silence our research partners and ultimately our participants. By disrupting traditional research and development practices, Covid-19 could offer us an opportunity to put that right.

The topic of decoloniality in development is nothing new. The term has been  inspired by different traditions of thought associated with postcolonialism, post-development, or critical theory. However, recent debates challenging the status quo in international cooperation have raised concerns over the impact of Western-framed practices, including project management, theories and models of innovation and technologies, digital rights as well as conventions on the alternative use of aid by countries in the Global South.

Decolonising development shouldn’t be only applicable to academia, NGOs and the donor community or institutions responsible for evaluating development effectiveness, but also to think tanks. Covid-19 may be the external threat that international development research needs to truly decolonise itself and to work with research partners and participants in a more sustainable and equitable way.

What isn’t working with the current research cycle

1. Proposal design and selection of in-country partners: Researchers in the Global North usually lead in the proposal stage, while southern partners are invited to join. Northern institutions usually select partners who are well-known in the development sector with researchers who speak good English or have studied in Western universities. This practice leaves behind partners who only speak the local language or who are less known but may have strong, local knowledge.

2. Design of Theories of Change (ToC), Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) systems from a Western perspective: ToCs, indicators and logical frameworks (logframes) are set by Western researchers and institutions with some but not in-depth understanding of the social norms and local realities

3. Colonial practices through data collection: Researchers based in the Northusually lead in research design, development of methodology, tools and the data collection, while providing ‘training’ to local partners. Northern researchers and donors usually consider the foreign outsider as the ‘expert in the field’, while local researchers and partners are mere field assistants, in charge of the logistics or acting as brokers between Northern researchers and participants.

4. Dissemination of results: Western researchers usually lead in the writing of reports or academic articles, which raises ethical issues around authorship – who has the right to extract stories from others and publish them? There is a lot of talk around collaboration with Southern partners but the ways in which the research cycle and associated funding work makes Western researchers end up speaking for researchers from the Global South.

5. Access, management and protection of data: In the same vein, scientific publications – for the most part – seem to remain confined to Northern organisations publishing the research, who can afford to access it, and are rarely returned to research participants. However, recently indexed datasets by Google as well as newly populated randomized experiments in social sciences data repositories providing open-access search functions to datasets represent some progress.

Covid-19: an opportunity for think tanks to change for the better

  • Reflect on our positionality and privilege: confronting and questioning our own privileges is a crucial step. This should be accompanied by a reflection on how we collect, understand and interpret the data based on gender, ethnicity/race, age, class or education. All these characteristics matter in the knowledge that we produce and the power dynamics that arise while conducting fieldwork and working with our partners in the Global South. With Covid-19, we need to be very careful of power dynamics. Researchers in the Global North tend to work from home (reducing their vulnerability to Covid-19) while local research partners may have no such luxury. Local organisations and researchers may be dependent on the funding or may feel obligated to do the work, even if it risks their safety and wellbeing, including that of participants. 
  • Respond to the agenda and research priorities of Global South researchers: While research on Covid-19 is essential to understand and provide solutions to its devastating impact, including a sharp increase in poverty, researchers in the Global South have raised concerns about deprioritising other existing research priorities such as Malaria, Sexual and Reproductive Health, or HIV/AIDS. Researchers and donors need to listen carefully and support the research agenda that local researchers consider essential in their respective countries, whether it is Covid-19 related or not.
  • Capacity-building as a form of neo-colonial education: The rhetoric of capacity strengthening and capacity-building fails to acknowledge how much Northern researchers and practitioners can learn from their Southern peers. We should stop assuming that we always have something to teach and properly value local knowledge and expertise, as is the case for indigenous approaches to conflict resolutions over western-style Weberian/Westphalia methods.
  • Building equal partnerships and collaboration models: Research commissioners promote and expect equal partnerships alongside high research quality but they rarely provide organisations with the tools, budget and flexibility to make it work in practice. Covid travel restrictions are transforming partnerships. Local researchers are taking the lead in collecting data using different modalities such as remote interviews. This offers us a unique opportunity to reduce power imbalances, to re-establish relationships of trust and to support local researchers at gaining the skills that they consider they need. Having daily debriefings, offering remote support and adjusting the research plan if needed can help us build new relationships of trust and reciprocity.
  • Research Comms: Research findings can be communicated using different channels, formats and languages in ways that development practitioners, academics, donors and especially communities can use according to their needs. More funding may be needed, but these costs should be included in the proposal stage.
  • Access to datasets: Finally, make datasets available to local researchers and local leaders whilst de-identifying them. There are helpful recommendations from Teamscope’s data sharing checklist and Hivos’ Responsible Data Handbook.

Overall, our efforts to decolonise development research should lead us to reflect about the meaning we give to development studies and the ways we engage with all those involved in the research cycle. Covid-19 offers us an opportunity to reflect on what has not been working and to find new solutions to build a reciprocal relationship and to produce research knowledge that is respectful, honouring, and authentic of the Global South.

June 4, 2020
Duncan Green