15. In focus: Stepping up support for and use of Southern research

Arjan de Haan
International Development Research Centre

This study is the product of a collective effort, and all contributors are acknowledged in the annex. This contribution was drafted by Arjan de Haan with inputs from the large group and direct writing contributions by Enrique Mendizabal, Rajesh Tandon, Vaqar Ahmed and John Cockburn. I am very grateful for the generous inputs and contributions; the final writing of this note is my responsibility. While I do so as an IDRC employee and draw extensively from IDRC experience, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDRC or its Board of Governors.

  • Researchers in the Global South have fewer opportunities, outlets and resources than their Northern counterparts and struggle to influence development co-operation decision making because of funding modalities, procurement practices and preferences for research by prestigious institutions in the Global North.

  • While Southern leadership to mobilise Southern research is critical, development co-operation providers financing for research and the research community should use the current focus on localisation and decolonisation as an opportunity to change the ways they work and partner to address the disparities.

Development policy research can help make official development assistance (ODA) better suited to needs, including during emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic,1 and ensure that interventions are implemented effectively based on knowledge of local contexts and potential barriers.2 Sustainable Development Goal Target 9.5 calls for enhancing scientific research and technological capabilities, making ODA support for research particularly important given that lower income countries invest relatively little in research.3

However, development research is dominated by Northern institutions and tends to be conducted by educated male elites. Women and minority groups are under-represented, and Southern researchers overall face multiple and compounding barriers to contribute to development policy making and programme design and evaluation. This disparity limits the availability of locally grounded and based evidence which informs continued public debate.

Research has an important role to play in improving the effectiveness of policy and development co-operation. It can help – and has helped – identify and specify development priorities; assess the barriers to implementation and inclusion, impact, and effectiveness; assess targeting; address health priorities; and innovate in education approaches, among others. To realise its potential, research needs to be well positioned for impact. Research projects need to invest in regular engagement and communication with both the intended stakeholders and the users of research. Assessments of research quality that integrate relevance for policy can support such efforts.4

Development research is dominated by Northern institutions. A growing number of studies find that publications are overwhelmingly conducted by researchers based in the Global North and that this has persistently been the case. Recent research by Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP) fellows shows that fewer than 1 in 6 of the articles published in the top 20 development journals from 1990 to 2019 were by Southern researchers (11% of the total number of articles published in this period were collaborations of Southern and Northern researchers). Additionally, 57% of presenters at international conferences are from Northern universities5 (Amarante and Zurbrigg, 2022[1]; Amarante et al., 2021[2]).

A growing number of studies find that publications are overwhelmingly conducted by researchers based in the Global North and that this has persistently been the case.  

This North-South divide is compounded by other disparities. Porteous (2022[3]) finds that the distribution of economics research across Africa’s 54 countries is highly uneven and that within countries, research is concentrated in regions with a higher income and large urban areas.6 Equally important are disparities of gender and ethnicity. Women are under-represented in most spheres of development research. And research in countries in the South – and indeed in the Global North – tends to be done by well-educated elites while minority and remote communities tend to be under-represented: As a researcher from Delhi, India, said, he is also considered “Northern” in the northeast of India. Norms of research quality and/or excellence tend to privilege certain forms of knowledge and exclude the knowledge of local and indigenous communities.

If the measure of research quality includes research impact, Southern research is high-quality research and local researchers are more effective in terms of innovation and affecting policy change.  

Southern and locally grounded research is important for a number of reasons. Evidence generated by local researchers and organisations has a distinct and often undervalued role in development policy and co-operation. Local researchers and organisations have a deeper understanding of the complexities of individual contexts, which is essential to inform good research design, ensure the inclusion of diverse groups and interpret results. Of course, being local does not automatically guarantee these advantages. But as they are embedded in local policy and practice, local researchers are more likely to drive advocacy and change in a sustained manner and have an interest in creating an environment for evidence-based debate and policy making. Analysis of IDRC-supported research shows that if the measure of research quality includes research impact, Southern research is high-quality research and local researchers are more effective in terms of innovation and affecting policy change.7

The barriers for Southern researchers are manifold and often compounding. As noted, researchers in the Global South, and in regions within Southern countries, are published less often in influential journals and present less often at prestigious conferences. Not being published deprives global development debates of on-the-ground Southern perspectives. It can also negatively impact researchers’ reputations and, in turn, reduce opportunities outside publishing.

Funding for Southern development research is limited. Despite efforts to support Southern development research, a large share of globally available funding remains tied and funds Northern research institutions that are already better endowed than those in the Global South. Few governments in the Global South prioritise or have the resources to fund research: Low-income countries spend a mere 0.23% of gross domestic product on research and development while high-income countries spend 2.74% (UNESCO, 2022[4]).

Similarly, Southern and local researchers often face barriers to contributing to development policy making and the production of development reports, in programme design and evaluation, etc. Inputs from researchers from premier Northern institutions tend to be highly valued – potentially at the cost of not having different types of knowledge and the voices of different groups. Anecdotal evidence suggests that staff in development agencies and even local governments can have different expectations from Northern and Southern researchers, for example regarding timeliness.

Funding modalities and procurement policy may also unintentionally reduce opportunities for Southern researchers. During the roundtable discussion, experts highlighted procurement policies that require Southern researchers to partner with Northern think tanks and companies. Donor requirements for handling big grants disadvantage small institutions, predominantly in the Global South, and research with local and indigenous communities. This can significantly impact agenda setting and make think tanks dependent on donors with a stronger capacity-building emphasis.

North-South research partnerships have great potential and have played a role in strengthening and mobilising Southern research, but they can also reinforce inequalities and need to be based on principles of equity. Many Southern leaders have experienced merely symbolic and unequal partnerships. They stress that they need to be on an equal footing and that such collaborations should be based on the expertise as well as the values and culture of the Southern researchers. Communication styles can differ across contexts and cultures, and partnerships must recognise this.

There are successful examples of support for Southern research. A rapid literature review and the input from the roundtable suggest that these efforts are not very well documented. There doesn’t appear to be a clear overview of funding, for example, let alone of lessons of effectiveness in support. This suggests an opportunity for the donor community to document and monitor this more systematically, enabling better insight into how Southern research does contribute to more impactful development co-operation.

Initiatives to (further) mobilise Southern research for development exist, of course, and it is important to document and learn from good practice. The IDRC, for instance, has directly supported Southern research for five decades with a mandate (unchanged) from the Parliament of Canada. The lessons the IDRC has documented and continues to analyse on what makes Southern research impactful and how this can be effectively supported continue to be of great interest. Other agencies and donors that have similarly directly promoted Southern research capacity include the Netherlands, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (2019[5]) and foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and Hewlett Foundation. While there are many interesting examples of initiatives to support Southern research – among them the Think Tank Initiative,8 ArtNET and the establishment of migration research chairs9 – there are persistent questions around sustainability and lack of core funding. A recent, important multi-donor effort is support to the Science Granting Councils Initiative, which operates mostly in Africa.

Southern leadership to mobilise Southern research is critical. Examples of Southern networks that promote Southern research, often with ODA and philanthropic support, include the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, the African Economic Research Consortium, the Economic Research Forum, the UNESCO Knowledge for Change, the K4C Consortium, and On Think Tanks. Another example, the PEP’s Policy Analysis on Growth and Employment (PAGE) programme, is outlined in Box 15.1. Southern institutions that play a leading role in knowledge brokering and scaling and in connecting Southern research to global debates include the African Population and Health Research Center, the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, scalingXchange, and Southern Voice.

Funders also have developed programmes of research with North-South partnerships. Large UK research programmes such as the African Cities Research Consortium10 have created impressive networks. Similarly, Dutch development co-operation established thematic platforms that partner with Dutch and Southern institutions.11 These partnerships can fulfil important roles. Growing South-South co-operation may provide new opportunities.

There are also some initiatives worth mentioning in the field of development journals to provide greater opportunities for Southern researchers to have their work published. A new journal, PLOS Global Public Health, advertises itself as a forum that amplifies the voices of under-represented communities and scholars.12 Several other journals are now looking at how to overcome barriers to Southern researchers.

Big disparities in development research remain between North and South, within countries, and between social groups. Despite improvements in research capacity over the last 20 years, Southern researchers continue to face barriers to participating in global forums as well as research and debate – even about their own countries. Marginalised groups face additional barriers. Recent debates about decolonisation have highlighted how deeply entrenched disparities are in development co-operation. Research is not exempt from these disparities, but new approaches to decolonisation and localisation present new opportunities to address them.

These barriers exist for a multitude of reasons and hence, action on multiple fronts is required. Maximising the potential of Southern research to support better development co-operation may require development agencies to change the way they operate to enhance the role of evidence in policy making, recognise the value of Southern and local knowledge, and ensure that ODA modalities support the mobilisation of locally produced research.

It is important to understand and address the barriers for Southern research created by donors’ and funders’ policies and practices. Critical areas to interrogate and potential changes include funding modalities, grants, contracting and procedural barriers, and eligibility criteria that sometimes exclude Southern institutions; practices in North-South partnerships; and Southern participation in designing donors’ projects, developing results frameworks, and monitoring and evaluation. Beyond the formal procedures, the contribution of Southern and local research must be recognised and valued.

Apart from financial resources, it is also important to allow (and budget for) time to enhance capacity and mutual learning. Donor support can be time constrained because of funders’ own time-bound targets and commitments; support to research needs to plan for mutual learning within these constraints. Southern-based intermediary organisations can play a bridging role.

The research community should ensure that global development debates and practices include participation from the South, that Southern research reflects diversity and inequalities within countries (a cross-sectional perspective), and that local research is well positioned for impact.

There are many good practices in research partnerships, including those between Northern and Southern researchers. These partnerships need to be based on recognition of the distinct contributions and differences in approaches and ways of communication across these geographies. Partnerships should focus on real co-creation of research agendas and implementation.

A systematic review of initiatives to support Southern and local research would help understand what has worked to reduce inequalities in research opportunities and funding, identify the most significant barriers, build a stronger case for support, and inform the existing practices of both funders and research leaders. The IDRC roundtable of Southern experts organised for this report is a step in that direction, but more in-depth work, supported by a consortium of donors, would make an important contribution.

The basis for addressing global inequities in research is understanding and valuing not only local researchers’ different perspectives and ways of communicating but the different value that local researchers, embedded in their communities, bring to development questions. This equally applies to understanding what constitutes “research excellence” and the importance of integrating local relevance, legitimacy and embeddedness in how such excellence is defined.

Adopting an intersectional perspective in the promotion of Southern-led research is paramount. The various layers of disparities – globally and within countries – are critically important for the questions of local research, legitimacy and representation. Research needs to be not only Southern led, but also led by groups typically with less voice, such as women, youth, and indigenous and other minority groups.


[2] Amarante, V. et al. (2021), “Underrepresentation of developing country researchers in development research”, Applied Economics Letters, Vol. 29/17, pp. 1659-1664, https://doi.org/10.1080/13504851.2021.1965528.

[1] Amarante, V. and J. Zurbrigg (2022), “The marginalization of southern researchers in development”, World Development Perspectives, Vol. 26, p. 100428, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wdp.2022.100428.

[7] Cavanagh, J. et al. (2021), “Evidence from the AEA RCT Registry on new research during Covid-19: Guest post”, Development Impact blog, https://blogs.worldbank.org/impactevaluations/evidence-aea-rct-registry-new-research-during-covid-19-guest-post-jack-cavanagh.

[8] Chelwa, G. (2021), “Does economics have an ‘Africa problem’?”, Economy and Society, Vol. 50/1, pp. 78-99, https://doi.org/10.1080/03085147.2021.1841933.

[6] Partnership for Economic Policy (2022), Reporting Lessons Learned to Help Improve Institutional Practices for Evidence-informed Policymaking, https://www.pep-net.org/sites/pep-net.org/files/uploads/PDF/PEP-PAGE-II_EIPM-report.pdf.

[3] Porteous, O. (2022), “Research deserts and oases: Evidence from 27 thousand economics journal articles on Africa”, Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 84/6, pp. 1235-1258, https://doi.org/10.1111/obes.12510.

[5] Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (2019), Support to Innovation and Innovation Systems within the Framework of Swedish Research Cooperation, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Stockholm, https://cdn.sida.se/app/uploads/2020/12/13132034/Support-to-innovation-in-research-cooperation-Sida-position_paper.pdf.

[4] UNESCO (2022), How Much Does Your Country Invest in R&D? (database), https://uis.unesco.org/apps/visualisations/research-and-development-spending (accessed on 3 November 2022).

  • Amy Etherington, IDRC

  • Ana-Lucia Kassouf, Partnership for Economic Policy, University of Sao Paulo

  • Andrea Ordez, Southern Voice

  • Arjan de Haan, IDRC (facilitator)

  • Edmond Totin, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics

  • Enrique Mendizabal, On Think Tanks

  • Fadi El-Jardali, American University of Beirut

  • Isabelle Kim, Global Affairs Canada

  • Jane Mariara, Partnership for Economic Policy

  • Jesse Uneke, African Institute for Health Policy & Health Systems

  • Linda Oucho, African Migration and Development Policy Centre

  • Lynette Kamau, African Population and Health Research Center

  • Margaret Angula, University of Namibia

  • Petronella Chaminuka, Agricultural Research Council

  • Rajesh Tandon, Participatory Research in Asia

  • Tatiana Rincon, Fundacion Capital

  • Ursula Harman, Consultant

  • Vaqar Ahmed, Partnership for Economic Policy, Sustainable Development Policy Institute


← 1. Examples of impactful research are documented in https://doi.org/10.19088/1968-2022.126.

← 2. The analysis in the “In focus” draws on a roundtable discussion organised for this report among 15 leaders in Southern development research hosted by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in September 2022 as well as a literature review. The roundtable participants discussed barriers and opportunities for Southern (and local) research and offered critical recommendations regarding the role that Southern and local research can and should play in development policy and co-operation.

← 3. Global spending on research and development has reached USD 1.7 trillion and about ten countries account for 80% of spending, according to a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization database at: https://uis.unesco.org/apps/visualisations/research-and-development-spending.

← 4. The IDRC Research Quality Plus framework broadens the measure of research quality beyond academic and publication measures and includes stakeholder and user engagements and research uptake as part of the research quality assessment. Further details are available at: https://www.idrc.ca/en/rqplus.

← 5. See also Chelwa (2021[8]) and Cavanagh et al. (2021[7]).

← 6. Porteous’s analysis helps understand the country factors that contribute to published research, including peacefulness, political institutions, international tourist arrivals and having English as an official language.

← 7. According to this analysis, “those located closest to a development challenge are generally those best positioned to innovate a solution. The results present novel evidence for those supporting, using and doing research for development”. See: https://doi.org/10.1093/reseval/rvy026.

← 8. For more details, see: https://www.idrc.ca/en/initiative/think-tank-initiative.

← 9. Details are available at: https://www.idrc.ca/en/research-in-action/research-chairs-will-anchor-knowledge-forced-displacement-global-south.

← 10. Details are available at: https://www.african-cities.org.

← 11. See: http://knowledgeplatforms.nl/about-the-knowledge-platforms/kennisplatform.

← 12. For more details, see: https://journals.plos.org/globalpublichealth/s/journal-information.

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