Whilst most people are quite happy donating to charity, the idea of Official Development Assistance (ODA, or simply foreign aid) is contentious. In many Western democracies, governments face increased pressure to justify ODA and respond to the anti-aid headlines demanding to cut down the share of taxpayers money “squandered” abroad whilst poverty soars at home. One solution (at least in the UK) has been an ever increasing alignment of aid spending with diplomacy, trade, and since 2015 also science and innovation policy.
Whether a well-intentioned effort to make aid more effective and palatable to sceptics, or a shrewd move to rein back the ODA budget without backtracking on the country’s international commitments to aid spending, these (proposed or actual) alignments reignite debates regarding what foreign aid is for. Is it simply a glorified form of state charity, a system that perpetuates current global inequalities, or a resource for impact and innovation? Whilst instinctively I’d choose the cynical view, my actual experience of working within a burgeoning research for development (R4D) community within the UK higher education (HE) sector has given me many reasons to be excited about ODA-driven innovation – and there is a lot of it lately thanks to schemes like the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).
For the last five years, many UK HE institutions have enjoyed increased funding for R4D activities, that is, research that doesn’t just focus on understanding the development challenges of the so-called Global South, but above all on changing the material conditions of peoples and communities living in poverty. This need for research to impact development in practical ways changes the traditional role of researchers as “observers” to that of “doers” – requiring new approaches to knowledge creation based on frames of reference not always understood because not always well defined. For example, how should one define development impact? What constitutes research quality? How should researchers engage with those whose lives should be improved and who decides on the direction of change?
HE institutions are beginning to engage with these and other fundamental questions raised by the practice of R4D. It is in this context that the SOAS-Oxford series was born, as an attempt to bring all these parallel conversations together in one shared learning space. The series began last November with an exploration of some of the new ethical dimensions of R4D, and over the next few months will be unpacking a number of issues, sharing common concerns and drawing best practice lessons.
R4D raises a number of interlocked ethical challenges. For simplicity, let us divide them into three categories: epistemic, procedural and implementation challenges. Epistemic challenges refer to the assumptions and definitions that underpin and guide the practice of R4D. Definitions of impact are not ethically neutral but presuppose a certain conception of the good life, which in turn directs the spotlight (and the funding) towards certain issues over others, favours particular framings and ultimately pushes for particular development trajectories. Epistemic bias is an inevitable aspect of human cognition as we all see the world from our unique vantage points. But when it narrows down some problems, ignores others and affects decisions in given directions, usually towards Eurocentric paradigms of development, striving for more pluralistic and diverse forms of agenda setting and knowledge production becomes an ethical responsibility.
I am not suggesting that more diversity in funding review panels and research teams are the panacea. It is not only a matter of who has a seat at the table but how that seat allows for an articulation of alternative epistemologies. Let’s call this a procedural ethical question. For processes can be tokenistic, resulting in pluralism only in name. By tokenistic processes I mean those jewels of research administration, from due diligence, to ethics to impact statements, all requiring equitable collaboration and fair rules of engagement among partners and with communities, at the same time placing very real constraints to truly collaborative and participatory approaches to research and agenda setting. I also mean those perverse institutional incentives that shape uncooperative behaviours and perpetuate existing power imbalances. For example, existing promotion criteria that disproportionately favour grant capture and financial management provide little incentive for Northern researchers to participate in true collaborative projects in which funding is disbursed equitably with financial responsibility devolved among partners. For Southern researchers, the pressure to generate income from international collaborations (increasingly a requirement for tenure) can foster mercenary behaviours. Moving from project to project, whether in or outside their own area of expertise, and accepting roles that amount to little more than a subcontractor, is sadly a common occurrence.
Seemingly, many of these disparities can be solved through capacity building. This voguish idea that to redress the imbalances in the global production of knowledge we need to train more people in the craft of academic research (capacity = some technical ability) is a very technocratic and narrow understanding of what capacity really is. In fact, a focus on technical skills obfuscates the structural problems, including power and knowledge hierarchies (between those seen to have capacity and those seen to lack it) that lie at the heart of the perceived capacity gap in much of the Global South. I’d go even further, capacity building, as currently construed, reinforces the knowledge hierarchies by promoting a Eurocentric conception of research excellence. Think of all that training in research methods, financial management or writing skills, usually associated with capacity building programmes…
R4D is about practical impact “on the ground”. Impact comes as much from the increased local capacity many R4D projects try to leave behind (but with the caveats above) as it does from the research outputs themselves, that is from the “actionable” knowledge produced to support interventions, develop technologies, etc. Because such knowledge is supposed to directly improve people’s lives, it is right to put it under the ethical microscope (my final “implementation ethical challenges” category). When knowledge informs action, it becomes a form of power that creates winners and losers. For example, knowledge can support technological development that help reduce inequalities or exacerbate them, creating new social divides (think of digital technologies, for example). Or it can lend credibility to particular interventions over others, usually with very real implications for particular groups (think of all those gender-blind innovations). Knowledge can be co-opted to serve particular agendas and international research collaborations can serve as platform for already privileged groups/individuals. The list can go on, but you probably get a gist of the real harms that this R4D business can do. If not, read this.
To be clear, I believe in the power of science and that harnessing this power to foster development is key to make the world a better place. But this should not blind us about the limits of science and the ethical grey areas that epistemic biases and inequitable processes and practices create, as well as the harmful impacts of knowledge when co-opted to advance particular purposes or groups. This is easy to acknowledge in general terms but more difficult to understand (let alone act upon) in the messiness of lived experience. Removing these ethical blind spots requires confronting the uncomfortable truth about the privileges afforded to us (Western academics and institutions) by the enduring hierarchies – epistemic and of praxis.
Calls to decolonise research and promote more equitable processes of knowledge production are not new. More or less explicit acknowledgements of the still powerful hierarchies that dominate international research are everywhere. Such acknowledgements are not always negative expressions of colonial guilt (on one side) or resentment (on the other). I recently attended a workshop where a Global South partner candidly admitted that association with a Northern institution often opens doors and gives reassurance that technical benchmarks are met. Others have also reflected on the pervasiveness of this “white gaze”, often internalised and institutionalised even in those who should fight it, that sees Western values and approaches as the only markers of progress or, in our case, research excellence. I have experienced this time and time again as a young Global South scientist hoping, like many of my peers, to be admitted to the (Northern) institutions and professional communities seen as the primary referent of prestige and excellence.
I am now on the other side and what have I learnt? That it is time to make space: step back, step aside and let others share our place of privilege without tokenism. This requires both personal ethical commitment and institutional courage to rethink the structures of the academy (from funding bodies to research ethics committees) and their underpinning neoliberal values. These corporatized bureaucracies obsessed with rankings and grant capture have a long way to go to become more pluralistic and inclusive places where the quest for the common good prevails over the hunt for the next mega grant. One place to start may be acknowledging the institutional incentives and disincentives that drive behaviours and perpetuate unethical practices. Whilst all institutions pay great deal of lip service to equitable collaborations, to my knowledge none formally and truly monitors, let alone rewards, collegial behaviours. Then, let’s change the premises upon which R4D is predicated: cost-effectiveness, value-for-money and narrow conceptions of impact that do not sit easily with the nuances of context, power and human relations. And let’s shed the technocratic, linear mindset that drives many capacity building projects. It makes us oblivious to the structural challenges that create capacity gaps in the first place. Coming up with new imaginative ways to strengthen research capacity requires the research industry (researchers, institutions and funders) to acknowledge the systemic nature of many capacity problems and get their feet deep into some messy politics… Finally, we need new ethical framings of responsible research that capture not just how research is produced, by whom and with whom, but also how it is used beyond academia. All this needs critical ethical reflection beyond a simplistic compliance with box-ticking exercises that only serve to appease risk-averse managers that proper procedure has been followed. Rather than avoiding it, we should embrace the risk of letting go of our privilege and allowing genuine partnerships to guide the path to real impact.
Though written in the first person, this blog is based both on the author’s own reflections and on cross-institutional discussions with participants at the first SOAS-Oxford R4D webinar. To respect individual and institutional anonymity, participants’ views have not been singled out.