Towards Structural Changes for Building Responsible Academic Partnerships

November 1, 2023
Roseanna Avento (UEF), Kelly Brito Salas (UniPID), Susanne von Itter (EADI)

EADI and the Finnish University Partnership for International Development (UniPID) are involved in an ongoing dialogue and reflection process on the structural changes that are needed to enable a shift towards more responsible and equitable academic partnerships between the Global North and Global South.

We are time overdue for an examination of global development using different lenses and engaging more diverse voices. Institutions in global development must shift and broaden their horizons to recognise that global inequalities, exclusion and injustices also affect academic development work. In this spirit, EADI and the Finnish University Partnership for International Development (UniPID) are involved in an ongoing dialogue and reflection process on the structural changes that are needed to enable a shift towards more responsible and equitable academic partnerships between the Global North and Global South.

Funders have, indeed, been identified as having a pivotal role in how academic partnerships are formed and implemented. They hold the money, and the power, as it were.

They get to define what funds can be used, for what and how they can be used and when. This has resulted in very Eurocentric academic partnerships; a critique which has been given widely by academics in the Global South. For example, Global North funders might take the position that their funding instruments do not allow for Global South coordination. A lazy excuse really, since some funders e.g., the Wellcome Trust have been successful in allowing for Global South coordination. What then can funders do to enhance equity in academic partnerships?

Redesign funding instruments acknowledging inequity in different contexts

Enhancing equity in academic partnerships does inherently require that funding instruments are redesigned to make them demand-driven with Global South academics at the centre of the foreseen collaborations. This cannot be restricted to simply acknowledging inequity between the Global North and the Global South, something all funders will say they already do. Instead, it is crucial to acknowledge inequity in different contexts without romanticising a notion of a ‘one’ Global North and ‘one’ Global South. There are “norths” in the “souths” and “souths” in the “norths”. Inclusivity in both the Global North and the Global South, thus, becomes even more important. Whereas locally developed agendas are deemed an opportunity, it is important to identify who the “local” actors are, and their roles and power dynamics to ensure proper inclusivity. Co-funding of academic partnerships by the actors in the partnership can also result in increased dedication and commitment. However, a major emphasis should be taken on resourcing academic partnerships properly in terms of personnel, finance and time relative to the set objectives. For improved impact, shifts from short-term funding cycles to long-term funding cycles are encouraged due to the additional space created for reflecting on lessons learned and putting change into action after reviewing monitoring and evaluation results.

Foster the creation, evaluation and communication of scientific knowledge with societal actors beyond the traditional scientific community

Academics in almost any context are seen as ‘the experts’ or ‘those who possess the knowledge’. An elite of its own, whether in the Global North or Global South. Enhancing equity in academic partnerships demands that we deal with academic ‘arrogance’ and widen the expanse of those ‘whose knowledge counts’, to create space e.g., for recognition of local, traditional and indigenous knowledge to enhance transformative change. Flexible funding instruments that engage and fund external stakeholders outside academic institutions, in academic partnerships, are therefore necessary and demand that processes are defined by (all) the partners together.

This is integral for advancing and engaging with Open Science, which according to the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, fosters openness, transparency and inclusiveness, by combining movements and practices aiming to “make multilingual scientific knowledge openly available, accessible and reusable for everyone, to increase scientific collaborations and sharing of information for the benefits of science and society, and to open the processes of scientific knowledge creation, evaluation and communication to societal actors beyond the traditional scientific community.”

The UNESCO Recommendation emphasises that “open science should not solely foster enhanced sharing of scientific knowledge among scientific communities but also promote inclusion and exchange of scholarly knowledge from traditionally underrepresented or excluded groups (such as women, minorities, indigenous scholars, scholars from less-advantaged countries and low-resource languages) and contribute to reducing inequalities in access to scientific development, infrastructures and capabilities among different countries and regions.” Equity, then, should be viewed as significant part of Open Science and as an integral part of scientific criteria that can be assessed.

Create spaces for discourse around needs and equity

Recognising the needs of different people, communities, institutions and organisations is implicit in a true Open Science policy. This requires true discourse on objectives and a critical assessment of perceived outcomes and benefits, which can be done through spaces where people meet and reflect around questions and needs, long before funding calls are open. In our view, it is not sufficient to create meeting spaces for networking around specific funding instruments just before the funding instrument is open.

Well-defined roles and responsibilities are important in an academic partnership, and it is necessary to consider where different people in different roles are placed: paying attention to their positionality as either Global North or Global South (or both), majority or minority, institutional background, internal or external stakeholders and so forth. Whether in the Global North or Global South, equity is not just a question for researchers and funders, but also for administrators, institutions, organisations and communities. Joining hands is therefore essential.

To establish equity, external advisers could help to support, critique and mentor the formation of such academic partnerships. Furthermore, professionalising the roles of research managers, legal teams and other administrative support staff by sensitising them to questions of equity at the funder, institutional or research level, might serve the academic community as a whole and ensure that academic resources are utilised more efficiently.

Roseanna Avento is Global Development Manager at the University of Eastern Finland.
Kelly Brito is Project Planner at the Finnish University Partnership for International Development, UniPID.
Roseanna and Kelly are part of a task force for creating ethical guidelines for Finnish higher education to foster responsible academic partnerships with the Global South
Susanne von Itter is Executive Secretary of EADI

Our thanks to Arnhild Leer-Helgesen, Board Member and current Lead co-Chair of the Norwegian Association for Development Research, Francisco Obino, Director of Research and Programs at the Global Development Network; Kadjiatou Marou Sama, Fellow on Knowledge Systems in Francophone Africa at the Global Development Network; and Julie Seghers, Policy Analyst for Poverty and Inequalities at the Development Cooperation Directorate at the OECD, for their participation in the discussions that led to the writing of this piece.

Note: This article has been published originally in New Rhythms of Development blog series of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI). This article gives the authors' views, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.

Photo credits: Clay Banks, 2019, on Unsplash