March 24, 2023

Localizing Development Research

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Despite growing awareness of the need for diverse perspectives, research on economic development in the Global South is produced almost exclusively by Western academics. By elevating and empowering scholars from the Global South, funders can promote higher-quality research and more effective development policies.

WASHINGTON, DC/NAIROBI – “Localization” has become a buzzword in international development circles, partly thanks to a push by the United States to shift more aid funding to local actors. But growing awareness of the importance of local expertise is not yet adequately reflected in most development research, which still regularly excludes researchers from low- and middle-income countries.

As matters stand, economic and development research in the Global South is led almost exclusively by academics who do not live there. A 2021 study found that just 16% of the articles published in top development journals between 1990 and 2019 were authored by researchers based in developing countries, and only 9% of presenters at major development conferences were affiliated with universities in developing countries.

Moreover, a recent report by the Center for Global Development shows that local researchers tend to be left out of rigorous impact evaluations of development programs in health, education, and other sectors. While the number of research experts in low- and middle-income countries has grown over the past decade, as have collaborations between academics across geographic regions, developing-country scholars remain underrepresented in academic fora.

The exclusion of developing-country researchers reflects the general failure within academia to regard local contexts. As recent analysis of academic racism has shown, research institutions and processes can reflect and exacerbate bias, prejudice, and discrimination. Their lack of diversity constrains research quality and impact, and impedes efforts to eradicate poverty, improve living standards, and promote prosperity for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Researchers with deep knowledge of their countries and communities offer critical insights into local priorities and opportunities to inform policy decision-making. And contextual knowledge is not entirely dependent on geography: many in the diaspora can also provide valuable empirical insights for policy.

The Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP) – led by one of us (Kabubo-Mariara) – is an example of a Southern-led global organization that supports and promotes the work of local researchers in order to amplify the policy impact of high-quality evidence. PEP uses a “research coproduction” model in nearly all its projects, fostering collaborations among researchers and key government and nongovernment stakeholders to shape research objectives and generate useful evidence.

Consequently, more than half of PEP’s projects since 2013 have influenced policy processes and decisions in target countries. For example, recommendations by local PEP researchers concerning the protection of rural women’s livelihoods against climate shocks have been integrated into Lesotho’s national agricultural policy. And in Pakistan, PEP-supported research on the economic effects of the policy response to COVID-19 has informed the federal budget. In academic settings, over 40% of papers from PEP-supported projects have been published in international peer-reviewed journals, and half of all projects have been presented at high-level academic conferences.

Another example is the Transfer Project, a multi-country research network launched by UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill which brings together governments and local researchers studying the impact of cash transfers in Sub-Saharan Africa. The organization invests in long-term relationships with government officials to build trust, co-create research, align methods with the questions most relevant to policymakers, and continuously iterate programs. In Ghana, a Transfer Project study prompted the government to expand its cash-transfer program from 1,645 to 150,000 beneficiaries.

Julia Kaufman is a policy analyst at the Center for Global Development.

Jane Kabubo-Mariara, Executive Director of the Partnership for Economic Policy, is Professor of Economics at the University of Nairobi.

The text has been adapted from Project Syndicate website

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