Geographical inequality in global debates about development policy

Originally published on GlobalDev (a blog developed by GDN) and made available in English, French and Spanish.

This blog article draws on PEP research into Increasing Global South Participation in Development Economics.

There is an increasing recognition in many areas of public life of the importance of including people with lived experience. As this column notes, this is also true in studies of development. The authors call for greater participation and leadership by researchers from the Global South to promote inclusive, sustainable, and evidence-based development policy-making.

There is growing evidence that when local researchers are involved in studies of economic development, the findings have greater policy impact, lead to more sustainable development policies, and support more inclusive policy-making. Better yet if locals lead the work. However, most research projects in low- and middle-income countries are still led by researchers in the Global North, with Southern researchers contributing comparatively little to debates about development policy.

One study finds that nearly three-quarters (73%) of the articles published in the top 20 development journals between 1990 and 2019 were by Northern researchers. Only 16% were by Southern researchers, despite the majority of the papers (61%) having an explicit focus on a Southern country or region.

A 2020 study also shows that researchers based in Africa are severely under-represented in development-oriented journals with a focus on that continent. Indeed, this problem has been identified in studies looking at publications going back to 1997 and even 1985.

Similarly, only 10% of presenters at the top five development conferences in recent years are affiliated with universities in developing countries. While under 10% of authors of flagship reports by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme live in a developing country.

For the wellbeing of Global South populations and advances in natural and social science

The current strategy for development research as a whole may be rigorous, but is perhaps not fit for purpose, characterized as it is by a lack of context-specific analysis. Local knowledge and local insights are vital for forming workable policy solutions that respond better to local needs. Further, in-country researchers can harness their understanding of national policy processes to communicate research findings more effectively to key audiences at strategic moments,  thereby improving the chances of uptake.

The participation of Southern researchers is a means of ensuring the inclusion, broader participation, and contextualization of development issues. Thereby creating an equitable and sustainable policy and strategy environment in Southern countries. 

Greater visibility of Southern research would contribute to shaping regional and national academic and policy agendas, setting priorities, and guiding investments that better reflect the local context and needs. The involvement of local researchers is crucial for strengthening local ownership of the work, which in turn is vital to ensure policy impact.

If it is believed that there is a link between creditable economic policy and country-specific research, then more Southern participation would also result in greater technological development, enhanced growth and employment, and improved social wellbeing. As one study speculates, how many ‘important ideas remain undiscovered because researchers from the academic periphery lack a receptive audience.’

Southern scholars face multiple obstacles to participation

When seeking to participate in research projects and publish in scientific journals, Southern scholars face a variety of obstacles related to resources, skills, and networks. 

New research developments and publications in top journals are directly dependent on funding. But the infrastructure and resources to finance scientific research are deficient in developing countries. Many struggle to create and maintain research centers and universities to build valuable human capital, which is vital for the advancement of research and technology. Unfortunately, many promising local researchers seek greater resources at foreign institutions, leading to a ‘brain drain’. 

Network connections within scientific communities are very important for boosting researchers’ knowledge and the level of their publications. Yet these are highly constrained in less developed countries where resources often cannot cover participation in regional and international conferences. In addition, non-native English speakers are much more likely to have their journal submissions rejected for not following an appropriate style

The absence of geographical diversity in the academic world is not only a problem among authors, but also within editorial teams. This is particularly true for the most prestigious economic journals, where North America and Europe hold 93% of the editorial power. Limited geographical diversity may also be an obstacle to broadening perspectives due to the importance of networks and social ties for publishing.

Together, this lack of visibility among scientists in the South reduces their efficiency in implementing projects, and consequently reduces their research and publications.

Increasing demand for and supply of evidence by Southern-based researchers

A combination of demand-side and supply-side actions are required to facilitate greater representation of Southern researchers in development policy debates.

First, development partners and governments should make concerted efforts to engage Southern researchers in policy research. Specific policies may include increasing transparency in the selection of researchers for development projects and including local researchers in all policy studies. 

Second, ensuring that the research is positioned for policy uptake should be integral to all development work. Otherwise, a situation will remain where the research produced does not fit local contexts and fails to play a substantial role in informing development policy. 

Third, donor agencies, publications, and conferences should invest in improving the representation of Southern research in the research-policy nexus. Together, these channels have a significant influence on the development research agenda and could serve as gatekeepers of equality, making better representation a requirement for access.

At the same time, direct investment is needed – from donor agencies, development partners and governments – to level the playing field. More opportunities should be created that enable researchers to flourish in developing countries. Recognizing and retaining bright local minds will increase the quantity and quality of local policy research, which in turn will help to identify pathways to equitable and sustainable development.


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