Promoting local leadership of economic development research

Local researcher conducting survey in Malawi with a woman and her child

The ability to conduct economic research in developing countries has significantly improved in recent decades, driven by improvements in national university programs, overseas training and capacity-building initiatives like the Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP). Despite this progress, local expertise often remains underutilized in the formulation of policies. This is a significant gap given that researchers in the community act as catalysts, possessing a deep understanding of local resources, challenges, and cultural contexts unique to their communities. This knowledge empowers them to create tailor-made policies, attract targeted investments, and foster collaboration among diverse stakeholders.

As a result, the global scientific community might be overlooking numerous valuable ideas and policy recommendations grounded in this rich pool of local research. This page aims to underscore the importance of this issue, provide evidence of its scope, explore its underlying causes, and propose potential solutions. Jump to:

Why local leadership is important
Unequal representation in development research  
Obstacles  |  Solutions  |  Impact

Why is local leadership important?

Involving local scholars in economic development research is crucial for developing regions due to several key pragmatic reasons:

In-depth local knowledge

Local researchers have a better understanding of the social, economic, cultural and political contexts of their countries. Intimate knowledge of a country gives researchers special insights into the framing of research questions, the application of methodologies and the interpretation of results. They are also more aware of sources of local data and their availability. Local researchers are thus able to conduct more context-relevant research with applicable policy recommendations.

Enhanced stakeholder engagement

Local researchers have denser local networks and stronger links with key actors in the national government, civil society, academia and private sector. This helps them to design and implement their research with more fluid contact with the parties involved, based on the bonds of trust already built. Close links with local policymakers and other stakeholders facilitate their involvement in defining relevant and priority policy research questions, ensuring that the research design correctly addresses these questions, disseminating research findings effectively and translating them into actionable policy recommendations. Policy-engaged research can better contribute to improve the lives of the population.

Better ability to influence and guide policies

Local researchers’ ongoing presence ensures they can advise policy makers in the design and implementation of policies based on their findings, as well as in monitoring and evaluating impacts of these policies so as to introduce adjustments as required. Their presence in the country allows them to contribute to the diffusion of their findings and advocate for relevant policy reforms over longer periods of time, making their involvement in research a cost-efficient way to achieve higher impact.

Strengthening local academic capacity

A crucial aspect of involving local researchers is the potential effect on strengthening the local academic community and the national research systems, contributing to the development of higher-quality local research that is more suitable for informing policy in the developing world. In turn, policymakers and other stakeholders can increasingly rely on experienced and readily available policy advice as new issues and challenges emerge.

Promoting local ownership

When local researchers lead development research, it promotes a sense of ownership and accountability within the community. This approach is more likely to result in policies that are not only effective but also have the backing and support of those the researchers aim to help. As local researchers are frequently well-known, this leads to: i) trust among stakeholders, ii) trust among the general public, and iii) external pressure on those in charge of implementing reforms.

Enhanced data collection capabilities

The ability of local researchers to navigate the cultural and social network of their communities contributes to the creation of surveys that resonate with the target population. The questions they pose can be carefully calibrated to produce meaningful responses, drawing on an understanding of the local language, customs, and values. On that line, local knowledge is particularly useful in collecting qualitative data. Also, the ongoing presence of local researchers during the often-prolonged process of data collection, notably when involving multiple rounds of surveying, ensures better monitoring and quick adjustments as required.


Where are the Southern researchers? Unequal Representation in Development Research

Recent systematic assessments regarding the participation of researchers from the Global South in the main fora for discussing topics related to Economic Development, notably led by PEP, reveal concerning results.

Journal Publications

Approximately 73% of publications in top development journals during 1990 to 2019 were authored by researchers not based in southern regions. Only 16% were authored by southern-based authors, whereas 11% were collaborations between southern- and northern-based researchers. Greater diversity in geographical locations of researchers would broaden the intellectual perspectives of academic research and foster stronger connections between research findings and policy recommendations.

A striking result of the analysis is that there has been little or no progress in the share of Southern-authored publications over the 1990 to 2019 period. However, collaborations between northern- and southern-based researchers have significantly increased over the past thirty years, suggesting a potential reduction in the relative academic isolation of southern scholars. This trend may increase the quality of research and improve access to academic development. In particular, the Southern diaspora currently located in Northern universities and other research institutions play an important role in forging north-south connections that amplify the capacities of southern-based institutions.

Infographic showing most development research by Northern-based researchers

Editorial Boards

The marginalization of Southern-based researchers is also evident in the composition of editorial teams of development journals. Only 19% of the editorial board members of the top development journals were located in southern countries, and if regional journals are excluded, southern based editors represent only 13%.

Development conferences

Six out of 10 presenters at the top five development conferences were from universities in developed countries, with only one out of 10 from universities in developing countries. The remaining presenters mainly belonged to think tanks or multilateral organizations, and less than 10 percent of them were affiliated with institutions in developing countries.

Global Development Policy Debates

Less than 10% of authors of World Bank and UNDP international flagship reports from 1990-2020 were based in developing countries.

Economic development consulting

While data on the global economic development consulting market are not readily available, it is evident that local researchers have access to very limited consulting budgets to pursuing economic analysis.


Obstacles to overcome

In order for Southern researchers to be able to better contribute to development debates, a certain number of obstacles must be addressed. Supply-side obstacles prevent Southern researchers from doing their work in a conducive environment and on a level playing field with respect to Northern researchers. These obstacles include:

  • Lack of funding: to finance research and technology
  • Weak research infrastructure (facilities and capacities)
  • Technology: low internet connectivity, absence of reliable telecommunications infrastructure, high costs of technology (computers, internet access, etc.)
  • Brain drain: recent studies indicate that an increase in this phenomenon over the past decades has been depriving developing countries of their researchers
  • Insufficient networking: Lack of connection to the scientific community, low participation in academic conferences
  • Lack of visibility: Limited visibility due to the concentration of international organizations in developed countries
  • Language barriers: Non-native English researchers face greater difficulties in writing and publishing scientific papers in English, and this activity is more time consuming and cognitively more demanding for them as well.
  • Instability: The research environment is hindered by political instability, conflict, natural disasters, censorship, and the lack of fora for the free exchange of ideas, all of which discourage or disrupt locally-led research.
Coins stacked on a paper of graphs and charts
Image by Freepik

On the demand side, obstacles arise from various sources. Journal editors often prefer theoretical/methodological innovations over contextual/policy ones, while relying on editorial boards in which the Global South is under-represented. Research funders often have difficulties in identifying local researchers or Southern-based research centers.


Solutions: The PEP example

Over the last two decades, PEP has provided direct support to more than 1250 researchers in 66 countries across the Global South. This support has facilitated the execution of nearly 400 research projects covering diverse topics such as the impacts of climate change on women farmers, women’s economic empowerment, youth employment, and many other relevant issues. Notably, half of these projects have demonstrably influenced policy decisions or practices. PEP’s policy engagement model collaborates closely with key government and policy stakeholders throughout the entire research process, from design to delivery and dissemination, ensuring a lasting impact.


Facilitating locally-led research

The PEP system effectively dismantles the barriers hindering successful engagement with local researchers:

  • Identification of relevant local researchers: PEP can draw on its research fellows, 1250+ alumni and 14,000+ website subscribers (overwhelmingly from the Global South) to quickly identify relevant local researchers based on thematic focus, geographical location, methodological expertise, age, gender and numerous other criteria.
Dr Binaté Fonfana Namizata, local PEP researcher in Côte d'Ivoire, speaks at her team's national policy conference
Dr Binaté Fonfana Namizata, local PEP researcher in Côte d'Ivoire, speaks to policymakers and stakeholders at her team's national policy conference
  • Funding: PEP is able to effectively channel global research funding to Southern researchers, ensuring timely and high-quality outputs.
  • Training: Where local capacity of research leaders or assistants need updating in specific areas, PEP is able to provide graduate-level training in the most policy-relevant methodological approaches through its online courses and customized training.
  • Mentoring: Where local capacity exists, but experience in professionally commissioned research is lacking, PEP can provide mentoring to ensure research outputs are timely and of the utmost quality. Mentors are international experts drawn from PEP’s global network of scientific resource persons and policy mentors.
  • Advising: Trained and experienced local researchers are isolated in many developing countries and thus benefit from the qualified feedback from PEP advisors, also drawn from its global network of scientific resource persons and policy mentors, can provide.
  • Networking: With the same goal of breaking down the isolation of local researchers in many developing countries, PEP can establish bridges with experts in similar areas from other countries through peer reviewing (all PEP WPs are anonymously peer-reviewed) and for sharing experiences. Indeed, PEP is able to organize multi-country studies within or across continents to encourage this cross-fertilization and learning from the very different contexts and policy conditions across countries.
  • Research environment: PEP can facilitate access to data, software, literature, and other elements that form a conducive research environment that researchers in developed countries often take for granted. This ensures that local researchers are equipped to conduct the very best research. PEP can also contribute to the development of an appropriate research environment by advocating for the fair recognition of contribution of local researchers in teams combining researchers from different contexts.
  • Administrative support: PEP’s global secretariat is able to provide local researchers with support to handle the financial/budgeting, administrative, communications, reporting and other aspects of commissioned research projects.

Capacity Building

PEP provides a unique capacity-building mechanism for local researchers through a distinct learning-by-doing approach with regular interactions with a select set of mentors. PEP´s ‘Grants Plus’ program ensures that project teams receive financial and research resources, professional development opportunities, and support for publication and dissemination. PEP's capacity-building activities benefit from its broad coverage of policy issues and analytical perspectives, as well as its sophisticated Monitoring and Evaluation System

Promoting and advocating for locally-led economic policy research

Over recent decades, substantial investments have been channeled towards promoting local expertise and research capacity in developing nations. PEP's significant role in this endeavor across the Global South is of extreme importance. Nevertheless, researchers from developing countries continue to encounter obstacles that marginalize their voices in global development research and policymaking arenas. In response to the multifaceted challenges faced by Southern scholars, PEP launched a "call to action" in 2022. In this initiative, PEP underscores the imperative of involving Southern scholars in policy research, positioning research for impactful policy outcomes, enhancing Southern research representation, and directing investments towards equity promotion, among other objectives. PEP has further organized webinars, inviting esteemed editors and policymakers to deliberate on the barriers to and viable solutions for elevating the participation of Southern researchers in global economic development policy discourse and publication in top development journals.

PEP’s call to action


Evidence on the impacts of locally-led research

PEP has been collecting data and examples of the impact of locally-led research since 2016. Here are some examples of how engaging local researchers can have demonstrated impact:

    Informing policy

    • 54% of locally-led research projects influence policy decisions or practice.
    • 74% are reported in national news media.

    Sustainability/strengthening of local expertise

    • 52% of researchers subsequently experience career advancement.
    • 54% increase their influence as policy advisors.

    Influence on global development policy debates

    • 41% of projects published in top scientific journals.
    • 51% present their findings in major international conferences.


    Nisha Arunatilake speaking at the UNU-WIDER Development Conference 2019

    Related pages

    • Call to Action for greater participation of Southern Researchers in economic development debates
    • Research on Increasing Global South Participation in Development Economics
    • Blogs on localisation
    • Further reading on Southern Participation in Economic Development Research, Policy and Consulting


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