PARC Research Associate Dr Francis Naab writes
On reflecting on my personal early-stage research experiences, three underlying tendencies exist that give rise to unequal research arrangements. Underlining North-South research projects and collaborations, there is the potential for African partners to be used as data brokers, African research communities as data banks/farms, and the possibility of local African partners prioritising competing interests over the interests of the beneficiary communities.
Contemporary North-South partnership in research should not forestall mutual benefits but rather inure to the development of science. While the expectation of mutual benefits is often conceived and intended, it falls short of actions and usually leaves differential outcomes in the much desired ‘ideal’ of mutual benefits in research partnerships. Such is the reality in some North-South research partnerships I have been involved in during the early stages of my research career.
In many of the research projects I have been involved in Ghana, there have been elements of unequal benefits often attributed to several factors. At first, I never recognised these inequities as I was always just recruited by the participating institutions (in Ghana) to “do the job”. In hindsight, however, and coupled with ongoing trends and stories from former colleagues (still involved in such projects) in Ghana, I do believe my early-stage research experience has crystalised into a norm or “research culture”.
The practice, where research partners recruit junior researchers in Ghana to do the job without any potential benefits (except monetary) accruing to participating institutions, research communities, or early-stage researchers (data collectors), is still ongoing. While the participating Ghanaian institutions need to ensure mutually beneficial partnerships, I believe partners in the global North, primarily the funders and Northern institutions, need to uphold some ethics in an international research partnership, particularly in poor resource settings.
Research partners, not data brokers
Most of the time, social science research involves field data collection. Accordingly, there is a proliferation of research organisations and consultancies acting as “proxy partners” for institutions in the global North solely for data collection. Such practice extends to include some not-for-profit organisations that facilitate or sometimes work as research partners for institutions in the global North.
Research projects financed and developed by partners outside Ghana usually receive little input from the local partners. The entire research process from the conception, planning and analysis of the data often remains an exclusive domain for the external actors. During my work as a field officer (2013) and a research supervisor (2016) for a not-for-profit organisation and a research consultancy, I witnessed this. Local partners were more involved in providing inputs during data collection, serving as conduits to research communities or validating the inputs of already designed research procedures. Team members that attempted to query or challenge this status quo were tagged as “being difficult” by other local partners.
It is the practice for local institutional partners to recruit data collectors for data collection in research communities. While such temporary staff are trained on the research instruments, such research endeavours do not go beyond improving their capacities in other relevant research skills.
While data is either collected or facilitated by local institutions, the consent of funders or institutional partners in the global North needs to be obtained should any local partner require such data. Local partners might also require permission to access and use data. Thus, although research data might be jointly collected, it is not usually jointly owned, especially when such local partners are research consultancies or not-for-profit organisations.
Additionally, while notable research institutions (mainly accredited to the country’s universities) are duly recognised for their role in research collaborations, data brokers (research consultancies, not-for-profit research partners) are scarcely recognised, least to mention research communities/areas or data collectors.
Research communities as potential partners, not data farms
Customarily, involving all partners in developing the research agenda is the harbinger of initiating an all-inclusive partnership. However, a frequently ignored partner in most research projects is the research areas or communities. While working on two research projects in 2013, 2016 and 2018, I realised that not much consultation was always done with research communities. Questions of “why weren’t we involved in selecting communities”, “how can we benefit from this”, and “who gave you the permission to this community”, among others, all point to the non-involvement of research communities in the research process. Often, selected research communities are not considered research partners but rather viewed as data collection areas or, as I prefer to call “data farms/banks”.
In reality, research communities offer the most in partnerships by often granting permissions and offering vital information and time to researchers. Without such details and sacrifices, some empirical social research might not see the light of day. The nature of research partnerships between global North and South institutions often precludes research communities/areas. Partners in the global south act as intermediaries to research communities, divesting them from any direct relationship with Northern partners or funders.
Research communities can have a valuable role in structuring the research problem/question and selecting research sites. While Northern partners sometimes rely on local institutional partners to validate or select some of these research communities, it is imperative to recognise them as research partners. Research actors need to ensure in-depth consultation in the project, including showcasing the potential benefits to the community.
In contrast, my observation of research projects in the global North, often involving large communities, has shown that such research communities are involved in developing the research agenda through focal groups, community/village town hall meetings or sometimes through local charities acting in the interest of local communities.
The local institutional interests
Some monetary interests of local partners often trump the true spirit of partnership. This is particularly so when local partners are research consultancies and not-for-profit organisations acting as partners to institutions in the global North or multi-lateral organisations. These interests are varied and depend on the leadership of local institutions. Often including monetary, geographical and personal benefits, such interests have the potential to be exploited by partners. Thus, within local institutions involved in research partnerships, these interests often shape budgetary allocations, research resources, decisions on the selection of research communities, and recruitment for research activities.
While these interests could be exploited to benefit other partners and individuals, it could also lead to disagreements, poor planning, poor-quality research, and many ethical violations. Research partners should recognise the imperative for mutually agreed decision making structures that ought to be respected, monitored and grievances redressed in the course of the partnership. This calls for monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning from research partnerships—between North-South institutions and research communities/areas and between local partners and Northern institutions.