Reshaping the future of international development research

By Bintu Mansaray

Working in research in low income countries has been an eye-opening experience for me. International development research highlights the importance of asking questions from the people affected and allowing those answers to shape policies to improve their lives. My experiences and quest for increased control in the research I partake in has pushed me to start an independent medical research consultancy to ensure that credible research is done with and for the communities we work in.

Africa cannot afford to be left behind in the next decade. Human development research that directly feeds into policies and translates into practices is instrumental to Africa’s positioning on the world stage. And African researchers, policy makers and participants must be apart of leading the transformation of the research landscape to make this happen.

To reshape the international development research landscape, there are key questions we need to consider about how research is currently being conducted.

Who defines research impact?

The impact of research in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) is measured by established parameters. How many articles were published in well-recognised journals? Were blogs well-received, were there enough shares, views and likes?

But who decides on these parameters and how do these outputs translate to improvement in living conditions of those being researched? Research deemed as impactful by funders and principal investigators living in high income countries might not be so for those living in low income countries where these studies are mostly conducted.

Who decides research themes?

Research themes are mostly decided upon by the funders, and researchers come up with topics that fit into these themes. Therefore, research done may not be aligned with what policy makers believe is a priority for their country at the time that the research is conducted.

For research to have meaningful contextual impact, it should be culture-centric and conducted on issues we have the power and the political will to change now, not determined by funders in countries that are light years ahead of us, who want answers to questions we are not ready to even ask yet.

‘Who owns the research?’

Development research done in low income countries is said to be for the benefit of people living in these countries. Therefore shouldn’t those people have ownership of that research? I would like to see African researchers, participants, communities and policy makers take ownership of all aspects of the research process: the questions being researched, the safety of the process, the qualifications of the researchers and how well they know the local context, and most importantly how the research will be beneficial to them.

Currently the funders, due to colonial legacies, usually have the power to decide which type of research is conducted in low income countries. Until the capacity of research institutions and researchers in the Global South are built, there will always be a colonial master-subordinate relationship in international development research.

We can change this imbalance by building research institutions of excellence in the Global South and building the capacity of local researchers to be able to compete in the academic world.

The future of International development research. What do I want to see in the next decade?

These are the five changes I would like to see happen in the next decade in international development research.

  1. Countries funding local research before making policy decisions.

There should be increased political will to fund local research themselves before the introduction of new laws or amendments to old policies. Research done even in nearby countries may not be representative of the local context. What ensures ownership more than actually paying for a service?

  1. Establishment of research institutions and building capacity of local researchers.

The importance of this cannot be overemphasized. But it cannot be a tick box exercise. It should be aligned with the researchers’ career development and their level of expertise. Local researchers should gain beneficial knowledge after every research they partake in and should be made to feel as if they are equal partners in the entire research process. Local institutions partnering with international research entities should be helped to improve in their research capacity by giving them the support needed to conduct independent research, in the way of equipment, policy development and knowledge sharing.

  1. Locally-led research should be prioritized.

Western countries most often are the holders of the purse strings and hence determine the type of international development research they want to do, based on their own priorities. It is therefore unsurprising that the impact of research in the lives of people living in these countries are not what it should be. Research agendas should be developed locally as locally led research has a greater impact on policy and practice.

  1. Local researchers leading research and being trusted by funders to get the job done.

The international development research community is a close knit one with funders often giving the same institutions grants over and again. Some calls for grants even include caveats of working with institutions in high income countries to be considered for these grants. How will local researchers without that institutional backing or connection build capacity to be able to compete in the tough world that is international research? Decolonising international development research means funding and building the capacity of local institutions and independent researchers and diversification of funding recipients.

  1. Funding for implementation of research outputs as part of research grant.

Conducting research and publishing results without plans to implement interventions is like diagnosing an illness with no plans to treat it. Implementation of research outcomes should not only be left in the hands of local policy makers but should be the responsibility of the funder. Implementation research should be part of the budget for funding calls that can be developed with participants and communities and will add credibility to research outputs. The days of conducting research and leaving with the answers should be left in the past. The Global South needs a forceful push into the next decade and it starts with research and implementation going hand in hand.

Finally, I cannot talk about international development without highlighting safeguarding and the importance of protecting women, girls and vulnerable groups in research. Black bodies have been used for centuries in all forms of research, therefore safeguarding policy development and training should be mandatory for everyone involved in human development research. We cannot afford the mistakes of the past, where in humanitarian actors who were expected to help, used their position to exploit. It is the dawn of a new era in international development research, let us make it the best one yet for all development partners.

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