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Partners, payoffs and power plays: researching mobility across north-south divides

Research across multiple sites comes with many rewards, but the partnerships required for multi-sited work often reinforce power imbalances in ways that compromise our scholarship and ethical policy engagements.

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Multi-sited research partnerships are integral to successful scholarship on trans-local and global processes. Nowhere is this more evident than explorations of human mobility in its varied forms. Partnerships promise multiple benefits – innovative insights, improved advocacy networks, and heightened opportunities for emerging scholarship – but when they span the ‘north-south’ divide, they also risk reinforcing power imbalances in ways that may ultimately compromise our scholarship and ethical policy engagements. Migration research partnerships have many of the same risks as those in other academic fields. However, funding structures and the ethical imperative many of us feel to address injustices associated with exploitation, human rights abuses, or generalised poverty add additional pitfalls.

Problems begin with funding for this type of research. Financing chiefly comes from governments and foundations in the global north, where political and social anxieties regarding movements from south to north have made available tens of millions of dollars, pounds and euros to migration researchers in and beyond the academy. Since individual researchers can only do so much on their own, funds are usually made available to support research networks and research teams, which typically bring together ‘principal investigators’ located in the global north with a series of ‘local partners’ located in the global south.

Within these partnerships, southern partners often surrender their most valuable international resource – legitimacy, ‘street cred’, and local insight – for financial resources, travel opportunities, and prestigious associations with northern partners. More profoundly, they risk enacting and exposing the inequalities, structural constraints and historically conditioned power relations implicit in knowledge production.

North-south collaborations failing to account for incentives within the scholarly environment are likely to fall short when it comes to producing sound academic work, or to increasing their field’s strength and diversity. Instead, they may unwittingly reinforce a global division of labour where southerners become data collectors while northerners produce knowledge and offer scholarly and policy critiques.

Re-balancing partnerships

To avoid the perils of partnership, we must address the varied demands scholars face. While northern social scientists sometimes aim for policy influence, their success comes largely from scholarly contributions: peer reviewed articles, books, academic conferences. By contrast, many southern scholars’ professional legitimacy (and salaries) depend less on scholarly impact than policy engagement: credibility flows from one’s work being recognised in the media, in government consultations, or international policy conferences. The balance towards public engagement can be so significantly skewed that whole careers (and whole academic departments) are oriented to producing work that aid agencies and governments recognise as policy relevant or are, more accurately, willing to finance.

The need to appease the paymasters and policy makers means southern scholars may have few incentives or opportunities to redirect inquiry.

Calibrating scholars’ careers against policy and public engagement success compromises what is often southern scholars’ most significant comparative advantage: the ability to identify trends, events, or dynamics that might be invisible or inexplicable to outsiders. Almost by definition, research projects designed in one part of the world bring with them frames of reference and concerns that lead us to overlook some of what is most important or innovative. In my own work on contemporary African migration, northern partners and development agencies often presume the importance of progressive legal frameworks and documentation in securing migrants’ rights and thus focus research on formal frameworks. A nuanced understanding of the informal environments in which migrants live instead draws attention to the importance of ‘horizontal’ relationships and relative insignificance of documents and law for many migrants.

Yet the need to appease the paymasters and policy makers means southern scholars may have few incentives or opportunities to redirect inquiry. Instead, collaborations often take the shape of southern scholars generating data on narrowly defined topics while northern scholars are left to synthesise, analyse and theorise (see Zaleza 1996; Chimni 2009). As Enrique Ganuza noted long ago, this can lead to conditions where the absence of a strong, southern intellectual agenda creates the space/necessity for northern partners, donors and development agencies to dominate decision making and research directions. At an immediate level this may satisfy all involved, but it does little to overturn northern dominance of global knowledge production.  

Increased pressure for centralised financial control and accountability from the global north also further strengthens hierarchies of power within research networks. Two additional funding-related factors work against successful north-south research collaborations. First, due to heavy financial dependence on development agencies, southern scholars tend to reproduce the kind of knowledge and analysis aid agencies reward. In migration research this often means replicating the narratives of migrant vulnerability that justify aid agencies’ interventions. This impoverishes scholarship and leaves northern-based researchers positioned to make the trenchant and academically credible critiques.

Second, given the shortages of research skills and substantive knowledge across much of the south (and Africa specifically), particular countries may have one or two ‘experts’ on a given topic. Their privileged position leads to a kind of intellectual monopoly in which they replicate their own perspectives while actively suppressing pretenders to their profile, prestige, or profits. This limits the diversity of ‘southern’ voices in ways that often privilege more compliant and conventional ones. It also constrains southern scholars’ ability to commit to deep analysis and critique while encouraging the exclusion of fresher perspectives and people.

Beyond scholarly impact, many north-south partnerships aim to channel information from the south to northern policy makers and organisations. This is an important function but brings considerable risks. These include generating financially defined pathways where northern scholars play major roles in identifying and shaping southern voices that come to ‘speak for’ particular countries or regions on a global stage. Inasmuch as southern partners remain dependent on research collaborations, southerners either fall ‘in line’ with others’ agendas or risk losing much needed financial support.

Moreover, northern scholars are in a position to act as gatekeepers, filtering out ‘noise’ by silencing those who work against their agendas and presenting only that information which they find convincing, relevant, or otherwise suitable. Unless we understand the varied incentives and limitations facing researchers within the global south, we can inadvertently (or sometimes quite intentionally) reinforce hierarchies in the global production of knowledge. The pressures for people working on migration, slavery or other themes to engage in policy-oriented partnerships only heightens these risks.

All is not lost

All global research partnerships must be subject to critical reflection regarding the terms of interaction between north and south and the intended and unintentional outcomes of research partnerships. While we must recognise that all relationships embody power imbalances, the following practical steps can help improve research generated in the south and the success of future collaborations.

Budgets must consider the full cost and be willing to pay the kinds of overheads which are regularly paid to northern universities.

Avoid arranged marriages: partners are often selected based upon geographic location, rather than intellectual interests or inclinations. This results in motley crews lacking focus or the social ties necessary for true collaboration. Rather than start big, small scale partnerships can be the foundation for broader collaboration among people who have established functional and productive working relations (see the British Academy’s 2009 Nairobi Report). Collaborations on an article or on student supervision can test the waters for more ambitious projects to follow.

Say it like it is: many north-south collaborations are shrouded in the politically correct language of partnership. This is a fiction disguising inherent inequalities. Addressing this demands full disclosure from the get-go. If this means southern partners are expected to work as research assistants, so be it. At least they know where they stand and the risks and benefits associated with their position. Transparency in budgeting and planning will also help southern partners to assess the degree to which they are partners or participants.

Pay up: partnerships must recognise that southern partners’ participation in research collaborations are often as much (or more) about securing financial resources as about intellectual enquiry and policy impacts. To encourage substantive collaboration and scholarship, budgets must consider the full cost of involvement and be willing to pay the kinds of overheads and costs which are regularly paid to northern universities. For many scholars in the south, their university salaries are inadequate. Others work in precarious, project-based positions. In both cases, partnerships must provide the necessary support to allow full, substantive participation.

Replant and replenish: established senior scholars often have strong incentives to maintain a monopoly over their fields of expertise in their respective countries. Having senior scholars involved in multi-region partnerships can both fortify their dominance of local scholarship and undercut the likelihood of full participation in collaborative initiatives. By insisting on the independent participation of doctoral students and early career scholars, northern partners can help multiply the voices being heard both in and out of their respective countries.

Southerners stand up: southern scholars often underestimate their importance to northern researchers’ legitimacy, research funding, and ability to complete research. While potentially risky, southern scholars could do more to play on northerners’ liberal sensitivities and genuine desire for collaboration to assert their interests and demands. If ensuring benefits requires slyness or the occasional subterfuge, so be it. Some of the most effective and radical forms of social change have started with little more.

Research partnerships are full of promise and potential pitfalls. The dangers are reinforced by the global funding regime and institutional incentives. Ironically, social justice commitments behind much work on slavery, trafficking, exploitation, and labour migration may constrain our ability to capitalise on north-south partnerships while heightening global inequalities. Even while the global economy of knowledge production remains intact, more careful collaborations can better deliver on the academic, developmental and policy potential of our partnerships.


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