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Dismantling South-North power dynamics to create new climate knowledge




November 3, 2020


In the spring of 2017, just over 100 researchers from a range of disciplines and institutions across sub-Saharan Africa, the United Kingdom, and Europe, came together in Cape Town, South Africa, to discuss the progress of the first half of a four-year project aimed at generating new climate knowledge for the region.

What was unusual about the Future Climate for Africa (FCFA) programme was that its very design aimed to bring together institutions from the global South and North, where those in the South were eligible to run the various regional teams.

One striking feature of FCFA, according to researchers canvassed at the 2017 meeting, was that the programme’s many forms of collaborative processes also tried to be deliberate about setting aside the kind of the hierarchies that are typical in academia. They said that the structure and facilitation of in-person meetings and workshops, project design processes, and various regional stakeholder meetings were handled in a way that created a sense of inclusion. Junior researchers were able to participate alongside senior peers in a way that allowed them to feel as though they had equal rank. This created a sense of belonging, and that everyone’s thoughts and opinions mattered and were heard.

Breaking down these traditional hierarchies in joint research projects involving specialists from the global South and North needs to extend beyond just between those working in academic institutions, or between academia and those outside of it, says Dr Katharine Vincent, a geographer from the consultancy firm Kulima Integrated Development Solutions, and an associate professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Vincent was also part of FCFA research team, UMFULA.

Addressing power imbalances in shared South-North projects also needs to dismantle the dynamics which may allow global North partners to impose research or funding agendas onto their beneficiary partners in the South.

Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change recently, Vincent and fellow researchers say that climate services which aim to provide accessible and useful weather and climate information for decision making in sub-Saharan Africa need to be done collaboratively and in a way that brings users of climate information into the knowledge-generation process. Co-production as a process is a way of doing that.

‘Donors and research funders in the Global North have embraced co-production as an opportunity to address knowledge gaps, build capacity, and allow for technology transfer,’ Vincent says, ‘but experience shows that co-production often falls short of expectations.’

The traditionally unequal power dynamic in North–South partnerships comes from a paradigm that assumes that one party — usually in the North — has the necessary knowledge, while those in the South do not.

This ‘knowledge deficit model’ supposes that if the right people have this knowledge, and share it with others, new knowledge will be created to address whatever issue is needing to be tackled. This approach often results in a one-way transfer of knowledge from one place or party to another, and is a dynamic that can play out between Northern donors and funders, and recipients in the South.

This can result in Northern funders deciding where they believe the knowledge gaps lie, and then designing research projects to fill that gap. This can exclude important knowledge held by individuals and institutions in the South.

‘Today we see the need for those in the South, both the scientists as well as those who will end up using the climate information, to define the nature of the knowledge gaps that need to be addressed,’ says Vincent. ‘The co-production is a way of transforming this method of developing climate knowledge,’ says Vincent.

Co-production presumes that knowledge is spread in pockets between many different parties, who all bring different experiences and expertise. Knowledge-sharing processes need to be carefully designed so that these varied skills and bodies of knowledge can be drawn together and shared in a way that builds new ideas.

‘The same applies to building capacity in the South, or the transfer of technology between the North and South,’ says Vincent. ‘Typically institutions in the North act as the ‘lead’ on applied research projects or as the technical support partner in development. This reinforces the dynamics of the North as donor, and the South as recipient.’

One of the biggest challenges with co-production processes is that they usually need more time and money than producer-led scientific processes, according to the Nature Climate Change paper.

The knowledge-exchange forums also need strong and deliberate facilitation with the specific goal of being as inclusive as possible, as the FCFA’s recent review of the four-year programme found (see A Critical Reflection on Learning from the FCFA Programme report here).

Vincent and colleagues conclude that unequal partnerships will limit how effectively the partners from the South are able to engage in the process of developing the climate knowledge. Without a commitment to break down these power imbalances, all partners run the risk of failing to get the most out of co-production processes. This can threaten the future and sustainability of applied research where partnerships need to extend beyond the end-date of a specific project.

This article was written by Leonie Joubert as part of a series covering the science produced by various FCFA projects, and introduces some of the people behind it.