Towards a rights-based approach to research partnerships: How Northern universities and NGOs can partner with Southern organisations?

Pradeep Narayanan (PRAXIS Institute for Participatory Practices)

It is important to start by acknowledging that Northern development NGOs have successfully travelled the journey from a ‘service delivery approach’ to ‘rights-based approach’in developing countries, and have set models for both funding and implementing programmes in this domain. From the context of India, I can even point out the role played by an ActionAid, an Oxfam and a ChristianAid in actually even facilitating leadership on the rights-based approach in India in the decade of 90s and 2000s. They had set a new benchmark – and have been continuing to play a significant role in this regard.

Nevertheless, there have been three ways through which the North has been ‘dictating’ the research agenda of the South: (a) funds and resources; (b) certification of what could be called knowledge – that is peer-reviewed journals; and (c) ethical clearance through Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). This is the reason that many Southern countries have very strong rights-based approach to programming, while the evaluations or research around development themes are still influenced by service-delivery frameworks. Often, the indicators that are measured continue to be in terms of “services delivered to beneficiaries”, and less on measuring equity or discrimination or capacity to claim rights and entitlements.

Southern organisations have actually seen a mix of progressive and non-progressive universities and ‘Principal Investigators’ from the North (and of course, less of the progressive ones). The challenge is that there is less freedom for Northern Universities to move beyond academic frameworks. Often practice-based approaches to research are ‘othered’ by them and they tend to blame the methodology for not including a number of significant probing questions or methods. The Institute of Development Studies, at the University of Sussex is one exception for they are able to blend programming and academic research in an optimal way and this is embedded in their strategy for ‘Engaged Excellence’.

Otherwise, we have Northern development NGOs, which surely understand the importance of evidence for their advocacy and programmes. There is a realization that no research is ever objective; and there is a need to evolve an equity-focused research methodology. In other words, the very process of ‘evidence’ creation or gathering is a political process– because there is an unimaginable freedom that lies with the researcher especially at the time of analysis.

Now, the South is also not a monolith. As exemplified by the recent Nobel prize in Economis is a lobby for Randomised Control Trials (RCTs)and there is a lobby that opposes RCT hegemony! From the perspective of the second lobby, based on various interactions with a number of Southern research organisations, I would identify the following challenges when working with development NGOs from the North:

  • Firstly, Northern NGOs, unlike Northern Universities, often do not even pretend to be in learning mode. This is partly because they already have a legitimized contextual knowledge derived from their programming coverage (unlike Northern Universities, where Southern NGOs clearly have an upper hand in terms of their knowledge about the ground). Northern Universities are often dependent upon southern NGOs, but Northern NGOs have less of dependency on Southern organisations as they have already built a good outreach in the south through their programming. This has potential implications for mobilising power in research relationships. Southern organisations, for example, play a significant role in influencing the operational definitions of key terms such as bonded labour, or influence of caste on a relationship of production – if the Northern organisations are in learning mode.
  • Secondly, some Northern NGOs have a research team, which often has to be more conscious about ‘methodology’ than even many universities, because there is an additional burden for them to be rigorous in order to gain legitimacy. And this burden often gets passed to the Southern partner. Increasingly there seems to be a methodological focus on Focus Group Discussions through a fairly rigid interview schedule, rather than open-ended discussions using participatory tools and methods. Or for example, in a snow-ball sampling method, the methodology sometimes requires ‘incentivisation of respondents for self-selection’ as an integral part of methodology. We were pleasantly surprised that San Diego State University agreed to re-examine their methodology, keeping in mind the local context.
  • Thirdly, many Northern NGOs or even universities do understand the power relationships that govern their relationship with Southern NGOs. And some of them call themselves progressive by saying, “we are very transparent about the conditions that are imposed through contracts”. In other words, transparency is used as a justification for imposing an otherwise unethical practice. For example, it has been said that a paper would be published in the name of XYZ from a Northern University as a transparent condition! In fact, there are organizations, which feel that if they have “funded” an organization for the study, the latter loses any right over the ownership of outputs – all in a transparent ‘discussion’. Southern organisations often do not bother to contend this – for they are getting funds and also because an academic paper does not add value to their credibility. Often, it looks like a win-win situation- but there is an erosion of control of the South over the knowledge that actually it has created! (A welcome exception from our experience was the recent publication co-authored by Christian Aid, Praxis and the Open Universityas an output from the Rethinking Research Collaborative study on Fair and Equitable Research partnershipswhich involved genuine collaboration through a writing workshop and recognition of the three contributors as authors.)

What is important is that for research to be a transformative process:-

  1. Northern NGOs need to transfer their rights-based approach that they have evolved over years in their programming to research as well.
  2. Being transparent means being ethical; but being transparently unethical is not ethical.
  3. Evidence creation is a political process. Northern NGOs have to understand that the power relationship between the Northern NGO and Southern Organisations also have influence over this political process.
  4. Neither the North nor the South is a monolith. There is a North even in the South. There is also marginalisation even among Northern communities- whether based on gender or race and Northern research institutions whether based on location or the nature of their work.

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