Judith Nshobole

“Donor-Researchers” and “Recipient-Researchers”: Bridging the Gap between Researchers from the Global North and Global South

Next up in this series of posts from the Bukavu workshops, we get into the nuts and bolts of the power differentials within the research ‘supply chain’, with Judith Nshobole. Introduction to the Bukavu series here. Search on ‘Bukavu’ for the other posts in the series. Original post here.

Power imbalances between “donor-researchers” and “recipient-researchers” at the outset of a project create power imbalances throughout the entire research process.

To begin with, the recipient-researcher rarely gets to have any sort of substantial involvement in defining the objectives of a study. The aim of the research is often determined by the donor-researcher, who sets his or her own objectives. He or she is the one who leads discussions, negotiates contracts, sets guidelines, and defines the results to be achieved, in line with the funder’s requirements – all of which takes place in spaces the recipient-researcher has no access to. This imbalance in the power relationship between donor-researchers and recipient-researchers also extends to the epistemological and methodological aspects of a project.

With everything being designed on the Northern side of the collaboration, the development of data collection tools often occurs without taking into account the expertise of recipient-researchers. Next, during the implementation stage, local researchers end up receiving directives that they have to adapt to the realities of the field. Oftentimes, their expertise isn’t taken into account during this phase either. There are, for instance, certain sensitive areas where you can’t go around asking questions to just anyone. However, if the interview instructions developed for the project are overly rigid, this can prevent recipient-researchers from making their own adjustments to the protocol.

After the fieldwork, the donor-researcher awaits the research results and the field report in order to carry on with the next steps of the process. But what opportunities do recipient-researchers get to showcase or develop their expertise once their reports are submitted? Shouldn’t they have the opportunity to be a part of the subsequent stages of a study, even after the submission of their reports? Perhaps they might prefer to appear in the final publication, so as not to remain in the shadows. This sort of visibility could, after all, open doors for them and allow them to make professional progress.

Moreover, during data collection, the people being interviewed sometimes ask for feedback: “How is the data that we’ve provided going to be used later?” is one question that often gets brought up by respondents in the field. At times, recipient-researchers have no answer to such questions, since once they’ve collected the data and submitted their field reports, their jobs are finished. And sometimes in the cases where local researchers prove bold enough to engage with a community’s expectations regarding some sort of follow-up, all they can really say is, “We’re still waiting to hear about our Northern partners’ plans.”

More often than not, donor-researchers just leave the area, while recipient researchers may have to work with the same communities in the future. A lack of accountability toward participant populations in one project can lead local researchers to be poorly received in the same area on future visits, since respondents may begin to see them as people who come to the community merely to get rich off the data they collect there.

Judith Buhendwa Nshobole is assistant at the ISDR Bukavu and researcher at the Land Rush Project and the Angaza institute

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8 Responses to ““Donor-Researchers” and “Recipient-Researchers”: Bridging the Gap between Researchers from the Global North and Global South”
  1. I definitely agree about the key distinction between donor researchers and recipient ones. I would add caution about the hybrid version too where local researchers are added to teams headed by external expatriates. Evaluation should be the end of the development cycle, although usefully best started mid-way to make adjustments before it’s too late, but the principle should apply from the outset. Namely that “recipients” should be involved in the problem/solution analysis, then the design and execution of projects, as well as the final evaluations and “where we go from here” plans. Most aren’t or are given token roles.

  2. Zainab Chamoun

    Wow! This is so interesting and real! The worst part of it is not knowing what to actually say for the “researched” communities. Recipient-researchers might be risking their credibility in front of beneficiaries because they have limited scope of access to the project’s phases.

  3. Stephen Hunt

    Great article! You might find Roger Pielke’s work helpful: your argument chimes really well with his book The Honest Broker (2007) (definitely worth having a read if you haven’t come across it!). He distinguishes between ‘Honest Brokers’ vs.’ Issue Advocates’ in the research policy process and the power imbalances you talk about between researcher(s) would fall well into what he argues between how research is conducted and who sets the agenda. The imbalance pre-determines the relationships and functions of the researchers (donors and recipients) and therefore research (and researchers) fail to hold evidence and best practice to account in the process, even if the ideas are flawed.

  4. What an excellent piece of writing! We have to invite researchers in the development sector to reflect on their positionality and their privilege and to support the efforts from the Global South to lead their own development. We need to decolonise the research sector. At Includovate, we are trying this by designing research projects differently. This means using human-centric and participatory approaches, organising a team so that people with lived experiences and various cultural competencies work together and lead projects, and giving more focus to homegrown solutions and co-creation. I will reach out to you for an informational chat soon.

  5. Priyanthi Fernando

    Dear Duncan – what a great series!!! This is something I have been battling all my career – as a global south woman working with global north consultants (usually male) in the transport sector or as the ED of a global south think tank collaborating with global north think tanks that are recipients of DFID and other donor funds. My colleagues and I have written about this in various spaces – check out @Vagisha Gunasekera and what she has written following our experiences at the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), Colombo with a leading British thinktank or what I wrote more recently about the white saviour complex stemming from my experience in development work in general (https://prifernando.blogspot.com/2019/08/some-thoughts-on-white-saviour-complex.html) .
    I think possibly one of the more damning experiences is reflected in this conversation in a park with two senior UK researchers which explains why they worked with us in Sri Lanka using CEPA researchers to do what our own team felt was really shoddy data gathering for a quantitative study (https://prifernando.blogspot.com/2012/08/on-research-uptake-and-quantitative.html).
    Question is, these power asymmetries exist and are exploited (usually for the benefit of the global north) and now they are being talked about extensively in FR2P and other places – what difference will it make?

    • Duncan Green

      That is indeed the question Priyanthi, thanks. In my jargon, what would a theory of change/action look like that wd lead from the recognition of knowledge apartheid, (or whatever you want to call it) to some genuine effort to come up with a better, fairer and more productive research ecosystem? How far can you go as long as research funding continues to flow largely N->S, trailing power asymmetries in its wake? What if you could find other sources of research funding (power is power, even outside the aid system)?

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