How can Covid-19 be the catalyst to decolonise development research?

Guest post by Melanie Pinet and Carmen Leon-Himmelstine of the ODI

Covid-19 is an unprecedented moment, halting life as we know it. For the global development community, the effects have been profound. Several NGOs have had to scale back or completely stop their operations overseas, while local actors and civil society are rapidly organising to respond to the crisis through their own creative ways.

For those of us who work in international development think tanks, research that requires fieldwork has been paused and left us fully reliant on local researchers. That has helped us recognise that ‘normal was the problem’. The ways in which we used to work and conduct research in development reproduced colonial practices that silence our research partners and ultimately our participants. By disrupting traditional research and development practices, Covid-19 could offer us an opportunity to put that right.

The topic of decoloniality in development is nothing new. The term has been  inspired by different traditions of thought associated with postcolonialism, post-development, or critical theory. However, recent debates challenging the status quo in international cooperation have raised concerns over the impact of Western-framed practices, including project management, theories and models of innovation and technologies, digital rights as well as conventions on the alternative use of aid by countries in the Global South.

Decolonising development shouldn’t be only applicable to academia, NGOs and the donor community or institutions responsible for evaluating development effectiveness, but also to think tanks. Covid-19 may be the external threat that international development research needs to truly decolonise itself and to work with research partners and participants in a more sustainable and equitable way.

What isn’t working with the current research cycle

1. Proposal design and selection of in-country partners: Researchers in the Global North usually lead in the proposal stage, while southern partners are invited to join. Northern institutions usually select partners who are well-known in the development sector with researchers who speak good English or have studied in Western universities. This practice leaves behind partners who only speak the local language or who are less known but may have strong, local knowledge.

2. Design of Theories of Change (ToC), Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) systems from a Western perspective: ToCs, indicators and logical frameworks (logframes) are set by Western researchers and institutions with some but not in-depth understanding of the social norms and local realities

3. Colonial practices through data collection: Researchers based in the Northusually lead in research design, development of methodology, tools and the data collection, while providing ‘training’ to local partners. Northern researchers and donors usually consider the foreign outsider as the ‘expert in the field’, while local researchers and partners are mere field assistants, in charge of the logistics or acting as brokers between Northern researchers and participants.

4. Dissemination of results: Western researchers usually lead in the writing of reports or academic articles, which raises ethical issues around authorship – who has the right to extract stories from others and publish them? There is a lot of talk around collaboration with Southern partners but the ways in which the research cycle and associated funding work makes Western researchers end up speaking for researchers from the Global South.

Credit: Louisa Billeter, Flickr

5. Access, management and protection of data: In the same vein, scientific publications – for the most part – seem to remain confined to Northern organisations publishing the research, who can afford to access it, and are rarely returned to research participants. However, recently indexed datasets by Google as well as newly populated randomized experiments in social sciences data repositories providing open-access search functions to datasets represent some progress.

Covid-19: an opportunity for think tanks to change for the better

  • Reflect on our positionality and privilege: confronting and questioning our own privileges is a crucial step. This should be accompanied by a reflection on how we collect, understand and interpret the data based on gender, ethnicity/race, age, class or education. All these characteristics matter in the knowledge that we produce and the power dynamics that arise while conducting fieldwork and working with our partners in the Global South. With Covid-19, we need to be very careful of power dynamics. Researchers in the Global North tend to work from home (reducing their vulnerability to Covid-19) while local research partners may have no such luxury. Local organisations and researchers may be dependent on the funding or may feel obligated to do the work, even if it risks their safety and wellbeing, including that of participants. 
  • Respond to the agenda and research priorities of Global South researchers: While research on Covid-19 is essential to understand and provide solutions to its devastating impact, including a sharp increase in poverty, researchers in the Global South have raised concerns about deprioritising other existing research priorities such as Malaria, Sexual and Reproductive Health, or HIV/AIDS. Researchers and donors need to listen carefully and support the research agenda that local researchers consider essential in their respective countries, whether it is Covid-19 related or not.
  • Capacity-building as a form of neo-colonial education: The rhetoric of capacity strengthening and capacity-building fails to acknowledge how much Northern researchers and practitioners can learn from their Southern peers. We should stop assuming that we always have something to teach and properly value local knowledge and expertise, as is the case for indigenous approaches to conflict resolutions over western-style Weberian/Westphalia methods.
  • Building equal partnerships and collaboration models: Research commissioners promote and expect equal partnerships alongside high research quality but they rarely provide organisations with the tools, budget and flexibility to make it work in practice. Covid travel restrictions are transforming partnerships. Local researchers are taking the lead in collecting data using different modalities such as remote interviews. This offers us a unique opportunity to reduce power imbalances, to re-establish relationships of trust and to support local researchers at gaining the skills that they consider they need. Having daily debriefings, offering remote support and adjusting the research plan if needed can help us build new relationships of trust and reciprocity.
  • Research Comms: Research findings can be communicated using different channels, formats and languages in ways that development practitioners, academics, donors and especially communities can use according to their needs. More funding may be needed, but these costs should be included in the proposal stage.
  • Access to datasets: Finally, make datasets available to local researchers and local leaders whilst de-identifying them. There are helpful recommendations from Teamscope’s data sharing checklist and Hivos’ Responsible Data Handbook.

Overall, our efforts to decolonise development research should lead us to reflect about the meaning we give to development studies and the ways we engage with all those involved in the research cycle. Covid-19 offers us an opportunity to reflect on what has not been working and to find new solutions to build a reciprocal relationship and to produce research knowledge that is respectful, honouring, and authentic of the Global South.

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19 Responses to “How can Covid-19 be the catalyst to decolonise development research?”
  1. Nathaniel Mason

    This is a good list. Was discussing the same with folk at Imperial College recently. One practical addition that donors could pursue: allocate dedicated funds as part of research calls to pay for financial administrator time in universities and think-tanks in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, freeing up their researchers’ time and increasing Southern-led consortia.

  2. Thanks Carmen and Melanie, some important and practical ideas here! Tackling this within a research project (or within a portfolio of research in and organisation) is really important. The massive uptick in “development research” funding in the UK, through the Global Challenges and Newton and related funds, has made these issues even more critical (and we’ve seen even more examples of research done badly too, as cash has flooded in). On COVID specifically we’ve heard from a range of researchers as part of a survey we launched at the very start of the pandemic ( and we’ve published some accounts from individual researchers and the challenges they’re facing through the AuthorAID network ( But as you rightly suggest, COVID is just helping to expose/re-expose what was already wrong with research, and research systems, and we probably need to look at that system level to see the ways in which these inequities are perpetuated. That might be between North and South, but also within countries (e.g. between better and less-well resourced or privileged institutions), and within institutions (e.g. whose careers are supported? who gets to do and publish research? who has access to infrastructure/digital connections?). Perhaps even who gets to become a student in the first place, and whether the learning environment and the quality of teaching enables them to develop the skills they need to become the researchers of the future.
    That probably has to start with listening to what the people who lead and develop and work in those systems value, and what they are trying to do (rather than any ideas we may have about it) and also to pay attention to the differences at national and sub-national levels. So much of research funding, and partnership and “capacity strengthening” work assumes that the overall end-point is a research system that resemble the systems we have in the North. The systems for recognising research – what counts and what is “quality” – either when funding is awarded, or when new work is being published (or isn’t), are obviously a big part of this of course, and often significantly disadvantage Southern research and researchers (Erika Kraemer-Mbula and colleagues have a great book on this – Transforming Research Excellence: New Ideas from the Global South
    We also need to work hard to get beyond the capital cities and “flagship” institutions – which is where so much funding and so many partnerships end up being concentrated.
    We’ve tried to articulate some of this at in our thinking about an “equitable knowledge ecosystem” as a way to guide our work ( and it underpins our new strategy
    We still have more thinking to do about how we translate that ambition into practice (especially as an organisation based in the North, albeit with a network of associates and partners in the South). We’re keen to work with others to do that.

    • Sarah Njeri

      I agree with the point you make especially partnership with ‘flagship’ institutions; I think this is also reflected by who is also getting the big GCRF research grants; – mainly the big Research focused universities – thus their choice of partners is reflected in the global south.

    • Carmen

      Hi Jon,
      Thank you so much for reading us and for your valuable comments. Also, the resources that you have shared are great and very useful for our work. The survey shows that researchers in the ‘GS’ are concerned about their ability to pursue their research interests when these are not Covid-19 related necessarily (and the gender factor is sadly not surprising). Also, I see our ideas fit quite well on the “equitable knowledge ecosystem” that you have developed. This is a great resource that shows the different levels of responses that are needed, from supporting GS students to pursue a career in development to the structural changes at the institutional and sectoral level. It’s difficult, and the changes that are needed are massive, but more collaborations are needed at all levels and hopefully we will find the ways. Thanks for reading us and we would be keen to continue developing ideas.

    • Carmen

      Hi Farhana,
      “Decolonizing development means disrupting the deeply-rooted hierarchies, asymmetric power structures, the universalization of Western knowledge, the privileging of whiteness, and the taken-for-granted Othering of the majority world”. I think your definition fits very well with all the ideas that we aimed to share. Fantastic article, thanks for sharing!

    • dj

      Journals like Human Geography have always been paywalled, and therefore inaccessible to most people in the Global South. This needs to be decolonised. And this journal has now entered into partnership with SAGE, one of the 5 large commercial publishers [and dropped ‘a new radical journal’ from its subtitle], still paywalled. This highlights one of the ironies of development research noted in point 5 above.

      • Jamie Bartram

        I am unconvinced by the paywall argument in isolation. We have two publication models. In one, one pays to access publications; in the other one pays to publish. Both present hurdles to access. Journals that break this conundrum are few and are essentially ‘funded’ eg Bull WHO. Any real move to improve on the present situation starts with changing the business model of publication and I suspect would also reduce the total volume of journal publications because the publisher incentive would be modified away from quantity.

  3. Adeline Sibanda

    South South Cooperation in Evaluation Initiative (S2SE) has been advocating for decolonizing evaluation but more than that; the whole Developnent agenda. We need more action and more advocates. It is time we no longer tolerate inequalities and prejudices in every aspect!

    • Carmen

      There are lot of prejudices towards researchers and practitioners from the GS (e.g. their capacity to conduct fieldwork, to write a report, to generate knowledge of their own circumstances, to produce solutions to their own problems!) and it’s time to start tackling those structural issues. Thanks for reading us Adeline!

  4. Janet Whitelaw-Jones

    This is a great article. Thank you! We need to explore these ideas a lot more and as Adeline Sibanda said above, decolonise the whole Development agenda. How to do this? I wonder if one idea may be to ensure that history is taught differently in schools in the UK. There’s some very basic research on how many kids take history to GCSE in England compared with Ireland. 40% in England. 85% in Ireland. I found that fascinating. We are raising a nation who do not understand their own history and how they got their place in the world. How can we best be a support to our partners in the south when the structures within which we work are so constructed against them leading what happens next. Everything we do has a Western agenda attached to it. Thank you for your work.

    • Carmen

      Hi Janet,
      Totally agree, in the UK it’s a topic that needs to be taught from elementary school as students mostly learn about colonialism in more depth when they are studying their undergrad. This also affects the way that we do, think (and sometimes even impose) development in other countries. It’s a long way but I think there are hopes that things may change. Thanks for reading us!

  5. James F. Tellewoyan

    I appreciate this post; we were having a close discussion today on who reality counts in development initiatives?
    Is it Donor requirements on when and when not to engage, government regulations that aren’t effective and the people desire to engage in a project or activity?
    Often, the local knowledge on its reality is overruled by donor or government bureaucracy thus leaving local people powerless and poor as their are made to believe their reality never count.

  6. Really thoughtful essay. I’d like to invite you to also address the business models that drive development engagement and aid distribution — and that of course also underpinned colonial enterprises. Research is also a commodity and it is deeply embedded in quasi-commercial processes of both development institutions and knowledge producing institutions. So shifting the power dynamic in research production also means shifting the tangible and intangible benefits — what are the implications of that for development actors in the global north?

  7. Having worked as a researcher and been a field person in different kind of organisations in India, most parts here are relatable. That said, the issue for smaller organisations is that – to find suitable partners for any kind of research, they are vastly limited by their minimally accessible social capital within the development sector.

    So I think this piece adds to an ongoing conversation around – how for better, deeper partnerships in countries like India, it is utmost crucial for resource-rich (Northern) organisations to actively look out for and pursue research/educational institutions or community-based organisations/local NGOs of tier 2 and tier 3 towns/cities of the country. And moving beyond the assumption that only the best-known institutes or national organisations shall provide what they are looking for.

    And this I believe, needs to be done not at a partner-searching stage but rather, at the ideation stage itself. Could be close to what is called ‘collaborative ethnography’ in academic research.

    Warm regards,