The continued existence of international development researchers

On The Guardian’s Global Development Professionals Network page, I recently came across an article and from where I ‘borrowed’ the title for this blog post. In that short article (which you can see here) the author raises some interesting points about current international development practice. The central question posed by the author is whether International NGOs (INGOs) have the right to exist some 60 odd years after development in practice started and INGOs blossomed. I felt this question resonates not only in terms of INGOs but equally in the field of international development research and study. It left me thinking of what the answers might be if the question was re-stated as: do international development researchers have the right to exist? The majority of international development researchers are based in universities and research institutes in the Global North – the equivalent of the INGOs? – carrying out research work in their ‘countries of expertise’ in the Global South. This makes the question more interesting because after all these years what can we say about the impact of our research and fieldwork in the very communities we research. Considering the inherent tensions I have recently encountered as a young international development researcher, I want to suggest in this short blog that international development researchers might still have the right to exist if new approaches are adopted.

When I was young and of simple mind, and perhaps naïve at the workings of the world I used to question why some countries will ‘donate’ large sums of money through INGOs to help other countries. I just could not understand why for example the UK government will decide to ‘donate’ a million or more pounds to poverty reduction projects in Ghana when there are also poor people in the UK. I wondered at why the UK government does not use the money to help its own poor people or better still why Ghana does not get fair prices for its resources so there is enough revenue to take care of itself. Now I a bit older and less naïve of how the world works, but there are still many things that I wonder at when it comes to international development research and practice. One thing that I am curious about at the moment is the emotional tensions and frustrations (if any) faced by international development researchers from the Global North who are researching in the Global South, and what they do about it. I am of the view that it is through the tensions and frustrations that new approaches may yet evolve.

In an earlier post I wrote for the FOReTHOUGHT blog based in the department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield, I recounted some of the emotional tensions I faced while conducting research in Ghana. As a young Ghanaian scholar researching the outcomes of a planned development interventions for my PhD I was left with raw frustrations at how the planning process has been botched up. I had a hard time reconciling the emotional disappointment I faced with the academic excitement of hearing “correct” answers from interview respondents in part because I wish those “correct” answers were not the reality. I was torn between thinking of how to instigate change in my own country and the pressures of just getting on with the PhD research. I wondered and continue to wonder how other researchers feel when their research findings while ‘insightful’ for publication indicates that a planned development intervention or planning system is not working well. What further role can such a researcher take on beyond publishing a ‘REF-able’ journal paper? Alternatively, will ‘simplifying’ the journal paper into a bullet point policy brief suffice? For researchers working outside their home country – say a British researcher working in Uganda, India, Ghana or Indonesia – what are the options?

There are many communities in the Global South who are considered as ‘research fatigued’ and where community members are no longer enthusiastic about being research participants. This might be due to the fact that after years of countless research projects and researchers these communities are yet to see any long term development change that can be attributed to these researchers. This to me speaks to the question of whether international development researchers have the right to exist given the over 60 odd years of international development teaching and research. I would like to suggest that the right to continue to exist might lie in bringing in new forms of research approaches. Might more international development researchers become ‘activist researchers’? Could the adoption of more ‘participatory action-research’ projects offer the opportunity for international development researchers to have the right to exist? I think there is the need to go beyond the traditional view of scholarship as just to study, understand, explain and make recommendations and then leave the messy details to the political and bureaucratic system.

A more activist approach means that researchers stay in one place long enough to be able to build partnerships that foster long term structural changes. This approach coupled with the adoption of long term participatory action-research development projects that are more than simple co-production is essential. Perhaps the newly opened Field Centre by SIDshare and KEDE/CEDE in Tanzania will offer opportunities for long term community engaged research by community members, students and established researchers. This will provide the community with the chance to actively partake in activities and to be able to see the link between research and long lasting structural changes and livelihood improvements. Another example (from the Global North) is the ongoing Westfield Action Research Project which is a participatory action research project being carried out in a disadvantaged area in South East Sheffield by the Urban Studies and Planning department at the University of Sheffield. This project provides opportunities for engaged learning for students as well as facilitating the exchange of knowledge and skills between university staff and community members. For the next 10 years this project will establish a long-term relationship between researchers and community members as part of a commitment to making vibrant, sustainable and socially just places. It does appear that it is more likely for communities in the Global North to receive such long term research funding, but difficult if not almost impossible to secure funding over say a 10 year period to conduct research in a single community in the Global South. However, this is the kind of commitment that international development researchers need to make to the people and places they research.[1]

Given that international development researchers in the Global North have access to the ears of governments and research funding, there has to be some form of devolution and the building up of capacity of Global South researchers and development practitioners. International development researchers need to be become activist researchers who put their money where their writings are and ‘empower’ (incite?) communities to seek for lasting change. In this empowering process of participatory action research and activist research, researchers will need to disempower themselves, give up power, be more courageous and take more risk with research funds. All this will have to stem from researchers making explicit any frustrations and/or emotional tensions they encounter in the course of their research work. Aside from methodological reflexivity I am yet to come across many articles that explicitly engage with the emotional frustrations of seeing planned development interventions fail. A move to addressing such issues I believe offers the opportunity for international development researchers to continue to have the right to exist while encouraging new ways of research and impact. Researchers need to become more invested in the communities they research, and participatory action research and activist research may offer the needed avenues for this to take place.


[1] I am keen to hear from anyone who is conducting, or is aware of,  long term research projects in the Global South. Do get in touch.

This post was first published under the title of “Do international development researchers still have the right to exist? ” in April, 2016 on the blog of the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) at the University of Sheffield, UK.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: