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A Sociology of International Research Partnerships for Sustainable Development

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Abstract

In recent years, the partnership concept has shaped not only international development assistance, but also the organisation of knowledge production processes in development research. This article looks beyond the rhetoric of the partnership concept by discussing the institutional conditions and individual choices that shape North–South research collaboration in the context of an international development research network. By drawing on ideas from the Sociology of Knowledge, and by distinguishing among three distinct lenses on power, the article analyses discourses and practices shaping working relations between unequal partners. Research partnerships are not a universal remedy for structural inequalities and epistemological hegemonies. However, they can offer important opportunities for direct encounters between people and institutions from different scientific traditions and policy contexts, which can lead to the emergence of more respectful and reflexive forms of knowledge production in contemporary development research. Depuis quelques années, le partenariat est un concept essentiel non seulement de l’aide au développement international, mais aussi de l’organisation de la production de connaissances dans le domaine de la recherche sur le développement. Dans cet article nous nous situons au delà du discours sur le concept de partenariat et examinons les conditions institutionnelles et les choix individuels qui déterminent les collaborations Nord-Sud au sein d’un réseau de recherche international pour le développement. En s’inspirant des idées de la sociologie du savoir et en examinant le pouvoir de trois points de vue différents, cet article analyse les discours et les pratiques qui déterminent les relations de travail entre des partenaires inégaux. Le partenariat de recherche n’est pas un remède universel aux problèmes d’inégalités structurelles et d’hégémonie épistémologique. Cependant, les partenariats de recherche offrent d’importantes opportunités de rencontres entre individus et institutions ayant des traditions scientifiques et politiques différentes, ce qui peut faciliter le développement de pratiques de production de savoir plus respectueuses et réflexives dans le domaine de la recherche contemporaine pour le développement.
Original Article
A Sociology of International Research Partnerships for Sustainable
Development
Claudia Zingerli
University of Zurich, Zurich.
Abstract In recent years, the partnership concept has shaped not only international development
assistance, but also the organisation of knowledge production processes in development research.
This article looks beyond the rhetoric of the partnership concept by discussing the institutional
conditions and individual choices that shape North–South research collaboration in the context of
an international development research network. By drawing on ideas from the Sociology of
Knowledge, and by distinguishing among three distinct lenses on power, the article analyses dis-
courses and practices shaping working relations between unequal partners. Research partnerships
are not a universal remedy for structural inequalities and epistemological hegemonies. However, they
can offer important opportunities for direct encounters between people and institutions from dif-
ferent scientific traditions and policy contexts, which can lead to the emergence of more respectful
and reflexive forms of knowledge production in contemporary development research.
Depuis quelques anne
´es, le partenariat est un concept essentiel non seulement de l’aide au de
´ve-
loppement international, mais aussi de l’organisation de la production de connaissances dans le
domaine de la recherche sur le de
´veloppement. Dans cet article nous nous situons au dela
`du discours
sur le concept de partenariat et examinons les conditions institutionnelles et les choix individuels
qui de
´terminent les collaborations Nord-Sud au sein d’un re
´seau de recherche international pour le
de
´veloppement. En s’inspirant des ide
´es de la sociologie du savoir et en examinant le pouvoir de trois
points de vue diffe
´rents, cet article analyse les discours et les pratiques qui de
´terminent les relations
de travail entre des partenaires ine
´gaux. Le partenariat de recherche n’est pas un reme
`de universel
aux proble
`mes d’ine
´galite
´s structurelles et d’he
´ge
´monie e
´piste
´mologique. Cependant, les partenariats
de recherche offrent d’importantes opportunite
´s de rencontres entre individus et institutions ayant
des traditions scientifiques et politiques diffe
´rentes, ce qui peut faciliter le de
´veloppement de pra-
tiques de production de savoir plus respectueuses et re
´flexives dans le domaine de la recherche
contemporaine pour le de
´veloppement.
European Journal of Development Research (2010) 22, 217–233. doi:10.1057/ejdr.2010.1
Published online 4 February 2010
Keywords: development research; north–south research partnerships; sociology of knowledge; power
relations; narrative interviews
Introduction
The internal debate in recent development studies indicates that this multi- and cross-
disciplinary field of inquiry requires a reorientation. The contributors to this debate
are concerned about the ‘discipline’s’ foundations (Sumner and Tribe, 2008) and the loss
and only partial regaining of paradigms (Schuurmann, 2000). Fundamental critique also
relates to the issues of knowledge and power in international development studies,
pointing out hegemonies of epistemologies and dominant forms of knowledge (Powell,
2006; Guttal, 2007). The parameters and rules of development research tend to reflect
the epistemological traditions of science at ‘Western’ universities of the global North
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European Journal of Development Research Vol. 22, 2, 217–233
www.palgrave-journals.com/ejdr/
(Olukoshi, 2007). They are contingent upon the changing nature of the global political
economy of knowledge that largely controls the type of knowledge that is generated, the
extent of autonomy of knowledge production and the way knowledge is delivered
(Standing and Taylor, 2007; Maasen, 2009).
Taking this debate seriously means advancing a critical reflection on the organisation
of knowledge produced in development research. This involves an examination of forms
of collaboration between development researchers and institutions competing in an increa-
singly globalised research market. A critical reflection is sensitive to the issues of know-
ledge and power in development studies. It is driven by an interest in finding out more
about the organisation of development research and the people who engage in this broad
and often controversial field of inquiry, which ‘is founded on the very dichotomies it seeks
to overcome’ (Standing and Taylor, 2007, p. 79).
Following this internal debate, this article concentrates its discussion on processes
of collaborative knowledge production emerging under the premises of North–South
research partnerships. In recent years, the partnership concept has shaped not only inter-
national development assistance, but also the organisation of development research.
Research partnerships have become instruments that structure knowledge production
processes in the context of a globalised research market. This article looks beyond the
rhetoric of partnership in the academic realm. It uses the idea of a sociology of inter-
national research partnerships to draw attention to the structural and ideological condi-
tions of the organisation of knowledge production in development research, as well as the
power relations emerging in international research partnerships. This article draws
on ideas of power and the Sociology of Knowledge and evolves around three questions:
(1) Under what institutional, historical and social circumstances do research partnerships
emerge? (2) What are the structural and institutional conditions shaping partnership
relations in development research? and (3) How do research partners experience and
perceive their international research collaborations?
After outlining the details of the approach, methodology and empirical data, the article
provides a short review of the literature on research partnerships. It then delves into
empirical insights gained from experiences with international research partnerships
for sustainable development. The article draws on recent empirical material collected in
the international development research network of the National Centre of Competence
in Research (NCCR) North–South, which conducts sustainability-oriented research
for development in partnership between Swiss research institutes and universities and
organisations in Latin America, Africa and Asia (NCCR North–South, 2002; NCCR
North–South, 2008b). With its focus on knowledge and power, the article reveals
the structural circumstances of and motivations for research partnership undertakings
between unequal partners. Finally, it draws conclusions with respect to the potential
contributions of international research partnerships to a more critical, reflexive and
constructive attitude in contemporary development research.
Knowledge, Power and International Development Research
Outlining the Approach
Knowledge and power can be approached in many different ways and from very diverse
perspectives. The critical reflection in the field of development research presented here
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takes account of the changing nature of the global research market and the political
economy of knowledge production. Both the globalised research market and the allocation
of resources of its political economy have implications for what is being studied in deve-
lopment research. Moreover, they urge the research institutions to position themselves in
order to survive and flourish in this international and increasingly competitive academic
field.
The Sociology of Knowledge focuses on the internal and external institutional condi-
tions that shape knowledge production, circulation and communication (Keller, 2008;
Maasen, 2009). With respect to development research, it helps to address the political
and social structures and processes that influence the flow and exchange of knowledge
in international networks of the development sector. Apart from this institutional focus,
a Sociology of Knowledge perspective also draws attention to the social role of knowledge
carriers – in the present case the researchers – while addressing the societal role and power
of knowledge (Stehr and Meja, 2005). The relationships among them emerge and are
negotiated against diverse backgrounds of scientific discipline and institutional affiliation,
as well as wider social and political contexts.
This article also draws on some of Foucault’s ideas on the knowledge–power nexus,
which offer conceptual guidance for analysing the organisation of knowledge production
and the discursive practices that structure discourses – in this case the partnership dis-
course. In Foucault’s understanding, knowledge is inextricably enmeshed in relations
of power, and is always being applied to the regulation of social conduct in practice.
In Foucault’s words, ‘(y) there is no power relation without the correlative constitution
of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the
same time power relations’ (Foucault cited in Howarth, 2000, p. 77). Foucault suggests
that power does not function in the form of a chain, but rather circulates and is never
monopolised by one centre (Foucault, 1999; Hall, 2001). It is deployed and exercised
through a net-like organisation, but always with a direction (Foucault, 1972). Foucault’s
considerations of the knowledge–power nexus are important for this article because
they further the idea that knowledge is linked to power and that power relations only
materialise with a vis-a
`-vis – a counterpart – and within a domain. In such a domain a
discourse emerges, is being taken up and/or is eventually being replaced.
The combination of strands of the Sociology of Knowledge and some of Foucault’s
ideas on power relations shapes the analysis of collaborative knowledge production in
international research partnerships presented here. The analysis distinguishes among three
different lenses on power.
KThe first lens addresses power as operating indirectly through dominant values and
discourse. Development research conceptualised as an institution as well as a societal
event has specific norms and rules. The participation in the institutions and the
compliance with norms and rules means execution as well as acceptance of power
structures specific to the respective scientific field. This shapes individual preferences
and identities. A guiding question that arises with this lens on power relations in
development research is under what institutional, historical and social circumstances
do research partnerships emerge.
KThe second lens emphasises the control of material resources of knowledge
production in research partnerships. This sort of power is negotiated through the
formal rules and structures, institutions, and procedures that shape the organisation
of development research. What are the structural and institutional conditions shaping
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partnership relations in development research? This is another guiding question in
this respect.
KThe third lens emphasises power as important in shaping social relations. It draws
attention to the experiences and perceptions of collaborating researchers in relating
to each other in joint research projects. A guiding question arising from this lens is
that of how research partners experience and perceive their international research
collaborations.
Despite the conceptual distinctions among the three lenses on power, the accounts
presented in this article show that issues of knowledge and power cannot be explained by
adopting just one. In particular, the lenses focusing on power as value and discourse and
as control over material resources need to be looked through simultaneously. In addition,
as the article places the researchers and their experiences with collaborative knowledge
production in international research partnerships for sustainable development centre
stage, it does not remain on an abstract, conceptually easy to be separated and impersonal
level. On the contrary, the personal accounts and experiences of development researchers
show that discourse, values, resources and social reality immediately interconnect and
enmesh with each other.
Methodology and Empirical Material
Providing more reflexive insights into knowledge production and power relations in
international development research collaborations is not a straightforward task. Neither
knowledge nor power can be addressed in a direct manner because they are situated at
a meta-level of institutions and individuals’ experiences. This has had implications for the
research methodology and the discussion presented here.
With a comprehensive literature review on research partnerships, this article draws
primarily on empirical data collected in narrative interviews with 24 senior researchers in
the field of development research. The interviews were conducted between March 2007
and August 2008. The interviewees have different disciplinary backgrounds, such as ve-
terinary sciences, biology, architecture, sociology, geography, environmental engineering,
political sciences and environmental sciences. They range in age between 37 and 60; 14 of
the 24 respondents work in a Swiss research institution; 12 originate from the South; and 6
are female. All of them are experienced in conducting research in partnership arrange-
ments, and all of them are today members of the international development research
network of the NCCR North–South.
The narrative interviews lasted from 40 min to 2 hours. The interviews were structured
into five broad themes. They focused on (i) the researchers’ professional biographies,
(ii) their involvement in international research collaborations, (iii) their specific
experiences with research partnerships, (iv) their communication of research results, and
(v) their self-conception as development researchers. The decision to use a narrative type
of interview (cf. Flick, 2005) was based on the idea that the researchers would have ample
time to discuss their experiences with international research collaborations. In these accou-
nts the element of power in collaborative knowledge production came up almost auto-
matically. If it did not, the issue of power was addressed by asking specific questions on
personal opinions about or experiences with international research collaborations.
All interviews were transcribed as accurately and literally as possible. The interview
transcripts were structured and organised with the software ATLAS.ti, which is based on
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the methodology of grounded theory (Diaz-Bone and Schneider, 2004). This enhanced
the possibility to derive meta-level information on knowledge and power issues in deve-
lopment research from the researchers’ accounts.
International Research Partnerships
Development studies in recent years have moved from predominantly individual researcher-
based projects to much larger partnership programmes, involving increasing numbers
of organisations and people in different regions of the world (Standing and Taylor, 2007).
Many of them not only conduct research, but are also engaged in policy, advocacy and
implementation responding to the challenges of sustainable development. Over the years,
various partnership models and principles have been invented and tested (Bolay and
Schmid, 2004; Bradley, 2007a; Molenaar et al, 2009). This section provides a short review
of key issues related to international research partnerships.
In the field of international academic development collaboration, the call for North–
South research partnerships goes back to the 1970s, but gained prominence in the 1990s
(Bradley, 2008). The basic rationale behind research partnerships is that they will help
to reduce the imbalance between developing and industrialised countries in the academic
and education sector. UNESCO (2005b, p. 99), for example, identifies a real scientific
divide that sets the ‘science-rich countries’ apart from the other. While largely bound up
with economic inequalities, the scientific divide is also due to specific institutional and
political factors. The production and spread of knowledge depend on national systems of
research and innovation and the political will to invest in science. Today, approximately
80 per cent of all financial resources devoted to research worldwide is being invested in
the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. China, India
and the newly industrialised countries of Asia account for another 15 per cent. This leaves
a share of approximately 5 per cent invested in research in the rest of the world (UNESCO,
2005a).
Various sources have suggested establishing research partnerships between researchers
and research institutions from the global North and the global South (KFPE, 1998;
Costello and Zumla, 2000; RAWOO, 2001). Britain’s development agency, the Depart-
ment for International Development, has used the partnership modality for many years,
and has supported the development of 29 relatively large North–South research pro-
gramme consortia, with at least 50 per cent of partners originating from developing
countries (King, 2007). In addition, Dutch research and development organisations have
been using the concept of research partnerships for a long time, such as the ‘multiannual
multidisciplinary research programmes’ (Policy and Operations Evaluation Department,
2007). In these programmes, research partnerships are a precondition for disbursing
funds to institutions situated not only in the North, but also increasingly in the South. The
power of the partnership discourse is thus directly linked to the material power exercised
by funding agencies.
While nobody would deny that partnership is an effective concept for structuring
any kind of human and institutional relations, it also involves controversy and criti-
que (Bossuyt and Laporte, 1994; Brinkerhoff, 2002; Mayers and Vermeulen, 2002). On the
one hand, the partnership concept implies, if properly managed and supported, synergies,
better results, enhanced influence and reputation of the collaborating partners, and
higher professional standards and operational efficiency (Franklin, 2009). On the other,
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partnership agreements will not automatically change the relationships among partners.
Inequalities stemming from unequal power relations, multiple political and economic
interests, or diverging norms and values continue to exist. This requires special attention,
respect and commitment. In short, the very positive aspects of the partnership concept are
intrinsically linked with the need for negotiating social relations, finding solutions to
emerging conflicts and searching for common ground.
Within international research partnerships, inequalities, structural constraints and
historically loaded power relations are felt directly in everyday social and working rela-
tions. This is particularly challenging for the field of development research, which seeks
to overcome these inequalities. Although research partnerships nurture the idea of a real
change to previous research conducted in developing countries as well as in collaboration
among research partners from the global North and the global South, there are many
obstacles to overcome (Binka, 2005; Bradley, 2007b; Bradley, 2008). A working group
of the Swiss Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries (Maselli
et al, 2006, p. 35) points out that research partnerships have potential shortcomings,
particularly in asymmetric and unbalanced partnerships, for example when the global
South merely serves as a ‘laboratory of the North’ that provides interesting scientific
data. It also mentions the often inevitable unbalanced power relations with regard to
funding and scientific merit and dominating scientific paradigms from the global North.
These conditions tend to inhibit the application and further development of appropriate
approaches for the Southern partners.
From this general discussion it can be concluded that research partnerships are not
an easy remedy for inherent asymmetries and inequalities in the field of international
development research. On the contrary, they involve real challenges for international
research undertakings, as the next sections will show. Only a few studies reveal what these
challenges mean in practice, for individual researchers and their projects. This article now
turns to the sociology and inner life of certain research partnerships, focusing
specifically on the issues of knowledge and power in international research partnerships
for sustainable development.
A Sociology of North–South Research Partnerships
Study Context
The following sections are based on empirical research conducted in the international
development research network of the NCCR North–South. The NCCR North–South is
an example of a number of large international research networks, such as the Danish
Development Research Network or the UK-based Development Research Centre on
Migration, Globalisation and Poverty, which have been established during the last couple
of years. These networks include institutional partners from the global North and the
global South, and bring together researchers, practitioners and activists from the deve-
lopment sector. The NCCR North–South explicitly adopts a transdisciplinary approach to
development-oriented research partnerships (Hurni et al, 2004).
The NCCR North–South is a research initiative commissioned by the Swiss Federal
Council and funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC),
the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and participating research institutions.
The programme has recently embarked into its third and final 4-year phase (2009–2013).
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Each phase had funds of between 30 and 35 million Swiss francs. Today, the NCCR
North–South is a network of seven Swiss research institutes and 160 institutional and
individual partners in Latin America, Africa and Asia (see also www.north-south
.unibe.ch/). Approximately 400 researchers are involved in activities related to the
NCCR North–South. The worldwide research network builds onto often long-established
research collaborations.
The following account is structured into the three lenses on power outlined above. The
sections on research partnership as organising concept and research partnership discourse
and strategies speak mostly to the idea of power as control over material resources, as
well as to power as value and discourse. The part on the research partnerships’ human
dimensions then provides insights into power as an issue in negotiating social relations.
Research Partnerships as an Organising Concept
Rationale
The NCCR North–South’s point of departure was to contribute to and achieve sustain-
able development by combining the intellectual, scientific, social, political and economic
resources in the global North and the global South to produce sound and critical analysis
of the development problems involved and of the means available for solving them
(NCCR North–South, 2002). The research network was created to help in conducting
the research necessary for understanding obstacles to sustainable development and finding
ways to overcome them. The programme responds to the global development disparities
and points out that these are extremely pronounced in the research realm (Hurni et al,
2004; UNESCO, 2005a). As a research and training programme running for 12 years
(2001–2013), the NCCR North–South addresses this problem by establishing research
partnerships with institutions in Africa, Latin America and Asia. It thus strongly puts
forward the discourse of partnership in research, involving partners from Northern and
Southern institutions. Closely linked to this discourse is the question of control of material
resources. As Bolay (2004, p. 28) notes, the role of universities in fighting inequality is
fragile because of its dependence on the politics that determine financial support and,
frequently, the field of action. Despite this note of caution, the objectives of establishing an
international development research network and of conducting research in partnerships
are strategic. The programme’s aim is to work towards the scientific basis for mitigating
pressing social, economic and ecological problems in developing countries.
Institutional Set-up and Programme Management
As a consequence of the strategic objective, the research partnership concept is reflected in
the institutional set-up and the programme management practice. Great emphasis is
placed on a balanced representation of partners from the global North and the global
South. In practice, however, this is difficult to achieve. Being a Swiss-funded research
network, the management centre is based at the University of Berne in Switzerland.
The funds are disbursed via the management centre and the seven Swiss research institu-
tions. This gives the Board of Directors (BoD), made up of the heads of the Swiss
institutional partners, and the Executive Committee (the programme director, vice-
director and coordinator) direct control over the material resources. While the funds
are administered in the North, the programme follows thematically a more or less joint
management style. The regional coordinators (RCs) of the nine partnership regions (eight
in the South and one in the North, that is Swiss Alps) are members of the Extended BoD
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and are in charge of the research programme, projects and training in the respective
partnership regions. One of the RCs points out that a joint management style is an
essential factor in making research partnerships in large research networks successful
(personal communication, 18 April 2008).
(Self-)Criticism and critique
Although the NCCR North–South places great emphasis on implementing research
partnerships in programme and management practice, it is also critical of its approach,
and confrontation with the inherent challenges of research partnerships is a fact. Regar-
ding the organisational set-up and the research agenda setting, the directors admit that the
processes were not purely participatory and that the partners in the North and the South
clearly had distinct roles (Hurni et al, 2004; Mu
¨ller-Bo
¨ker, 2007). During the preparation
of the programme, an effort was made to define the research agenda together. For this
purpose, a series of workshops were held in Switzerland and the partnership regions in
Latin America, Africa and Asia. The regional research agendas reflected shared research
interests, but the main themes and the final definition of the overall research concept were
largely driven by a small number of researchers in Northern university institutions (NCCR
North–South, 2002). After 8 years of intensive collaboration in the research network, the
director puts it today as follows: ‘the Programme has developed into a more equitable
partnership over the years. The role of the RCs [regional coordinators] in the BoD [Board
of Directors] has been continuously furthered, from consultation in Phase 1 (y), [to]
association through the [Annual] North-South [Planning] Week in Phase 2, to full BoD
membership now foreseen in Phase 3. At the level of senior researchers the establishment
of RABs [Regional Advisory Boards] in all (y) [partnership regions] has broadened the
empowerment of the South beyond the RCs’ (Debele et al, forthcoming).
Despite progress made at the programme level in terms of programme and research
management, the partnership mode adopted in the discussed Swiss case is characterised
by unequal control over the material resources. Funds are administered and disbursed
via the Swiss institutions, which enjoy direct access to funding and science policy agencies.
A small number of leading scholars in the Swiss institutions have set up, driven and shaped
the research and training agendas of the programme. This is ultimately an expression of
the fact that funding for research is still more abundant in the North than in the South.
Some respondents point out that ‘the NCCR North-South tried to do it differently, but
it is difficult’ (No. N15:69).
1
The funds originate from Switzerland and ‘it is finally the
Swiss institutions which are accountable’ (No. N13:34). Another interviewee states
that ‘(y) when it comes to money there is a tremendous asymmetry’ (No. N18:70). And
yet another one says that ‘with increased finances everybody stands in competition with
everyone else; this may impede exchange and collaboration, the very foundations of the
partnership concept’ (No. N24:61). The responsibility for financial accountability implies
both the power of and the obligation for decision making. This expresses one of the
inherent tensions and ambiguities in the concept of research partnerships, explored in the
next section.
Research Partnership Discourse and Strategies
Multiple objectives
The partnership discourse and the strategic objectives of the funding agencies not only
have implications for the organisation of a research structure, but also influence the
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research practice. The development research network of the NCCR North–South has two
major funding sources, the SNSF and the SDC, which represent two different policies. The
science policy of the SNSF aims at strengthening Swiss and international research struc-
tures. Its performance measurement scheme values the classical indicators for scientific
excellence, such as number and quality of publications, international visibility, patents or
awards. The development policy by the SDC, on the other hand, aims at empowering
partners in the South. The contributions of the SDC to higher education and research
in partnership with institutions in developing and transition countries are engagements
for development per se, because this kind of research collaboration implies change
(personal communication with an SDC officer, 16 March 2007). Moreover, as an imple-
menting development cooperation agency it is interested in useful results and findings.
Therefore, the mixed funding of the programme, with financial means from the SNSF
and SDC, includes various objectives and different performance measurement schemes.
This is something that is felt strongly by the researchers and more so by the programme
management. In this respect, one respondent says, ‘there are different research partners
at various levels: in the partner countries, in Switzerland. Clearly, there are different
understandings and ideas of research, science, publications. This is not always easy’
(No. N14:41). This implies that the individual researchers should make strategic decisions
and set priorities. The same respondent points out that ‘one can put the efforts into
either optimising the network, thus contributing to the structural goals of the NCCR
North–South, or managing well the projects in research partnership with researchers and
institutions in the global South. These are very complex and demanding questions and
especially the one regarding accountability towards many partners is thereby usually
difficult to answer’ (No. N14:44). Two partners from West Africa point out that ‘It is
clearly known that the Northern partners are individually and institutionally more
under pressure from the SNSF and the scientific criteria of evaluation: they are more
challenged by the publication-driven environment in Switzerland and in the developed
world (‘publish or perish’). (y) On the other hand, the southern researchers while trying
to reach the same level of efficiency and adaptation to the international science publica-
tion-driven orientation are also very much more concerned by the social and political
contexts of the burning problems they studied. They need continuity and a minimum of
sustainability around the problematic and the themes on which their research projects
have been launched’ (Cisse
´and Boko, forthcoming).
Capacity development
The accounts indicate that the science and development policy objectives are difficult to
meet simultaneously. However, after 8 years of intensively collaborating in the inter-
national development research network, the statistics show that in both realms con-
siderable efforts have been made. Between 2001 and 2008, 1500 papers were published
(including 300 peer-reviewed scientific articles), 150 doctoral theses and an equal number
of master’s dissertations were carried out, and approximately 1500 lectures and pre-
sentations were given (NCCR North–South, 2008b). More post-doctoral and senior
researcher positions have been created over the years. In the third 4-year phase, which
started in July 2009, the number of senior researchers and project leaders from Southern
partner institutions has grown to 63 per cent. This is far above the Southern leadership
ratio of 12.5 per cent in the second phase of the research programme (2005–2009) (NCCR
North–South, 2008a). Moreover, the RCs have grown together as a group increasingly
facilitating so-called South–South research partnerships and exchange, for which the SDC
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has allocated additional means (Upreti et al, forthcoming). These figures show that the
research partnership arrangements have indeed contributed to the capacity development
and empowerment of participating researchers (Zingerli et al, 2009).
The accounts of the interviewees indicate that research partnerships are largely
uncontested with respect to capacity development. There are usually gains on both sides.
The collaborating partners generally benefit professionally as well as personally from
international exchange and different work cultures. One of the respondents says, ‘I think
one of the most positive things that I take from these collaborations is an understanding
of a variety of approaches to the question of development. A variety of approaches in the
sense of a variety of ways of looking at development’ (No. S6:19). Others say that ‘the
integration of different kinds of knowledge and multiple perspectives leads to considerably
new and innovative insights’ (No. N22:67), that ‘working with researchers from different
continents, adopting different perspectives is very useful’ (No. S1:14), and that it ‘is a way
of learning new things, learning how to do things differently’ (No. S7:20). A success
certainly is ‘to see that we are able to strengthen capacity by working with partners
who become independent’ (No. N26:100). For some of the research partners in the
global South the collaboration in research partnership was an opportunity to ‘take off’
(No. N26), to acquire new funds from other agencies (No. N23, No. S3), and thus to
become active players in the globalised research market. Many respondents mention
that the capacity development processes go far beyond the actual research themes and
involve acquiring essential expertise in research management as well as access to wider
networks to find potential new partners (No. N19, No. N22, No. N23, No. N26, No. S3,
No. S4, No. S5).
Capacity development is not only individual, targeted at young researchers only, but
is also institutional. Partnership arrangements are often not only conducted for
research purposes, but also to strengthen a team. A respondent says that ‘we are not only
doing research for the sake of research but to build capacity’ (No. N26:88). Clearly,
peer-reviewed publications are a must, but the respondent continues by saying that ‘the
qualified persons [become] decision makers in their own countries. Therefore our partners
[in the global South] can reach much more than we can do [in the research institutions of
the global North]’ (No. N26:88).
Overall, the partnership discourse shapes the objectives of science and development
policy, which are not easy to meet simultaneously in daily research practice. The resea-
rchers experience a double accountability to two different performance measurement
schemes of the funding agencies, one more oriented towards product and the other
more towards process. However, in terms of process the programme development and the
personal experiences indicate that something is happening and that partners become
stronger, independent and fit to compete in the globalised research market. The next
section focuses in particular on the changing political economy of this globalised research
market and the implications for researchers in their professional and personal lives.
The Human Dimensions of Research Partnerships
Choice of partners
The respondents’ accounts indicate that the conditions for conducting research in partner-
ship with researchers and research institutions from Switzerland and the global South have
changed. Until the 1990s, research projects with partners from developing countries were
based on individual initiatives and support. In the 1990s a transition took place from
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largely individual researcher-based projects to much larger partnership programmes
(cp. Standing and Taylor, 2007). What was a real advantage for the establishment of the
international development research network of the NCCR North–South was that the
participating Swiss researchers brought with them their own long-established networks in
the South, and therefore the existing network could be strengthened, consolidated and
considerably enlarged.
However, the new possibilities and increased funds for research projects in partnerships
place some of the participating researchers in the right situation to actively seek new
partners. As other international research networks show, the emphasis on establishing
international research partnerships reflects a current trend in Swiss science policy as well
as in the globalised research market (cp. Schweizerischer Bundesrat, 2007; Nakabugo and
Cremin, 2009). One interviewee states that there is now a political economy of research
partnerships: ‘Today, we are required to have partners; we have to spend money in the
South. We are in need of partners (y). This political economy sometimes leads to the fact
that we accept conditions that we normally would reject’ (No. N25:103). Research part-
nerships have become an obligation by some of the funding agencies. The research part-
nership discourse (and rhetoric) can clash with the competition for funds in the research
markets. Especially when names of partners are included in the proposals without any
previous partnership experience, there is a high risk that the partnership’s dynamic will
suffer. Linked to the pressure of the partnership conditionality is the frequent practice of
initiating and managing the research projects from the institutions that attain the funding,
most likely those of the Northern partners (No. N1, No. N21). Under such conditions,
misunderstandings and a lack of trust can produce high monetary and personal costs for
research partnerships.
Shaping conditions and negotiating social relations for research partnerships is thus not
the same for partners from the North and the South. Overcoming this largely structural
inequality with regard to access to funding requires time, mutual respect and learning, as
well as trust.
The element of trust
Trust is generally considered a fundamental requirement of international research part-
nerships. Some respondents who have been able to establish trusting relationships with
research partners from other geographical and disciplinary contexts go as far as not
being able to distinguish among research partnerships from any other kind of research
collaboration. One of the respondents puts it like this: ‘To work in an international
partnership means to get involved in a professional environment with different rules of the
game. It is necessary to learn how to solve problems and conflicts. With some partners
it’s easier than with others. Therefore, I think it is not much different from working
relations constellations in general. (y) However, in North–South research partnership
there is this kind of exaggeration; it is due to financial flows and the North–South divide’
(No. N14:64).
Clearly, building trusting relationships among research partners is time-consuming
and usually takes many years. Investments are considerable for establishing an intellectual
platform of language, of concepts, or working together (No. N1, No. N19, No. N25).
If a research partnership fails to build trusting working relations, the cost of translation,
finding an adequate project management style and producing scientific results can be very
high, and can critically affect the scientific and development-related outcome of the
research partnership. One of the respondents puts it as bluntly as this: ‘In the end of the
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project the fatigue of all partners was such that nobody had the energy to follow up on the
project and to publish scientific papers’ (No. N1:22). Without the basic element of trust,
working relationships are susceptible to being negatively affected by the previously
described power asymmetries and misconceptions, often expressed in immature and
insufficiently negotiated research proposals. The interviewees from Switzerland report that
sometimes they were accused of scientific colonialism (No. N19; No. N25), are perceived
as the managerial bosses (No. N25; No. N26) or are considered as a source of funding only
(No. N19). The respondents from the South express it more indirectly. They say, for
example, that sometimes they make compromises (No. S5), that they do not try to change
the collaborators’ points of view (No. S5), or that in certain debates there is a sense
of politeness that prevents sharper critique (No. S6). The following statement sums up the
limits of research partnerships: ‘I do not agree with everything they do, they do not agree
with everything we do and it was the stage of our lives. We were instrumental for them,
I would say, and probably they were instrumental for us’ (No. S5:59). While these
statements are expressions of stalled partnerships, there are other views that point out
moments of endurance and empathy. A respondent from Africa expressed this as follows:
‘So for me, the life of the partnership depends a lot on how two persons who are com-
mitted to animate that partnership, understand each other, love each other, have an
admiration for each other, understand the weaknesses of the other and can (y) forgive
some faults. You cannot have one year of collaboration if one does not once make
something that makes the other be angry, angry, yeah. But the capability of the part-
nership to grow, to improve it that, when something wrong happens, you remember that,
things happen and then you help each other to learn from mistakes (y)’ (No. S3:19).
Motivations and futures
Despite the mixed experiences with research partnerships and the heavy demands to
conduct development research in partnership, most of the respondents point out various
sources that explain their continuous efforts and nurture their motivation. One of these
sources is the possibility of learning and personal stimulation that evolves from working in
international research partnerships. There is a sense of intellectual and personal devel-
opment that acts as an intrinsic motivation to engage in the field of development research,
through new understandings, intercultural exchange and physical exposure to foreign
places. Indeed, this human dimension of research partnerships and development research
is absolutely central in their work. The encounters between people and personalities from
the global North and the global South and the experiences that interests can be shared and
work can be conducted together, with sometimes brilliant results, are a tremendous source
of motivation. And this motivation is absolutely necessary, as the kind of development
research conducted also entails great frustration.
Not only are the requirements for conducting research in partnership demanding, but
the conditions of work in the respective countries are also sometimes very difficult. One
respondent says that ‘to be frequently exposed to unsolved global problems of extreme
poverty, marginalisation, pandemics, corruption or mismanagement leads to questions
such as whether it is worth continuing’ (No. N22:25). Another respondent points out that
in the kind of development research they are conducting, she and her partners are
sometimes extremely occupied with very urgent matters (No. N19). In addition, close
bonds with research partners and the desire to contribute knowledge to important ques-
tions are essential sources of motivation for continuing to work in the field of development
research. The interviewees not only share the sources of motivation, but also the desire to
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contribute something useful, to work on issues of global relevance. One of the respondents
says ‘the disparities between North and South still grow (y). And I collaborate with
decision makers (y) we work on a moral level, with potential contributions to solutions of
global problems. Therefore I have the ambition to continue (y), although I have had
other career options’ (No. N21:61).
With respect to the human dimension of research partnerships, to work in the field of
development research is a way to conduct engaged research and to contribute something
useful. The research partnership arrangements offer room for personal and professional
developments and benefits. Through the kind of work they are doing and the structural
arrangements with which they are confronted, the researchers are able to reflect on critical
development issues and to share different cultural experiences of the global North and the
global South.
Providing Answers
The analysis of the empirical material presented in the last three sections speaks to one or
more of the three lenses on power outlined above. Before drawing more general conclu-
sions, this section provides short answers to the guiding questions of a sociology of
international research partnerships for sustainable development specifically derived from
the international development research network of the NCCR North–South.
The first question asked under what institutional, historical and social circumstances
research partnerships emerged. In fact, the evolution of the international research network
under consideration is an expression of the enhanced partnership discourse that has
characterised the entire development sector since the 1990s. The funding scheme of the
NCCR North–South reflects this discourse, including the challenge to evolve in an
environment that is characterised by unequal access to funding and the accountability of
the participating partners from the North and the South. However, despite the unsolved
problem of lopsided control over material resources, the accounts of senior researchers
show that the experiences with research partnerships go far beyond the current research
network. Many of them look back on research collaborations of more than 20 years.
Those researchers have thus been contributing considerably to a stronger partnership
discourse, while at the same time benefiting from its enhanced programmatic drive. For
some, the partnership discourse is thus a norm as well as a means for shaping and
strengthening preferences and identities for conducting research for and on development.
The second question asked what structural and institutional conditions shape the
partnership relationships in processes of collaborative knowledge production in devel-
opment research. Conceptually, this second question cannot be separated from the first,
as the question of discourse is enmeshed with the aspect of power as expressed by the
structural and institutional conditions. What the accounts by the senior researchers spe-
cifically highlight is the ambiguity of the research partnership concept with respect to the
multiple objectives of the programme (science versus development policy objectives) and
the accountability to various performance measurement schemes (product versus process).
This requires making decisions with respect to structures and procedures. In terms of
capacity development, there are positive signs of strengthened and more independent
partners in the South and the North. Basically, the partners continue to be different. This
is not only because of different social, political or institutional backgrounds, but also
because of different goals, aspirations and objectives.
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This entire section actually speaks to the third question, asking about the experiences
and perceptions of researchers engaging in international research partnerships for sus-
tainable development. It has become clear that conducting research programmes and
projects in international research partnerships is a challenging undertaking, in both
a positive and negative sense. There is only a fine line between opportunities and risks.
The latter was clearly expressed by pointing out high personal and financial costs when
partnership arrangements fail to build trusting relationships. However, even if partner-
ships are not made for a lifetime, they can be instrumental for the partners involved. Such
encounters represent important sources of motivation to continue working on issues
with high societal, environmental and political relevance, and in this sense the research
partnership concept offers pathways for continuous and respectful engagement in inter-
national academic development research.
Conclusion
This article began as an ongoing, internal debate of contemporary development research.
This debate is critical of some unsolved problems related to knowledge hierarchies and
epistemological preferences still favouring knowledge produced in ‘Western’ academic
institutions and traditions. This article is an attempt to contribute to some parts of this
debate. It set out to explore processes of knowledge production in development research
emerging under the aegis of North–South research partnerships. The article’s approach of
a sociology of international research partnership places the researcher centre stage. This
allowed discussing structural conditions as well as individual choices shaping research
collaborations in intercultural settings. The sociological focus on North–South research
partnerships offered a way to look deeper into the working conditions of development
researchers, which evolve in contexts of multi-directional power relations.
The research partnership discourse is enmeshed with material resources that shape the
power relations between the institutions and the people involved. This connection has
created a distinct political economy of research partnerships including various, sometimes
contradictory, policy objectives and interests. On the one hand, the partnership condi-
tionality offered new opportunities for strengthening, enlarging or consolidating inter-
national research relations. On the other, by overresponding to external demands due
to project cycle pressures, research partnerships created great costs and reinforced the
inequalities between the partners involved.
However, looking beyond the power relations linked to discourse and material
resources, the experiences with research partnerships indicate that research partnerships
indeed offer important opportunities for direct encounters and negotiations of social
relations between unequal partners representing various academic traditions with diverse
audiences. Clearly, the effort necessary to develop these encounters into fruitful exchanges
in joint research undertakings is great, and the personal and financial investments can
be high. However, especially in research partnerships evolving over longer periods benefits
accrue on both sides; unequal partners learn from each other, respect each other and
reinterpret their not being equal as a possibility to complement each other. Negotiating
social relations in research partnerships can further the acceptance of pluralist views and
objectives, aspirations and time concepts. This requires being open to different values and
identities. Ultimately, actively negotiating power relations in research partnerships means,
in Olukoshi’s words (2007, p. 24), ‘rediscovering the capacities to study development in its
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pluralism and diversity and to tap into the history and cultural context of different peo-
ples’. This involves furthering a reflexive and sensitive approach to contemporary devel-
opment research necessary in overcoming inequalities in its own academic sphere, where
new knowledge on and for development is produced.
Acknowledgement
This article emerged from the Transversal Package Project ‘Knowledge, Power, Politics’ of the
National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North–South, financed by the Swiss National
Science Foundation and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. It would not have
been possible to write this article without the detailed and personal accounts of my respondents. I am
grateful for valuable comments from the anonymous reviewers of this article. I also benefited from
comments by Andre
´s Uzeda, my colleagues from the Human Geography Unit, University of Zurich,
and the organisers and participants of the roundtable discussion on the topic of North–South
research partnerships at the EADI Conference 2008, at which this work was originally presented.
The views put forward and any errors remain entirely my responsibility.
Note
1. Direct quotes from interviews are marked with a code. Although the respondents are
anonymous, the code shows whether they are from the North (No. N) or the South (No. S). The
numbers indicate the record number and the line in the interview transcript (for example No.
N15:69).
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... These same observations are shared by the many partners involved in the multiple case study led by Toukan (2020) as part of the programme. Trust is a well-documented requirement for effective research collaborations (Zingerli 2010;Lepore, Hall, and Tandon 2020), as partners usually identify networking as one of the primary motivators to engage in collaboration. These issues were also echoed in the baseline survey in which respondents recognised that relationships are the foundation of successful collaborations; it is both the main driver and the main success factor (Martel and Kindornay 2020). ...
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