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International collaboration – a fairer future?

Published on 09 December 2020

The first series of The Internationalist, a new podcast from the ACU, looks at the critical question of ‘Who gets to learn, and who gets to teach?’. With thanks to Kirsty Kaiser, Implementation Manager at the Research Fairness Initiative, which is based in South Africa, and Professor Imran Rahman, Dean of the School of Business at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, for their contributions and ideas in the sixth and final episode, many of which are outlined below.

Universities build bridges for ideas and people to cross borders –  this exchange and cooperation is fundamental to how knowledge is created, shared and built upon. But when universities in so-called developed countries are the ones with money and therefore more power, how can we create international collaborations that are fair, and that enable universities in low and middle income countries (LMICs) to have a more equal footing?

The imbalance in relationships is created in different ways, all of which stem from the question of who has the decision-making power before, during and after any collaborative project.

At an individual level, researchers can be impeded by language barriers, lack of involvement in the design of research questions, and difficulty getting published or accessing conferences in the global North.

Institutionally, universities need to be able to handle grant writing and research contracting, and to negotiate and ensure they get long-term, sustainable benefits out of the partnership.

Systemically, many LMICs depend on overseas funding. Development-focused projects may have a research element, but their mandate is dictated by the goals of the organisation or country that is funding them.

The Research Fairness Initiative (RFI) – a tool for improving the equitability of partnerships between LMICs and high income countries – is trying to address some of these challenges.  Developed in 2016 by the Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED), the RFI allows institutions in all countries to assess their policies, practices, and capabilities to build fair research partnerships, and to then create a plan for improvement.

When three universities in the same African country used the RFI tool, they realised that none of them had a template for material transfer agreements (required when research materials such as biological tissue or data are moved between universities). As a result, their national government put a material transfer agreement in place which all universities in the country are able to use.

This kind of progress is encouraging and the RFI aims to develop standards of good practice that would help institutions in both the global North and the global South to understand what they should be doing if they want to be good partners.

For Imran Rahman, one of the fundamentals of good practice is asking the right questions. Too often there ends up being a disconnect between the research question and the needs and priorities of the community in whose name the research is being done.

‘Too often research questions seem to be formulated or framed somewhere else. Somewhere outside the actual geographical area or the social ecological setting in which the research projects are supposed to be anchored. That means from the get-go often researchers from the global South feel that they work in a project which is asking not the most important research question.’ – Imran Rahman

Examples of good practice include a partnership being developed with a university in the United States, where one of the academics is Bangladeshi and so understands the donor country context and the host country research priorities. But Imran notes that these examples are few and far between.

So, what would help?

Co-design should be built into any project from the very inception. Imran believes that researchers who are well versed in the need to decolonise the research academy are an integral part of any project that aims to collaborate with institutions in LMICs.

There is also a need to challenge assumptions about where the skills needed for a project lie. There is often a misconception that partners in the global North have all the knowledge and expertise.

‘Some of our faculty members who are doing research actually got their PhDs and their training and even worked in the global North and now their skillsets are comparable to the skillsets of our global North partners but sometimes there’s a feeling that that is not recognised. We are kind of branded together in a lump rather than looking individually into who’s bringing what into the research negotiation table.’ – Imran Rahman

While a project might include capacity building elements – for example, a new lab or researcher training – these must be sustainable beyond the project lifespan. International collaboration can help drive systemic change that enables universities to manage research themselves, apply for grants as the principal investigators, and innovate using the results of the research – for example, putting a vaccine into development.

Universities in the global South should also look to each other as partners. There is potential to create platforms where institutions can band together and have a bigger pool of skilled researchers.  

‘We don’t want low and middle income countries to become charity cases because that’s not what they are. And I think we also need to see some more investment from them in their own research systems. It shouldn't only be about high-income countries giving funds to try and develop low income countries. It’s about there being true collaboration on that point to help them to become better able to manage on their own.’ – Kirsty Kaiser

One of the biggest barriers to change is fear, on both sides. For universities in the global North, acknowledging the problem might risk being seen as colonial. For universities in LMICs, there is a concern that calling for change may mean they are excluded, and a feeling that some involvement in research is better than none.

‘I think that there’s very often fear on the side of the lower income country partners. They’re afraid to show that, for example, their research management capacity might need some work or some development. They’re also afraid to say something if there is inequitability because they’d rather have the funding than not being able to be part of a collaboration because they know that funding is important for their own development.’ – Kirsty Kaiser

What is clear that any change – individual, institutional, or systemic – needs to be sustainable. While there is still much room for progress to be made towards equitable partnerships, we are not starting from square one. The ultimate encouragement is seeing these approaches result in more relevant outcomes and impact for the communities that research is about and for.

Discover more podcast episodes here, or by searching for The Internationalist on your preferred podcast platform.