North-South collaboration in development research and beyond


A blog by Prof. Dr. René Véron, University of Lausanne


“What have you learned from René’s team?” my Indian colleague was asked in the mid-2000s in Bangalore at the final workshop of a bilateral research program. He simply replied: “Mostly a repertoire of Indo-Canadian jokes.” Everyone laughed, but I was of course also taken aback a little bit. Yet his reaction was not only funny but also quite thoughtful.

Most obviously, his refusal to give a serious answer was a rejection of the idea, implicit in the question, of a unilinear North-South transfer of knowledge and capacity. (I had not been asked the same question.). This idea was (is?) probably not less widespread in Switzerland than in Canada. The fact that everyone laughed at his pun also shows that joking and laughing are universally human, like the search for freedom and development as Amartya Sen argued. Yet, what type of joke is perceived funny or what type of development is seen worth pursuing may be dependent on culture-specific sensitivities and views.

In the end, I took his reference to the creation of a cross-cultural repertoire of jokes as a compliment; it indicates that our collaborative project succeeded in incorporating each other’s views and analyses of development processes, in this case regarding the dynamics of rural livelihoods in central India. I believe that this type of exchanging and confronting perspectives, without imposition, justifies and is productive for North-South research collaboration on development and sustainability issues.

“That’s the first time that I work with researchers from Sri Lanka” told me a scholar from Nepal during a workshop in Colombo for an ongoing project on solid waste management in South Asia. Soon we realized that his situation was not unique: while most of the present Sri Lankan, Nepalese and Indian researchers had ample experience of working with scholars from Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, UK, USA, etc., only one of them had also previous collaborations with colleagues from other South Asian countries. This is perhaps unsurprising given the international political economy and donor relations (which are, however, changing fast, not least due to the ascent of China and India as donor nations). Yet, research exchange and dialogue between researchers from within the South Asian region would be fruitful because of a partly shared (colonial) history and similar development and sustainability challenges.

“Why do you always want to do research on India? Go and do research on Switzerland!” demanded a former coordinator of the Indo-Swiss Joint Research Program from his Indian compatriots. This was meant as a call to study Swiss institutions, such as the health system or direct democracy, with the goal of broadening the horizon of Indian social scientists. (Being a critical scholar, the coordinator did not suggest that lessons could or should be transferred from Switzerland to India). In turn, Swiss research is to benefit from such studies that are likely to challenge received wisdom, interrogate assumption and ask novel questions. Unfortunately, only one Indian researcher followed this call and studied Swiss alternative health practices.

However, with the shift from the Millennium to the Sustainable Development Goals, development and sustainability challenges are no longer seen to be limited to the global South. It therefore is increasingly legitimate and necessary to have researchers from the global South study situations and processes in the global North.

My hope is that Knowledge2Action platform will contribute to each of these three types of international research collaboration: meaningful North-South exchanges, South-South connections and eventually also South-North research collaborations.