Science, Finance and Innovation

Decolonizing funding for development research in developing countries

6 min


Zenebe Mekonnen

Most research funding still favors developed countries, which limits the benefits of research for development policy and exacerbates inequalities between the Global North and South. This blog in GlobalDev’s research funding series explores how funders can decolonize their work for more equitable research partnerships and more effective development policies.

The decolonization of research funding challenges the cultural beliefs that developed countries’ researchers are better and more important than researchers from developing countries. Furthermore, it changes the approach by which research funding is administered, starting from research idea development to research leadership at the local level. It aims to ensure a democratic and inclusive process at each level of decision-making in the research funding approach.

Poverty and underdevelopment are tightly linked in developing countries where financing is critically lacking in research and development. To this end, much greater funding is needed for research that addresses problems faced by developing countries that leads to effective development interventions and evidence-based policies, particularly for researchers and practitioners in and from developing countries.

However, little research and development funding is decolonized in these countries. Decolonizing research funding helps bridge the gap in a culture of thinking about prioritization between developed and developing countries. In other words, decolonization helps overcome a lack of funding in developing countries and creates stronger research partnerships between developing and developed countries. Building equity and strong partnerships could improve the imbalance between the two. To this end, decolonization enables us to come up with strong research outcomes that benefit the targeted communities.

Basic research vs. innovation

Funders should evaluate research proposals blindly, irrespective of the divide between the categories of researchers of developed and developing countries, and based on development needs and the impact the research is expected to bring about. However, certain types of research are more likely to be conducted by researchers in the Global North, which further drains funding away from developing countries.

For example, some funders are inclined to focus on innovation (the development of new technologies and practices) rather than research (the pursuit of knowledge that helps us understand the world). This could skew funds towards innovation which is mostly assumed to be done by researchers from developed countries and is, thus, a means of colonizing funding. It is also true for research impact – research that influences society – by causing a change in government policy or professional practices.

Funders should give more weight to innovation than basic and/or applied research in developing countries to decolonize funding. However, we must not undermine more basic research, as it is the basis of innovation. Funnelling bundles of fundamental research brings about innovation. Research is the transformation of money into knowledge while innovation does the reverse.

Basic research starts with observations and reaches a conclusion. On the other hand, applied research starts with the target problem to be solved followed by an observation and then a conclusion. Research development impact is all about implementing the research conclusions to solve the targeted problem. However, research impact can’t be achieved by a single independent institution but rather by integrating multiple actors in a system that combines their respective roles, and considers their incentives and links with one another. In this regard, the decolonization of funding plays an important role in keeping this momentum.

Research equity and impact

High-quality and decolonized development research has strong social impact but also equitable relations between research partners from developing and developed countries. To decolonize funds, funders should, therefore, put strong emphasis on research impact in proposals. However, research impact in project proposals are only predictions and goodwill expectations and sometimes may end in failure. Understanding research impact in itself needs further research based on the type, dimension, scope and timescale of the impact which is also influenced by a system of actors.  

With regard to partnerships, some funders require the principal investigator of a research project to be from an institution in a European country, which increases inequality. This negatively impacts research partnerships and decolonization. In a research ecosystem, different factors could enable or hinder equity in research partnerships (Figure 1).

With regard to impact, various factors make it difficult to evaluate the impact of development research, especially the social outcomes which are more difficult to measure. These include traditional impact metrics and difficulty in identifying the right metrics, larger gaps in time between research funding and application, and difficulty in attributing social outcomes to research inputs. To overcome these challenges, case studies and the application of a conceptual framework (a tentative theory of the phenomena that you are investigating) can be used to measure the social outcome of research.

Figure 1: Elements of the research ecosystem that enable or inhibit equity in research partnerships. Source: UKCDR & ESSENCE (2022)

To improve research partnerships between developed and developing countries, there needs to be a decolonization of research demand (what kind of research is needed, why and for whom?) as well as research funding approaches so as to examine the imbalances of research leadership and resources that distress them.

This has real potential to contribute to the decolonization of research agendas and knowledge production. It is also critical to ensuring the ethical integrity of research agendas and processes, while building trust, confidence, transparency and empowerment in the research partnership that remains sustainable for the long term.

Based on experiences from research actors, ESSENCE, a World Health Organization initiative to harmonize funding efforts, and the UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR) who support funders of international development research, there are four basic approaches to supporting Equitable Research Partnerships:

  1. support the research partnership ecosystem,
  2. strengthen research relationships and research systems,
  3. budget for partnership building, and
  4. implement processes and procedures that sustain partnerships.

These could help to support equitable research partnerships and provide insights into how the principles of equitable partnership can be applied in multi-country research (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The techniques in which funders can help make research partnerships more equitable. Source: UKCDR & ESSENCE (2022)

Systemic barriers in research funding

Failure to adequately address the principles of research partnerships will disregard equity, inclusiveness and empowerment of researchers from developing countries. To this end, researchers in marginalized clusters could encounter systemic barriers to obtaining research funding.

These barriers may include, but are not limited to, dis/misinformation, stringent selection criteria and selection that are not blind, liability to schemes and decision-making, failure to account for structural inequality in decision-making, lack of support in the funding cycle, lack of transparency and inclusion, and poor research fund governance liable to corruption.  

In recent years, there is a move by funders towards giving more money to fewer investigators to support the so-called “brightest researchers with the best ideas and highest track record” allowing them to benefit from overt and covert biases. However, this approach brings about a significant stumbling block for researchers who are not in this category, especially women researchers.

In sum, decolonizing funding of research for development could not only enhance equity and trust between international partners, but also lead to effective research outcomes that reduce poverty in the Global South.

This article is part of a series organized with the UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR) and the impact of funding approaches on research. Exceptionally, we are accepting contributions from researchers but also from research funders for this series.

Zenebe Mekonnen
Senior Researcher, Ethiopian Forestry Development & African Centre for Technology Studies