Localization key to effective development policies

Julia Kaufman & Jane Kabubo-Mariara

In international development circles, “localization” has become a buzzword, partly thanks to a push by the US to shift more aid funding to local actors. But growing awareness of the importance of local expertise is not yet adequately reflected in most development research, which still regularly excludes researchers from low- and middle-income countries. As matters stand, economic and development research in the Global South is led almost exclusively by academics who do not live there. A 2021 study found that just 16 percent of the articles published in top development journals between 1990 and 2019 were authored by researchers based in developing countries, and only 9 percent of presenters at major development conferences were affiliated with universities in developing countries.
Moreover, a recent report by the Center for Global Development shows that local researchers tend to be left out of rigorous impact evaluations of development programs in health, education and other sectors. While the number of research experts in low- and middle-income countries has grown over the past decade, as have collaborations between academics across geographic regions, developing-country scholars remain underrepresented in academic forums. The exclusion of developing-country researchers reflects the general failure within academia to regard local contexts. As recent analysis of academic racism has shown, research institutions and processes can reflect and exacerbate bias, prejudice and discrimination. Their lack of diversity constrains research quality and impact, and impedes efforts to eradicate poverty, improve living standards and promote prosperity for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Researchers with deep knowledge of their countries and communities offer critical insights into local priorities and opportunities to inform policy decision-making. And contextual knowledge is not entirely dependent on geography: many in the diaspora can also provide valuable empirical insights for policy. The Partnership for Economic Policy, known as PEP and led by one of us (Kabubo-Mariara), is an example of a Southern-led global organization that supports and promotes the work of local researchers in order to amplify the policy impact of high-quality evidence. PEP uses a “research coproduction” model in nearly all its projects, fostering collaborations among researchers and key government and nongovernment stakeholders to shape research objectives and generate useful evidence.
Consequently, more than half of PEP’s projects since 2013 have influenced policy processes and decisions in target countries. For example, recommendations by local PEP researchers concerning the protection of rural women’s livelihoods against climate shocks have been integrated into Lesotho’s national agricultural policy. And, in Pakistan, PEP-supported research on the economic effects of the policy response to COVID-19 has informed the federal budget. In academic settings, more than 40 percent of papers from PEP-supported projects have been published in international peer-reviewed journals and half of all projects have been presented at high-level academic conferences. Another example is the Transfer Project, a multicountry research network launched by UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which brings together governments and local researchers studying the impact of cash transfers in sub-Saharan Africa. The organization invests in long-term relationships with government officials to build trust, co-create research, align methods with the questions most relevant to policymakers and continuously iterate programs. In Ghana, a Transfer Project study prompted the government to expand its cash transfer program from 1,645 to 150,000 beneficiaries.
Unfortunately, successful initiatives of this kind are still outliers. The most fruitful partnerships are those that enable local researchers and policymakers to generate, synthesize and use evidence for policy needs by collaborating over time. But despite the growing interest in and capacity for long-term, trust-based partnerships, a large share of development-research funding continues to support one-off projects and short-term consultancies. As a result, many local research institutions face chronic funding challenges and other professional barriers. To be sure, local expertise is by no means a silver bullet for combating poverty. And, like all empirical research, policy-relevant evaluations may carry risks related to conflicts of interest and require ethical safeguards. But both evidence and experience show that researchers with firsthand knowledge of the countries studied can help identify more relevant questions, understand political constraints and guide policymakers on how to spend limited public funds more effectively. Last year, a group of PEP researchers launched a call to action to increase the participation of researchers from the Global South in economic development research, citing a series of studies on underrepresentation in the field.
Funders in government, philanthropic foundations, universities and other grant-making institutions are in a unique position to drive positive systemic change. To do so, they must build on existing support and momentum to provide the researchers closest to decision-makers with the agenda-setting power and resources they need to get relevant information into the hands of those willing to use it. For philanthropies, this means increasing long-term, flexible support for innovative research organizations to enable them to sustain partnerships over time and produce policy-responsive evidence. Government officials, for their part, must strengthen their commitment to measuring and increasing the impact of their programs. To this end, improving underlying country data systems is essential. More inclusive, responsive research could help solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. By investing in new opportunities for locally immersed researchers, funders can pave the way for higher-quality research and more effective development policies and programs.