20 Aug 2013

Social responsibility: Why we need strong research centres in the South

Social responsibilty: Why we need strong research centres in the SouthIs democracy in Switzerland still guaranteed? Will Berlin secure enough energy for its growing urban population? Why has debate about European debt outstripped the one in Africa? When talking about issues like democracy, energy and water provision or stable living conditions, a few years ago, we would have linked these topics to countries in Africa, Asia or Latin America. These days, they relate to countries in the global North.

Their emergence, on a global scale, has been urging the so-called global North to face changing political and economic frameworks. What Jean and John Comaroff explain in their book Theory from the South or, How Euro-America is evolving toward Africa, is confirmed by results of recent research work executed within the Swiss – South African Joint Research Programme and in other long-term partnerships such as the work of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute and their longterm engagement in Africa as well as the work within the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South ‘Research Partnerships for Mitigating Syndromes of Global Change’.

Safeguarding Democracy

The joint research project between Switzerland and South Africa, Safeguarding Democracy, shows how historical processes and present global, national and local challenges have shaped different democratic developments and dynamics. Researchers from both Switzerland and South Africa investigate democratic deficits in both continents. The African gaze, in this research context, engages with democratic performance and limitations in Switzerland. Both research groups have also looked at the dynamics of populist politics in both countries from a perspective of how the use of social conflict and discontent can promote personal interests and quests for power that ultimately undermine democracy. This work, therefore, challenges complacent self-consideration of nations and highlights threats to democracy in both countries by hinting at processes and deficits that are encountered irrespective of national borders. Such mutual lecture and understanding can help securing the framework for a lively and process-oriented development of democracy.

One Health

A further example highlighting why the South is so important in understanding global issues comes from the field of health research, namely, a new collaborative endeavour ‘One Health’. It starts from the assumption that the health of humans and animals is closely intertwined. At the beginning of the new millennium, the SARS-pandemic, for example, revealed that diseases can be transmitted from animals to humans. The global North has a fundamental interest in understanding how epidemics such as avian or swine flu spread. Understanding these issues requires collaboration with scientists in locations where the infections are likely to arise. If such cooperation can thwart epidemics at the local level, the North also benefits.

Another example for this ‘One Health’ approach can be drawn from Chad in Central Africa. There, cattle are the major means of existence for nomadic pastoralists. The nomadic pastoralists’ knowledge about animal diseases is much more widespread than that of human diseases. The tradition of changing pasture means that health services are often too far away for being an affordable option. When researchers assessed the health status of this vulnerable group they recognised that the vaccination rate for animals is much higher than that for women and children. Drawing on the concept of ‘One Health’ the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (TPH) – in close collaboration with Chad-based research centres – initiated mobile vaccination services composed of human and animal health specialists. Inoculation services for both, human and animals are not only less costly but lead to better acceptance of protective measures by the affected families.

The lessons learned in Chad and elsewhere are highly relevant for Western countries. Canada for instance, draws extensively from the insights of this approach. In Canada, all aspects of human and animal diseases are centralised by one single lab and a sophisticated disease monitoring system for both target groups has been built up.

Successful research partnerships

Common to successful research partnerships are mutual interest, a shared vision, joint definition of objectives, clearly identified roles, trust and sharing of responsibilities as well as long-term commitment and the conviction that mutual learning leads to successful change. Further details on how to set up successful research partnerships can be found within KFPE’s 11 principles.

Combining knowledge to address global challenges

Owing to their sprawling populations and economic situation, many countries in the South and the East are struggling with issues that especially touch the environment, health, migration and food security. At the same time, the diversity of their experience is a huge potential resource that could be tapped to find solutions to such problems around the world. By employing activities such as the training of scientists, strong locally anchored leadership of research centres, political engagement at local level, the development of institutional research networks (for example Centre Suisse de Recherche Scientifique), combined with the aim to establish strong and independent research centres in the South, a greater understanding and future development of both the North and South can be achieved. In all countries, rich and poor, knowledge and its application are the key to development and growth.

If the importance of greater research collaboration is acknowledged by donors through the supporting of long-term approaches, as well as having a preparedness to share knowledge about projects and programmes worldwide, more synergies can be created, leading to the strengthening and greater independence of Southern partners and the associated benefits for the North.

Co-authored by Jon-Andri Lys, Swiss Commission for Research Partnership with Developing Countries, Switzerland; Bishnu Raj Upreti, Nepal Centre for Contemporary Research, Kathmandu and Erich Thaler, University of Basel, Switzerland.