Tyrone Burke, October 11, 2022
Photo credit: Lindsay Ralph, Luther Caverly
New Initiative Builds Research Networks in Global South to Shift the Way Forced Migration Policy is Made
Venezuela is mired in a prolonged political economic crisis that has caused acute shortages of food, medicine and essential items like toilet paper. Millions of people have fled, and most of these refugees and migrants are hosted by neighbouring countries like Colombia. Yet the migration crisis has received relatively little coverage in international media, and research funding has largely been allocated elsewhere too.
More than 80 per cent of forcibly displaced people are hosted in countries in the Global South, but more than 90 per cent of the research that informs forced displacement policy comes from researchers based in the Global North. Even then, research is shaped by the priorities of those that fund it. Private foundations and institutional donors choose which projects to back, and they tend to choose the ones that align with their own priorities.
But a new initiative is seeking to change that. Supported by the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN) and funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the IDRC Research Chairs on Forced Displacement Network is a seven-year, $8 million program that will fund twelve research chairs at universities in the Africa, South and Central America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The network will be based at Carleton, and each university will receive up to $600,000 over five years. Researchers will use their knowledge of the local context to set research priorities that address pressing challenges and unmet needs. The Chairs will be organized into an international network to support their work, encourage collaboration and amplify their findings.
“The geographic gap in research leads to a focus on forced displacement to Europe and the United States,” says Luisa Feline Freier, an IDRC research chair and Assistant Professor at Universidad del Pacifico in Lima, Peru.
“This can leave displacement crises elsewhere understudied. More than six million people have been displaced from Venezuela, and very few people even know about this crisis outside of the region.”
Freier will use the IDRC funding, in part, to create a network of Latin American researchers who contribute to the production of knowledge on forced displacement.
“We want to strengthen existing contacts, and provide opportunities not only for our own research, but also for other research produced in the region. That is something really unique about these Research Chairs. It is not only about producing the research, but building bridges and sharing it broadly.”
Disrupting the donor feedback loops that drive the research agenda
The Network is a step toward shifting the policy agenda on forced migration. The initiative hopes to foster networks of researchers in the Global South that change the points of reference used by policy makers to inform their decisions.
“Each region has its own context, and the IDRC research chairs could end up with conclusions that reinforce one another, or they may expose differences between regions that are not being considered by institutional actors,” says James Milner, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton, and the Project Director of the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN).
“The hope is that the Network can be greater than the sum of its parts. That it can enhance the researchers’ legitimacy, and that collectively, these researchers can build a critical mass capable of impacting the policy agenda. We know we are working against power structures that are deeply embedded. This program exists within a very significant power imbalance, and it is trying to adjust that balance, but it is never going to erase it.”
Still, any adjustment could be significant. Network Coordinator Heather Alexander compares the current policy making process to a feedback loop.
“Research gets selected based on the priorities, opinions of the donor about what is important. And it has a tendency to back up their priorities and opinions, and it creates this cycle. It is amazingly difficult to get outside information that contradicts the preconceived notions or biases that went in to the donor-research feedback loop,” says Alexander.
“One of this project’s strengths is that there is surprisingly little high-quality research funded from outside of these loops. Alternative perspectives will be transformative. There have been actors working in this space for some time, but this takes it to another level. And it’s exciting because we can’t predict exactly what the results will be, but supporting these chairs, and helping amplify their results to get them in front of key policy makers will have an impact, and contribute to the conversation about why localization is so important.”
For IDRC itself, the program fits neatly with its mandate to fund and support the capacity of researchers in the Global South.
“This will help ensure their perspectives considered, and that they take the lead in identifying and implementing the research agenda,” says Roula El-Rifai, a Senior Program Specialist at IDRC.
“Giving voice to those with lived experience of forced displacement can bring their experiences to bear when policies are being made, and inform discourse in the fora that address this challenge. We are investing in institutions that are well-established, but we want them to be a vector and connector to other perspectives. It is core to IDRC’s mandate to seek creative ways to correct the imbalance of knowledge production. The majority of refugees live in the Global South, and their voices need to be heard.”
Networking helps shape a more just future
The research chairs network also presents an opportunity for researchers at Carleton to connect with a southern-led, global network of leaders on the vanguard of localizing and decolonizing the field. But the breadth of its vision presents its own set of challenges.
“You always need to think about the actions needed to implement a project, and it was clear early on that IDRC would need to get money to researchers in fragile situations,” says Heloise Emdon, Manager of International Projects at Carleton.
“They may not be permitted to work, or have a bank account. It could be difficult to travel to meet other researchers. There were a lot of what ifs in the risk assessment. You really need to think through how you can implement in such fragile situations.”
But that which is worthwhile is very often difficult to do. And the research chairs network will position Carleton within a dynamic global knowledge network on forced migration.
“It is a massive opportunity for Carleton’s forced migration research community,” says Milner.
“Already we can see that. When global colleagues need a partner to co-create knowledge, they come to Carleton. This network is a very ‘Carleton’ way of doing things. It is different from other universities that seek to ‘give us’ their knowledge, and that is a critically important difference.”
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