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Decolonizing Swiss-African Research Collaborations

How to decolonize Swiss-Africa research collaborations? Anja Soldat summarizes the discussion at the Swiss Researching Africa Days on decolonizing Swiss-African Research Collaborations in the latest SSAS newsletter.


The Politics of Collaboration in North-South Research

By Anja Soldat

How to decolonize Swiss-Africa research collaborations? At the seventh Swiss Researching Africa Days, two panels dealt specifically with this question. The first was organized by Fabian Käser and Anja Bretzler (Swiss Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries, KFPE) and Ravaka Andriamihaja (Center for Development and Environment, University of Bern). Another panel, organized by Larissa Tiki Mbassi (University of Geneva) and Samuel Bachmann (University of Basel), dealt with the decolonization of museum collections. However, many discussions during the entire conference revolved around related questions such as: Who has the right to produce discourse and who benefits from it? Who can speak for whom, when, how, and why—and who decides on that?

When tackling these questions, the convenors and discussants of the two panels agreed that self-reflection and awareness of the complex power relations in which we are all entangled is a very important first step. We must understand that collaboration itself can be a form of colonization if it fosters dependency, perpetuates existing inequalities and invisibilisation, Ravaka Andriamihaja pointed out. Tobias Haller (University of Bern) aptly reminded us in his closing remarks that the Swiss Society for African Studies is, in fact, rooted in colonialism. But then, how can we take concrete action to start and decolonize research collaborations between Swiss and African partners? Several discussants made important recommendations. Here, we want to list identified problems and proposed solutions.

There was a general agreement that often projects are not organized as real collaborations because from the beginning, the northern partner keeps control over the research question and the research design, the funding and budgeting. The knowledge production during the research is dominated by the northern researcher who leads the project and brings in PhD students or post-docs from the North for data collection. The research then often happens in disregard of local pressing issues and problems. And then, dissemination of results is oriented towards the logic of the global north, which is not always in line with southern journals and other local means of disseminating information. Collaborations are usually short-term and not sustainable, because the generated evidence is not policy-relevant for the southern country and the project is not oriented towards local capacity building. A lot of these problems, however, evolve from the existing funding system which itself must be decolonized, questioned, and rethought—from both a southern and a northern perspective.

Several discussants pointed out that writing a proposal can be done collaboratively from the beginning, including the development of the budget. This requires careful planning because the northern partners are under a lot of pressure in terms of time, needing to get proposals out fast. They therefore include their southern partners only once they have received the approval for the project by the funding organization. However, “if research is to have an impact, then it is best led by those researchers who have a deeper grounding in local realities and have established networks and contacts with local policymakers and practitioners”, concluded Binyam Moreda (Hawassa University, Ethiopia, via zoom).

Southern researchers should choose the research topic and have the lead in developing the research design, the proposition of the budget, in collecting the data, as well as in writing the publication. They should refuse to be used as mere data collectors and insist on having a project leader too, Benjamin Koudou (Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifiques, CSRS, Côte d’Ivoire) affirmed in his talk. Each PhD student or post-doc from the North should be working with a PhD student or post-doc from the South. What is more, African journals need recognition in the North and the big publishers, such as Elsevier, Sage, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley Publications, must be sensitized to reduce their publication fees for researchers from the Global South. As a next step, research should move into the area of knowledge translation and away from mere knowledge generation, Binyam Moreda proposed. In addition, studies should be monitored, critically examined, and evaluated by researchers in the South, Mariah Ngutu (University of Nairobi, Kenya) pointed out.

But how to proceed if the funding instruments do not allow for a decolonized collaborative research practice as outlined above? One simple solution proposed during the animated plenary discussion, was to call up the person responsible for the project at the funding organization and explain the problem. This solution might not have a direct impact on the research project in question, but can help generate awareness at the funding institution. It is clear, however, that it is still a long process before research collaborations between the South and the North are really decolonised. As Henri Michel Yéré (University of Basel) pointed out in his presentation, it is still necessary to question fundamental assumptions and the givenness of historically problematic notions, especially in the natural sciences. Regarding the 11 principles of the Swiss Commission for Research Partnerships in Developing Countries, he stated that the problematic notion of “development” itself requires discussion. Inequities are not a given, but develop through specific processes, he concluded. We should also rethink our implicit assumption of the superiority and legitimacy of an academic status in transboundary/transdisciplinary research; here it is important to recognize that not only people with an academic degree have expertise.

Discussions during the coffee breaks showed that many academics feel that there are not enough concrete approaches to decolonizing collaborative research. Theoretical discussions on decolonizing research methods are still far more common than the actual carrying out of research projects; concrete steps towards decolonization are still rare. Some feel that we have been stuck in this preparatory phase for quite a while, discussing, but not translating into action.

For museum collections, things look a bit brighter. Effective steps towards a possible decolonization of museums have been identified and gained wide acknowledgment since the Sarr-Savoy report of 2018. A simple, yet important step is digitizing museum collections and associated data and making them available online, for example. Like this, the home countries of the objects kept in northern museums can access knowledge produced on their objects living abroad, as Jonas Sebastian Lendenmann (Zurich University of the Arts) pointed out. Many museums have started this process in the last years. As a further step, collaborative projects need to be designed to identify looted objects and start thinking about restitution processes together.

The Benin Initiative Switzerland is an example of such a project, in which eight Swiss museums work collaboratively with researchers and artists from Benin City in Nigeria. But restitution should not be understood as the end point of such collaborations, as Alice Hertzog (Museum Rietberg, Zurich) put it, “but the starting point of writing a new story.” Such new stories are what many of us researchers are looking for, whether we work in a museum or in another research institution. While writing these stories, we have to question ourselves time and again whether we implement the abovementioned approaches towards decolonizing our research partnerships in our own projects and how we can go about institutionalizing a more collaborative research environment.

Anja Soldat is curator at the Museum for History and Anthropology in St. Gallen, doc- toral candidate at the University of Zurich, and board member of the Swiss Society for African Studies. Contact: