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Opportunities and Challenges in South-South Collaboration
Athar Osama 14 May 2008 | EN |
International Rice Research Institute


Today, scientific and technological research is an international endeavour. In many ways, globalisation of science and technology has preceded the trend of economic and cultural globalisation. Information technology and the Internet — which started as an academic and scientific network — has catalysed communication and collaboration, allowing researchers from around the world to work together.

Scientific collaboration between developed countries, such as members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and to a lesser extent between developed and developing countries (often referred to as North–North and North–South collaboration respectively) has become increasingly popular since the 1970s and ‘80s. But South–South collaboration between developing countries has only recently emerged.

Such collaboration is now growing in scientific and economic importance. South–South research collaboration can promote research on problems that have low priorities in the North, and can provide shared opportunities for capacity building. It also fosters social and economic links between countries, potentially helping them strengthen their position in the global economy.

But South–South collaboration, however politically attractive, should not be pursued uncritically. It is unlikely to overcome the many substantial hurdles without a properly supportive environment. And it may not be the best way of addressing particular challenges. So proposals for South–South collaboration need close examination — and then the best should be vigorously pursued.

Growing International Trend

We know that international collaboration can improve the quality and impact of scientific research. For example, a study commissioned by the UK’s Office of Science and Innovation, carried out by Evidence Ltd., looked at scientific collaboration between Australia, China, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and Western Europe. It found that international collaboration was growing faster than the overall scientific outputs of these countries.

The study also found that scientific papers co-authored by researchers from different countries were cited more often (an indicator of scientific impact) than those from within a single country.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has also studied this broad trend towards international collaboration. For example, it found that between 1988 and 2005 articles written by American scientists with at least one international co-author increased from 9 to 26 per cent of all peer-reviewed papers.

The strength of the trend varies between countries. Another NSF study estimates that the proportion of internationally co-authored articles by scientists from Brazil, China and Taiwan remained roughly constant between 1993 and 2003. But those by scientists from India increased from 13 to 21 per cent. Some countries may have a greater propensity for such collaborations, or perhaps their scientific systems are better able to benefit from them.

Collaboration Gathers Steam

Since 2000, South–South research collaboration has begun to gather steam, and countries are beginning to feel the need for formal institutional capacity and a logical framework.

There appear to be several reasons for this trend.
First, the forces that fuel other forms of collaboration — such as the Internet, communication technologies and ease of travel — are also making South–South research collaboration easier.

Second, an emerging scientific hierarchy within developing countries is creating classes of leaders and followers, making it possible for some of these countries to ’give’, and others to ’gain’, through scientific collaboration.

Third, improving economic circumstances in certain developing countries have brought greater scientific spending, which itself creates opportunities and an impetus for greater collaboration.

Finally, while globalisation has opened up much of the world, some countries — particularly the United States — have been closing down, primarily because of anti-immigration sentiments and the security challenges of the post-9/11 era. This has shifted the attention of some developing countries towards the South rather than the North.

Institutional Support

Several international scientific organisations, such as the Academy of Sciences of the Developing world (TWAS), Consortium on Science, Technology and Innovation for the South (formerly the Third World Network of Scientific Organizations), the African Union (AU) and the OIC’s Standing Committee on Science and Technology (COMSTECH), have started promoting South–South research collaboration through a series of declarations, announcements, policy interventions and initiatives.

In addition, bilateral aid agencies and private foundations are encouraging South–South research collaboration. These include DANIDA (Denmark), KPFE (Switzerland) and the Volkswagen Foundation (Germany).

These efforts build on and refine the development focus of earlier international initiatives such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR, established in 1971 with 15 linked research centres) and the Iberian–American Program of Science and Technology for Development (CYTED, established in 1984 and which once involved over 10,000 scientists from 21 countries).

Developing countries of similar economic standing are also increasingly building bilateral and multilateral collaborations, such as the Brazil–China Agricultural Collaboration and India–Brazil–South Africa Collaboration.

Many of these arrangements have political origins, spurred as much by the agendas of political leaders as by demand from the scientific community. Nevertheless, they can become important sources of funds for South–South research collaboration, producing scientific and technical — as well as political — benefits.

Concrete Benefits

North–North and North–South research collaboration has many well-recognised benefits. In contrast, the value of South–South research collaboration is still much debated. Its advocates usually put forward three main arguments:

    • South–South collaboration lets countries work together on shared problems such as tropical diseases, agricultural needs or threats from climate change;
    • it broadens opportunities for researchers working in developing countries;
    • collaborating countries help each other develop their indigenous capacity to generate, manage and use science and technology to address their needs.

In practice, these reasons are not necessarily all equally valid. Countries support South–South research collaboration for various reasons. It is important to understand the reasons and their validity if we are to develop a solid, evidence-based case for these kinds of arrangements.

The first argument is the strongest. Certain scientific problems — particularly those of shared social or geographical environments — can benefit from collaboration between countries of similar socio-economic circumstances and scientific standing. Examples include co-development of a malaria vaccine or low-cost HIV/AIDS treatments, tackling problems associated with water-borne diseases, or those relevant to certain climatic zones.

However valid in itself, the second argument may not be enough to ensure collaboration. Certainly, South–South collaboration can open avenues for professional advancement and growth to researchers who cannot pursue other international collaboration, perhaps because of limited resources or poor international relations.

But if such collaborations are to be worthwhile there must be concrete benefits for all parties as incentives to ensure a productive outcome.

The capacity-building argument carries more weight. Collaborating with scientists from similar socio-economic and scientific backgrounds can help attune research to a particular country’s needs. These collaborations can also create a critical mass of scientists (sectorally or regionally) with the necessary momentum to solve challenging problems.

Nevertheless, there can be a downside. Working with scientists with similar institutional backgrounds may deprive collaborating scientists of opportunities to learn from international best practices and professional norms.

So where South–South collaboration is proposed, careful evaluation is needed to ensure maximum usefulness, benefits and sustainability.

Practical and Pragmatic

Considering the following questions may offer a practical and pragmatic way to develop valid (and effective) South–South research collaboration:

    • Are there particular topical avenues or research areas that are better suited for countries of the South alone?
    • Should the topics for collaboration be specific to the South, or should there be a broad-based effort to promote South–South collaboration?
    • What is the most appropriate level for the collaboration (for example, between countries, between institutions or between individuals)?
    • How can incentives (for both institutions and individuals) be provided that promote South–South collaboration?
    • What types of hurdles prevent effective South–South collaboration and how can they best be overcome?
    • What kinds of policy interventions and initiatives can be taken to promote South–South research collaboration?
    • Are there any particular institutional arrangements between countries that improve the likelihood of success? Do the optimal institutional arrangements vary between different scientific sectors?
    • How important is funding in promoting and sustaining South–South research collaboration? Can collaboration be effective with funding that is tens of times less than that available for North–North and North–South collaboration?

Potential Obstacles

Clearly, there are many important issues to reflect on as South–South research collaboration matures. In some instances, collaboration, however attractive, may not be appropriate. In other circumstances major hurdles may significantly reduce its chances of success.

One major hurdle facing South–South research collaboration is that it is the availability of funding that often drives research agendas. But science and technology funding is often a political issue, decided on the basis of an established (or perceived) social contract between the people, political leadership and the scientific community.

Indeed, North–South collaboration is often a vehicle for development assistance from the developed to developing partners.

Financial support for scientific research is considerably limited, if not lacking completely, in many countries in the South, so this model for collaboration is weak. Nonetheless, visiting fellowships or collaborative research programmes between developing countries may be considerably cheaper within South–South compared with North–South collaboration.

However, experience suggests that many South–South initiatives remain critically under-funded, and often fail to go beyond mere political slogans.

Organisations and Incentives

Getting the right institutional mix to make South–South collaboration work is also important. For example, it may be:

    • a hub-and-spoke type arrangement (that is, with one ’core’ country collaborating with several smaller countries);
    • a senior-junior partner type arrangement (a large country collaborating with a small country);
    • an equal-partners type arrangement (two or more countries of equal standing collaborating);
    • regional arrangements; or
    • dispersed arrangements.

Each of these arrangements has its own challenges and constraints. Experience of trying to promote research collaboration among existing regional blocks, such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, highlights the importance of finding complementarities, aligning strategy with interests and supporting appropriate institutional structures.

An equally important dimension of South–South research collaboration, as in any kind of scientific collaboration, is the motivations and incentives of individual researchers. Mismatching what is expected of individuals and what they are rewarded for — financially, professionally and institutionally — can undermine effective collaboration.

For example, a primary motivation for developing-country scientists engaging in North–South collaboration is the opportunity to work alongside colleagues from the developed world. They can gain knowledge, learn international best practice and improve their chances of getting published in high-quality journals.

Working with other scientists of the same level of international standing may not generate this motivation.
It is therefore important to understand what drives people to collaborate, and develop ways to align the overall objectives with individual incentives and motivations.


South–South research collaboration is a new and emerging field. It is a trend that needs to be encouraged and promoted by the global scientific community and by policymakers. Creating the political will and financial support for such initiatives is a high priority, and designing these initiatives requires careful thought and reflection.

But their true success will best be demonstrated by continued collaboration beyond the initial period of enthusiasm (and often guaranteed funding) that delivers high-quality and high-impact research, solving challenging scientific problems of the South.

Such success stories may emerge only through experience with a large number of experiments.
Making South–South research collaboration succeed is one of the biggest organisational and political challenges facing the scientific community in the South.

Athar Osama holds a PhD in science and innovation policy from Pardee – RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, California, USA. He works as a senior consultant at ANGLE plc in the United Kingdom.