(Un)packing Baggage: A Reflection on the ‘Battle Over Ideas’ and Labour Hierarchies in Collaborative North–South Research


North–South research collaboration involves navigating two terrains, which have, in the past, been areas of bitter contestation. One area is to negotiate the unequal power dynamics that shape what ‘partnership’ means and determine the division of labour in the research collaboration. The other is a tussle over concepts that underpin research, which may have different meanings or no meaning at all in the local context. In this essay, I share my experiences on both areas as a researcher based in the global South. I contend that these power dynamics not only reinforce the extractive nature of research, but also undermine different ways of knowing and registering that are not part of dominant intellectual toolkits in the global North. I conclude that the hierarchy of knowledge generation embedded in North–South collaboration hinders the creativity and intellectual advancement of researchers and also diminishes the quality of the knowledge that is produced.


Dans le cadre de la collaboration de recherche Nord-Sud, deux sujets sont incontournables et ont été des points amèrement contestés par le passé. Le premier sujet porte sur la négociation des dynamiques de pouvoir inégales qui façonnent la signification même du «partenariat» et qui déterminent la division du travail dans la collaboration pour la recherche. L'autre sujet porte sur une querelle à propos des concepts qui sous-tendent la recherche et qui peuvent avoir des significations différentes dans le contexte local, voire même aucune signification. Dans cet article, je partage mes expériences sur ces deux sujets en tant que chercheur dans un pays du Sud. Je soutiens que ces dynamiques de pouvoir renforcent non seulement la nature extractive de la recherche, mais sapent également des façons de savoir et d'enregistrer qui sont différentes et qui ne font pas partie des démarches intellectuelles dominantes du Nord. J’en conclus que la hiérarchie de la production de savoirs ancrée dans la collaboration Nord-Sud entrave la créativité et l'avancement intellectuel des chercheurs et diminue également la qualité des connaissances produites.

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  1. 1.

    Rebecca Surenthiraraj, Praveen Tilakaratne, Mark Schubert, Shashik Dhanushka, Suresh Amuhena, Nuwan Walasmullage and Taniya Silvapulle from the Social Scientists’ Association of Sri Lanka were the researchers of this study in which I played the ‘country lead’. They participated in some of these conversations with our foreign collaborators. During this study, we had several stimulating conversations about ‘getting stuck in frames’ which inspired me to write this reflective essay. I am thankful to them for being a sounding board during this period.

  2. 2.

    This pseudonym was adopted for the purpose of anonymity.

  3. 3.

    A three-wheeler taxi in Sri Lanka, a common mode of transport, mainly in cities.

  4. 4.

    There have been many public protests against the establishment of the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM), a private medical college. SAITM is the first of its kind, as tertiary education in Sri Lanka is primarily offered by the state. The protests have a deeply embedded fear of privatisation of higher education in Sri Lanka.


I am grateful to Thea Hilhorst (ISS), Priyanthi Fernando and Adriaan Ferf, my colleagues and friends with whom I initially opened up about some of the issues discussed in this reflective essay. I am also thankful to my colleagues Asha Abeyasekera (Colombo), Kaushalya Perera (Colombo), Darshi Thoradeniya (Colombo) and Mythri Jegathesan (Santa Clara) for continuing these conversations with me, and for their contributions on related topics during our discussions on research ethics.

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Correspondence to Vagisha Gunasekara.

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Gunasekara, V. (Un)packing Baggage: A Reflection on the ‘Battle Over Ideas’ and Labour Hierarchies in Collaborative North–South Research. Eur J Dev Res 32, 503–513 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41287-020-00275-y

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  • North–south research
  • Collaboration
  • Power dynamics
  • Culture
  • Communication
  • Epistemology

JEL Classification

  • O29
  • O32
  • O310
  • O340