Foreign Research Partners: Supporting or subtracting from academic freedom in Developing Countries?

by Eren Zink

What practical consequences do research partnerships have for academic freedom in developing countries? As scholars or funders of research, are we a help or a hinder when it comes to our colleagues’ efforts to defend their academic freedom? Strangely, during my own training as an anthropologist and my professional work as a programme officer for a science foundation, this is a conversation that I never had with a boss or supervisor. But, during nearly ten years of research on the politics of science in developing countries, I have learned several lessons from my colleagues and friends that were born and made an academic career in the countries where I was carrying out research. I learned from them that international collaborations can shrink or expand academic freedom in developing countries, and sometimes they do both at the same time.

Through my work in Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Sweden I have encountered many struggles over the scope of academic freedom. And while these struggles share common concerns for scholars’ freedom to decide the direction of their own research, students’ freedom to learn from those same independent scholars in the university, and scholars’ freedom to offer social and political critique of the world beyond the university gates, the struggles themselves come in widely different forms and degrees. During my fieldwork in Uganda in October, for example, riot police with a presidential decree in hand emptied the nation’s leading university of students and staff and closed its gates until further notice. During my encounters with Vietnamese social scientists I have learned that scholars whose research reveals the mechanisms of state corruption are silenced under threat of retribution long before their research results can be shared with other scholars and the public. During a visit to Mozambique in June, I learned that the recent violent assault, and in one case murder, of Mozambican scholars who expressed professional opinions about ongoing domestic legal disputes is sending waves of concern through the faculty at Eduardo Mondlane University and beyond. In Sweden, under far less dramatic circumstances, we find an ongoing and spirited debate about the extent to which university research should be led by market trends, versus being allowed to develop as a result of researchers’ own interests and scientific curiosity.

Ugandan police vehicles parked on the Makerere University campus green. Shortly afterwards they would disperse a student protest with tear gas and rubber bullets.

In their various ways, each of these examples highlight the fact that some 200 years after the concept first gained a foothold in Humboldtian Germany, and 26 years after The Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility, the specific meaning and value of academic freedom is still undecided.  From one place (and person) to another we find different answers to questions of whether or not research and teaching should be guided by broader social and economic development agendas? If scholars should be free from external interference to chart their own directions in research and knowledge production? Or, if a scholar’s academic freedom includes the responsibility to offer social and political critique of government and society at large, or if they should just stay focused on their specific work inside the confines of the university? Behind the debates of scholars’ rights and responsibilities, one finds high stakes competitions amongst scholars and a range of other leaders to author the ideas and establish the facts that will chart the course of future developments in politics, education, technology, economy and morality.

As foreign researchers, research partners, and research funders, we are not the lead actors in these struggles over academic freedom in developing countries. Luckily, the days are long gone when universities in developing countries were led by foreigners, and universities today in places like Vietnam, Uganda, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are populated primarily by local scholars working under exceedingly challenging conditions. These local scholars are at the forefront in local struggles to make science and research matter for the further improvement of quality of life, and for the advancement of knowledge production in their own countries as well as further afield. Our roll is that of a (hopefully) supporting actor.

As we work in these contexts, it is pertinent for us to ask what kinds of interests and influences shape what can be researched, taught and published in the developing countries where we work, and how are we implicated in them? To begin to answer this question, I will draw a few examples from my own research on developing country scientists’ experiences of international collaboration that illustrate how foreign money and interests can narrow the scope for developing country researchers to express their academic freedom, and how partnership can also be used by local scientists to strengthen their power to critique powerful interests.

“He who pays the piper calls the tune”

This cliché was repeatedly used by scientists that I met in Uganda to explain the limits to their ability to set their own research priorities. In Uganda, where major research institutions and universities are often dependent upon foreign organizations for 80% or more of their research funding, the persons and institutions calling the tune are generally located in other countries. In both Uganda and Ghana, the majority of the scientists I met during my research explained that non-Africa scientists and non-African science funders have more influence on their work than do local scientists or organizations.

And, while the majority of scientists I met were grateful for their foreign financial support, especially in contexts where national governments make negligible contributions from national funds, they remained deeply frustrated. Simon, a Ugandan scientist explained to me:

When international partners come they have their own focus, and if you do not stay focused you can deviate towards them and not your research needs. Africa has its own research needs, and some are not anywhere near what the partners are interested in… [Foreign partners] are not going to push you in a field where they are not experts and where they do not see urgent need. If the priorities areas for northern and southern partners are not the same, then a deviation from the southern priorities is likely to occur.

Simon’s case shows us how dependence upon foreign funding and collaborators puts limits on the freedom of Ugandan scientists to determine the content and purpose of their own scientific work.

In another meeting with a Ugandan scientist, James explained to me how seemingly similar local and international research priorities can conceal fundamental differences that have implications for his freedom to set his own research agenda:

Since there are no local funds going into research, the terms of research are dictated by the people that are funding research. So, it is like, malaria is your problem. But for [internationals], [they] are interested in the genes which are associated with severe malaria, and not how it is transmitted. Yet the necessary research in that area would be how to prevent the transmission of Malaria. But, because you are not funding it [locally], the other people have their interest in genes. There is that mismatch. The money may be there to fund research, but it is not the essential research in that area. So it becomes difficult to marry your findings into practice.

Here, despite foreign and local agreement on a general research priority, local scientists are still unable to pursue what for them would be a meaningful line of research.

These examples illustrate the subtle ways that foreign collaboration can constrain academic freedom, even as these constraints remain invisible to, or unrecognized by the foreign collaborators themselves. Of course, the influence of foreign funding need not be subtle. It is easy to find scientists in developing countries who have experiences of being blatantly overrun by the power of foreign interests. These scientists speak wistfully of becoming “data miners” who collect samples or administer questionnaires for foreign project leaders. In other cases, they struggle to carry out research that they feel is important by reallocating resources from funded projects, or maintaining strategic exchange relationships with local colleagues who can surreptitiously mobilize resources from other sources.

International connections that empower

In Vietnam, in both the natural and the social sciences there are strong limitations to academic freedom. I have observed this in the work of ecologists and biochemists studying the water quality in aquaculture where evidence of concentrations of antibiotics and other pollutants pose a risk to commercial export interests. I have also observed it in sociological and anthropological studies of sustainable development initiatives where scholars were coerced into carefully crafting their methodology and analysis in order to conceal the degree to which ongoing international projects were contributing to the enrichment of local elites at the expense of the poorest members of communities. In other instances, Vietnamese researchers have asked their foreign counterparts to take the lead in spreading their findings when the results are too politically charged for them to publish themselves.

In contexts such as these ,where there are strong limitations upon academic freedom in specific areas of knowledge production, international collaborations that include funding and/or foreign research partners can have an important role in loosening restrictions on Vietnamese researchers. Following the work of Mai, a Vietnamese social scientist, I was able to observe the workings of such relationships. In this case, foreign collaborations have allowed Mai to vocally critique government policies for their negative impact on the poor in a political environment that normally does not tolerate such open critique directed towards central government. International partnerships also empowered Mai to introduce innovations into her teaching of undergraduate students in order to further train their capacity for critical thinking, particularly in relation to Vietnam’s sustainable development challenges.

For Mai, the power of collaborations to support her expression of academic freedom works indirectly. Mai trained abroad at a well-respected university and has published internationally. Back at her home institution’s leadership appreciates her ability to use these skills and experiences to win internationally funded projects. In addition to benefitting a project and a project leader, the winning of foreign grants also brings significant economic benefits to the administration of her institution. Mai explains, “If I am good at research and have knowledge, then powerful people in [my institution] ask for advice and are even willing to accept criticism.” Hence, her value to her institution as a result of the support she garners through international partnerships, permits her to exert a degree of academic freedom both inside and outside the university that would otherwise be impossible.

Mai’s work offers an example of how international research collaborations, be they financial, conceptual, implementing or analytical in nature, also have significant potential to expand the space for researchers and teachers to exert their academic freedom in developing country contexts. The success of international collaboration in promoting academic freedom in this case and others like it is usually partly or wholly invisible to the international partners themselves.

In fact, to reveal how it works can jeopardize the possibility for the continued existence of the partnership. Local leaders in Vietnam would be forced to object, donors and partners would become concerned that the financial accountability of the projects they fund are less transparent than the auditing records would indicate, and the Vietnamese scholar would be under tremendous and conflicting pressures to honor loyalties to local colleagues, her own values, and her foreign partners.

Such was the case for Mai when I met her and her foreign research partner, Albert, one day in a Vietnamese airport café only moments after she had revealed that their joint project had been embezzled by her instition’s administrators. Mai was upset and scared as she apologized to her longtime friend and partner, and explained that she was powerless to lodge a public complaint, and had been forbidden to acknowledge to her partner the money had disappeared. The latter was what she was doing at that moment, and she was taking a great risk both personally and professionally. For Mai, this unpleasant episode was one event in her continuing struggle to preserve and expand her academic freedom in Vietnam.

Reflecting on partners’ roles

As partners from abroad, we owe our local colleagues the consideration of thinking more deeply about the consequences of our own practices for their work and their academic freedoms. If international partners are to promote academic freedom in the oftentimes challenging academic environments that one commonly finds in developing countries, then those same partners must allow themselves time to become familiar with the conditions in which their local partners work. They must be critically reflexive about how their own beliefs and actions have an influence upon the space that scholars have to practice their academic freedoms. Far beyond our own scholarly production, this is probably the most important contributions that our research collaborations can make to local research environments.

As researchers we must ask how our own research priorities may influence or overrun local priorities, and explore opportunities to enable local partners to pursue elements of their own research agenda. Masters students, PhD students and senior researchers can make an effort to participate in and learn from local academic and research environments. Parallel to this, our PhD and Masters level methodology courses should explicitly broach the topic of foreign partners’ influences and responsibilities with respect to academic freedom in local research environments as a standard point on the syllabus.

For research funders, when the achievement of academic freedom is not measurable using quantitative metrics, there is a greater onus upon them to become more familiar with their counterparts, spend more time working with them on their own terms, and more reflective about their own role and impact on academic freedom more broadly. Funders of research can also abstain from the urge to set narrow research priorities within their calls for proposals, and instead allow room for scholars in developing countries to themselves identify the most pressing research priorities. Likewise, review committees that select winning research proposals should include strong representation of reviewers from the countries or regions where the research will be carried out.

Together these reflections, precautions and practices can better prepare partners in research and research funding to be more reliable supporting actors to local colleagues as they struggle to extend their range of academic freedoms. Nevertheless, the challenges that remain will still be formidable.

Mai’s case is one example of the complexity and difficulty of the issue. For her and her partner, they were able to salvage their relationship, and the donor headquarters did not learn of the embezzlement… in fact, the project’s mirage of success resulted in the project being specially recognized as an example of best practices by the foreign donor, and Mai’s sphere of academic freedom in Vietnam was preserved and perhaps expanded. Was this a victory for academic freedom? How would, or should, we have reacted in the same situation?

*All names in this article are pseudonyms. The people pictured at the top of the article are researchers, but they are not associated with the specific examples used in the text.


Eren Zink is a Researcher at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology and Coordinator of the Forum for Africa Studies at Uppsala University. He is an Affiliated Researcher at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, and Visiting Scientist at the United Nations University, Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (UNU-INRA) in Accra, Ghana.  During 2000-2007 he worked at the International Foundation for Science where he was a Scientific Programme Coordinator for Social Sciences. His research interests include science and technology studies, higher education, economic anthropology, medical anthropology and political ecology, and he has carried out research in Uganda, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Vietnam. Eren’s current research is funded by the Swedish Research Council.

Eren has written much more about the experiences of Mai and her colleagues in Hot Science, High Water (2013, NIAS Press), an ethnography of science, politics and environmental conservation in Vietnam and further afield.

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