Making your research accessible

Assessing Research Systems in Developing Countries – 5 reasons why it matters and a teaser on how to get started

By 14 November 2016

Have you noticed how often journal articles about development challenges are written by authors from developing countries? The answer is not very often, unfortunately, and this holds across thematic areas and across countries. In 2012, the share of the world’s articles with at least one African author was around 2.3%. Growing, but still incredibly low relative to the African share of world population of around 15% in 2015. Even in some big and rapidly growing middle-income countries, such as India or Indonesia, much of the research done is carried out by external academics or consultants.

There is a vicious circle of under-investment in research in developing countries, especially in the social sciences. Lagging infrastructure, the absence of a research strategy and cohesive policy at the national level, and the lack of a professional cadre of research leaders and mentors for younger researchers or a critical mass of peers are just some of the main causes for this trend of under-performance. Figure 1 shows gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) across regions, based on data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.


Figure 1. Gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) across regions, in purchasing power parity (UNESCO Institute for Statistics)

To make matters worse, expenditure on social science research is generally less than 20% of gross expenditure on R&D, according to the 2013 World Social Science Report (UNESCO). There are fewer researchers in these countries (see Figure 2), even adjusting for population, and most of them are pulled between teaching, research and consultancies to supplement their income.


Figure 2. Researchers per million inhabitants in full-time employment in 2014 (source UNESCO Institute of Statistics)

So instead of the highly interactive and collaborative experience that research is increasingly becoming in the North, in many developing countries it is still a lonely endeavour, and not a very prestigious career choice. Several factors prevent ground-breaking research from being done, widely disseminated, or put into use. The underlying conditions in both the research environment at country level and organizational policies and practices translate into poor incentives and opportunities to carry out world class, solid, relevant social science research with the potential to impact policies and lives.

Why does it matter? Because:

  1. The very essence of a democracy with a vibrant civic culture rests on the assumption that citizens and decision-makers have access to reliable information; evidence on which to base policy and programmes; free and open debate; and a plurality of views. Social science research, by its nature, plays a critical role in this regard.
  2. The current priorities on the global development agenda, captured by the SDGs, need local research to be translated into national priorities and research agendas to be implemented and pursued. And for that, a more conducive and enabling local research environment is critical.
  3. The current model of having development paths based on research primarily carried out in the top universities and research centres in the world or by external short-term consultants (in the absence of local capacity) is not sustainable or equitable. The way to mitigate this is to improve conditions for research in developing countries. Even research agendas are not derived and owned locally.
  4. Without understanding the nature of the problem in depth – i.e. knowing what are the barriers to doing good and useful research in developing countries – we do not know how to fix it, even where there is good will, a reform agenda, or funding available, from local or external sources.
  5. And, finally, because changing the incentive and institutional structure for research is difficult even where there is good will, but there is ample scope for competition, learning and shaming. Benchmarking helps highlight an issue, by virtue of introducing comparisons to neighbours, competitors and even allies, which often prompts some debate and action.

So where do we go from here? There is surprisingly little research on research itself or appropriate metrics for measuring research performance in developing countries, particularly in the social sciences.

This is why the Global Development Network has embarked on an ambitious project called Doing Research that aims to identify barriers to good, policy-relevant research being produced and used in developing countries and to benchmark these systems, with the ultimate goal of improving research policies and underlying conditions for carrying out research. A pilot of this programme has just been concluded in 11 countries, and based on its conclusions GDN has developed a framework to scale the initiative up and out. Research systems will be assessed in terms of their 3 main functions – Production, Diffusion and Use – and in 5 areas: Context, Inputs, Activities, Outputs and Outcomes. Stay tuned for more details as we start implementation and testing or get in touch if you are interested in getting involved with this ambitious endeavour.


More information on the Doing Research project can be found at

This blog is part of the GDN Doing Research series which brings together insights from the researchers across the project.

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