A global collaboration

A new research network born at UTSC will support citizen empowerment in the Global South

Lanna Crucefix

Two years ago, 15 researchers from around the world gathered at UTSC with a common goal—to build a collaborative network that would empower institutions in the global South, changing the way global research is conducted.

The Collaboration for Research on Democracy (CORD) network now includes 30 partners (researchers, practitioners and policy-makers) from Canada, South Africa, Bangladesh, Brazil, the United Kingdom, India, Uganda and Egypt.

Leslie Chan, a senior lecturer in international studies at UTSC, points to one of the network’s key elements: many of its researchers are based in the global South. The term generally refers to non-Western and non-Northern countries, and includes larger- and middle-income countries such as Brazil and India, as well as lower-income and more fragile states.

“In the past a lot of academic work in development studies involved north- ern institutions on the outside, looking at the South, and then leaving,” he says. “The whole idea of CORD is to learn from each other and enrich each other’s work by having partners who live in, and know, the regions under study.”

CORD builds on the research, framework and relationships initiated by the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability (Citizenship DRC), a pioneering collaborative network sponsored by the U.K. Department for international Development. Bettina von Lieres, a professor at UTSC’s Centre for Critical Development Studies, worked with Citizenship DRC for 10 years.

She refers to CORD as a “horizontal network.” While UTSC took the lead to host the first workshop in 2012, the subsequent meeting was in Delhi and the next will be in Cape Town. Leadership roles and responsibilities are shared among network members.

Individual researchers are now testing the ideas generated at the workshop in different parts of the world. As data comes in, it’s used to tweak the framework to better understand the global picture.

Although the partners bring multiple perspectives and interests to the group, the network’s research revolves around four main themes.

Von Lieres is one of those interested in democracy and citizenship roles, that is, how people create alliances to gain political representation through formal institutions (political parties, unions) and informal ones (garment-worker collectives). Her recent work examines how local communities in Angola engage with non-government organi- zations to claim rights and participate in the government process.

Researchers who are examining knowledge and democracy, such as Leslie Chan, look at how knowledge in today’s society is generated and shared in new ways such as the internet—exploring, for instance, the role of social media in the arab Spring

Network members concerned with marginality and alliance building examine how people outside the mainstream of society form groups to gain access to resources and have their voices heard. Finally, the theme of economic citizenship looks at economic well-being and whether individual citizens fare better when a country’s economy grows.

CORD serves as a sounding board for ideas and a way to connect and work with fellow researchers, says von Lieres.

“This interaction is really very exciting and has produced many new questions,” she says. For instance, she may think of a research question and put it out to the group. “Someone in India might say, that’s an interesting question, but it might not be applicable here. Then we’ll examine why.”

From the outset, CORD envisioned a role for students, Chan says. Many have been involved in research planning and implementation, and organizing the international workshops.

Students have also worked on the online platform, which helps facilitate effective collaboration. “Planning, reaching out to people you generally would not be able to connect with, facilitating projects and workshops—without the e-network it would have been much more difficult,” says Chan.

Research networks involving northern and southern partners have often been organized in a top-down manner, von Lieres says. northern institutions provided the funding and designed research frameworks, while southern institutions were secondary partners who supplied the case studies and data.

Networks such as CORD acknowledge the growing role of southern partner institutions as lead participants in research. This trend will continue, von Lieres believes, as the global South becomes more politically and economically important.

“I think a lot of northern institutions will consider it more of a priority to become involved in broader collaborative research relationships like CORD,” she says. “Our approach to research is very participatory with regards to design and thinking about global and comparative research projects. It’s reciprocal and mutually beneficial.”