Skip to main content

Localization: A journey out of a research funder’s comfort zone


Roula El-Rifai

Senior program specialist, IDRC

IDRC recently launched a network of research chairs based in 12 universities across three continents. The IDRC Research Chairs on Forced Displacement will strengthen the institutional base of knowledge production locally by developing context-relevant knowledge that enables more effective, sustainable and rights-based solutions to forced displacement challenges. The establishment of these research chairs illustrates the IDRC approach to localize knowledge production.    

Knowledge localization is an essential element to address the scale and complexity of forced displacement. The UNHCR reports that the number of forcibly displaced people — including refugees, internally displaced, stateless, economic and climate-change migrants — has doubled in a decade. Yet while the vast majority of the forcibly displaced reside in the Global South, the bulk of research, knowledge and capacity to identify evidence-based solutions is produced in the Global North.   

What is localization?  

While localization may be perceived as a recent fad, it’s not new. Nor did it start when it emerged as a key commitment at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. It invokes the benefits in principle and practice of shifting power, resources and decision-making to those closest to the phenomenon being addressed. It is an important step in the process of decolonizing knowledge and the only way to support solutions that will actually work.  

Localization as a practice is part of IDRC’s DNA, given our mandate to support Southern research partners as they identify their challenges and develop knowledge and capacity to implement workable, legitimate and sustainable solutions. It is an approach that cuts across our areas of programmatic focus.  

How to localize knowledge    

The need for localization implies a change in principles and practice to the way research funders do business and how they approach the challenge of forced displacement and the production of knowledge. As IDRC continues to strengthen its localization practice, we propose seven key guiding principles:    

Don’t define the research agenda up front  

When IDRC launched its call for research chairs, we were not prescriptive on thematic entry points, insisting only on research practices that include gender analysis and intersectionality, while encouraging inter-disciplinary work. This open-ended approach was about letting go of defining the research agenda and allowing actors to define their own priorities. Central to the principle of localization is to shift power and decision-making to those who are close to the reality on the ground.     

Work with the non-usual suspects   

It’s important to promote the voice and leadership of those with lived experience of forced displacement. 

IDRC’s recent support for a journal issue of Forced Migration Review, which focused on localization, illustrates this principle. The journal adopted an approach that integrated refugee voices from different regions by forming an advisory group of local voices to oversee the call for articles and mentor authors. Localization doesn’t mean eliminating Northern partners from the conversation, but rather reframing how they engage and work with experts from the Global South.    

Find different ways to measure and track success    

Reporting on results and achievements is of critical importance to research funders. Success must be redefined and adapted to the forced displacement context, where policy spaces are limited, governance weak, freedom of expression constrained, researchers not always safe and forcibly displaced populations marginalized and vulnerable. Donors and their partners must continue to hone their measurement tools and indicators to be more nuanced and contextually relevant to account for these realities. 

Invest in the capacity of individuals and institutions   

It is critical to strengthen the ecosystem of knowledge production on forced displacement by working with both individuals and institutions. It is also important to promote mentoring, training and integrating a community voice in research-to-policy processes. In this way, a critical mass of local Southern researchers as well as local institutions will be formed to impact local, national and global policies and programs.   

Devote considerable attention to research ethics 

Ethics practices for forced displacement research must be context specific, especially given the marginalization of forcibly displaced populations. IDRC supported the establishment of a new platform for training in research ethics in the social and natural sciences led by Birzeit University in the West Bank. Equally important in research ethics is to create more equal partnerships where research is co-designed and the power of knowledge production shifts to local actors. 

Value different forms of knowledge produced in local languages   

It is important to resource translation and interpretations costs — something that does not happen regularly. It is just as relevant and essential to value different forms of local knowledge, such as oral history, which warrants an understanding of the local context and culture. Solutions to complex challenges such as forced displacement require diverse forms of knowledge that are openly accessible to all.  

Support networks to promote inclusive and diverse communities of practice  

A networked approach is needed so research can connect academic and policy worlds while being rooted in community engagement. The network approach must promote inclusivity and diversity and, through mentoring, address different levels of capacities within institutions. Sustainability must be prioritized if such networks are to survive beyond initial funding. IDRC has found that supporting South-South networks of learning and exchange across regions is essential for impact to take root.  

What localization is not and some key challenges  

Localization is not about containing the challenge of hosting refugees in the Global South, where most live. While solutions must be locally driven, there must be a shared global responsibility in addressing forced displacement challenges. 

Localization is also not about creating a North-South divide. It is about building bridges and synergies, and leveraging each other’s efforts, while acknowledging the stark power imbalances and hierarchies throughout academia that lead to unequal results and require conscious efforts to undo. 

There are key challenges to an effective localization approach in forced displacement, including a lack of data and a lack of accessibility to the data that does exist, a limited capacity of Southern institutions in research on forced displacement, as well as the challenge of identifying legitimate and representative forcibly displaced interlocutors. These are challenges and gaps the IDRC research chairs on forced displacement are trying to address individually and collectively as a network. 

Localization of knowledge production in forced displacement must be intentional, strategic and sustainable, and it requires resources. Research support must change the power dynamics, give voice to a multiplicity of Southern actors and avoid reproducing inequalities and vulnerabilities. 

Creativity is needed to ensure that the principles of knowledge localization are integral to research funding while addressing our individual domestic constraints and requirements as donors. The time has come for an approach that will push many of us out of our comfort zone.