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No one is safe until everyone is safe: global research for global crises


Jean Lebel

President, IDRC

This article was originally published in the Canadian Science Policy Magazine 2021, Issue 03, November 2021. 

Pressing global crises, in particular climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic, require urgent global action. Efforts to address them should draw on knowledge, innovation, and experiences from all parts of the world. However, efforts to overcome these crises are constrained by the under-representation of voices from the Global South in research and knowledge ecosystems.

The extent of the disparity is stark.   

While over three quarters of the global population live in Asia and Africa, over three quarters of the scientists on the Reuters’ hot list of climate scientists are in Europe and North America [1] — revealing a staggering imbalance.  As CBC reported in October[2], a new study published in Nature Climate Change[3] found that far more climate studies have been published on impacts in developed countries than developing countries. Using machine learning to examine over 100,000 scientific papers worldwide, the research found that nearly 30,000 studies looked at impacts in areas in North America compared to only 10,000 in Africa, which has more than double the population.  

While there is some good news from a paper published in the Climate and Development journal [4] earlier this year, namely that there has been an increase in empirical climate adaptation research in the global South from 2010 to 2020, it also highlights that large geographic and thematic gaps remain. For example, large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East/North Africa remain severely under-researched.  

Unequal research conditions and systemic biases within research ecosystems are not unique to the climate crisis. In January of this year, BMJ Global Health published a commentary on African authorship during the COVID-19 pandemic [5]. It reported that while 1.3 billion people – or 17% of the world’s population – live in Africa, only 3.9% of articles on COVID-19 published in the top 10 medical journals comment on Africa.

These imbalances limit our ability to tackle critical and accelerating global challenges and simultaneously risk leaving behind those most impacted. Research from the Global South is urgently needed to produce local, evidence-based solutions, and to connect with research elsewhere that will inform international responses. 

As a Canadian Crown corporation that invests in research in the Global South, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is working closely with researchers, funders, and other stakeholders to address these issues. 

In climate change hot spots — places where strong effects of climate change coincide with large vulnerable populations — there is a great need for innovative and locally-tailored solutions. Much of Africa, low-lying coastal areas in Asia, parts of the Middle East and Latin America, and small island developing countries have low levels of investment, but also much knowledge and experience to offer. IDRC has supported the science and evidence behind more than 35 national-level adaptation plans in hot-spots, working to integrate tailored solutions that are equitable and sustainable. For example, research on how labour migration contributes to social safety nets and climate resilience informed Tajikistan’s National Adaptation Plan, and the resulting Local Adaptation Plans of Action. [6] 

Localized evidence of what works, what doesn’t, and how to better adapt and build resilience is needed to drive responses to the climate crisis before it’s too late. Yet this knowledge is also needed globally. Southern research and researchers are earning international recognition, for example, through important contributions to the pivotal reports produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The 6th assessment report has citations from multiple climate leaders from the Global South, including over 20 IDRC-funded publications, and contributing to a much stronger and truly international assessment. 

COVID-19 also underscores the need for Southern research to generate local, tailored approaches, and inform global response. It has highlighted multiple vulnerabilities as many low- and middle-income countries face a devastating combination of crises – including a global health pandemic, the growing impacts of climate change, rising levels of public debt and food insecurity. We are working alongside researchers, funders, and policymakers to generate research and evidence, inform global approaches, and develop contextualized responses. For example, over the past year and a half, restrictions and lockdowns disrupted food systems in many parts of the world — reducing production and access to food. In Pakistan, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute produced a tool to directly aid the real-time management of food supply, shortages, and price inflation. The Food Security Dashboard offers the Ministry of National Food Security daily national, provincial, and district-level views, allowing them to correct activities such as hoarding before they lead to food crises.  

At the global level, the UN Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 Recovery [7] is a strong demonstration of Canada’s leadership in identifying research priorities to respond to the crisis. Developed at the request of the UN deputy secretary-general by a team led by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the roadmap aims to ensure the COVID-19 recovery is informed by the best available evidence. IDRC actively facilitated participation by research partners from around the world who generated important recommendations. This commitment extends across our investment of nearly CA$55 million in more than 65 low- and middle-income countries as part of Canada’s response.  

Canada’s science policy community can be proud of the efforts undertaken so far to support and learn from diverse and innovative research from the Global South. But more progress is needed in the face of crises on the scale of climate change and COVID-19. The under-representation of voices from the Global South in research and knowledge ecosystems must be addressed to produce innovative, inclusive, and sustainable solutions. Across these and other crises, we all benefit from making use of international research and science, and we must strive to fill gaps and inequalities in the knowledge ecosystem where they clearly exist. 

Jean Lebel 
International Development Research Centre (IDRC) 


  1. The Conversation. Reuters’ Hot List of climate scientists is geographically skewed: why this matters. Published June 15, 2021. 

  1. CBC News. Singh, Inayat and Alice Hopton. Global south suffering gap in climate change research as rich countries drive agenda, studies suggest. Posted October 17, 2021.  

  1. Nature Climate Change. Callaghan, Max et al. Machine-learning-based evidence and attribution mapping of 100,000 climate impact studies. Published October 11, 2021.  

  1. Climate and Development. Vincent, Katharine and Georgina Cundill. The evolution of empirical adaptation research in the global south from 2010 to 2020. Published February 4, 2021.  

  1. BMJ Global Health. Naidoo, AV, Hodkinson P, Lai King L, et al. African authorship on African papers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Published March 1, 2021.  

  1. This research was conducted through the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (2012 - 2019). IDRC. Collaborating for adaptation: findings and outcomes of a research initiative across Africa and Asia. Published July 7, 2020. 

  1. See UN Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 Recovery: