De-colonising and gendering climate research in the DOWN2EARTH project? Our journey

5 minute read

Covid-19, like no other recent global crisis, has brought to light the pervasiveness of social and economic inequalities. The lived experiences of Covid-19 have illuminated how women, minoritised communities, countries across the ‘global south’ affected by poverty, inequality and conflict, have many barriers to deal with and thus face worse impacts. This is no different with the climate crisis. For decades academic researchers, civil society organisations and activists have been waving a warning flag.

Decisionmakers are starting to pay attention to that warning flag. As a climate change and gender researcher, my skills and experience are more in demand now than ever. The uptake of interest in how women and marginalised groups experience climate change is rapid and cross sectoral - and this excites me greatly! But what is still largely missing, is genuine partnerships with those marginalised groups living on the frontlines of climate change, in knowledge production, in climate action and in sustainability work.

Development and research are in the midst of a reckoning about where our ideas come from, our processes and even our relevance as institutions in a globalised world. If we don’t disentangle ourselves from top-down, northern led, white led, male led research and policy processes, then the knowledge we gather is likely to perpetuate colonial power imbalances that marginalise and exclude peoples! As Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith told us, “the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary…. it stirs up silence, it conjures up bad memories, it raises a smile that is knowing and distrustful. The ways in which scientific research is implicated in the worst excesses of colonialism remains a powerful remembered history for many of the world’s colonized peoples.”

Every person and researcher, regardless of their background, has subjectivities - it’s human nature. We are conditioned to see things in a certain way, to prioritise certain things, to give space to certain people. This relates to power dynamics, globally and locally, and therefore women and minoritised groups are often excluded from the processes that shape the research and development agenda. And outsiders make lots of assumptions about their lives and their capacities. This just compounds the power dynamics that exclude them, as the knowledge that’s generated is not only, fundamentally biased, but hasn’t engaged their agency and expertise! That is why one of our partners in the DOWN2EARTH project - ActionAid - has implemented ‘Feminist Research Guidelines’ - which are based on the fundamental idea that “Research products are key to bringing about shifts in power that will ensure that women and young people living in poverty and exclusion secure their rights. The research process in and of itself can be a transformative process; since collaboratively reflecting on power is itself an activist pedagogy”.

How are we approaching this in our study on water scarcity and food insecurity under climate change in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somaliland’s drylands?

DOWN2EARTH is, without a doubt a diverse team. We have 14 partners on the consortium, from 8 different countries as well as socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. Being ‘international’ isn’t enough though - we have to acknowledge, openly, that de-colonising and embedding feminist research is not simple or easy. It requires deep reflection on who we are, what kinds of privileges and power we hold as individuals and institutions. It involves the self-work and discomfort of those of us who are advantaged by the system! That is why we set an explicit project Ethos - which calls on us to “constantly self-reflect on how systemic power and inequality impact the current political, economic and development contexts of our project”. Importantly - this means putting the perspectives, expertise and needs of our colleagues and communities in and from Kenya, Ethiopia and Somaliland at the forefront. It means creating safe spaces for all of us to recognise, call out, and address systemic power as it happens. This is all part of research ethics, and safeguarding, which is at the heart of everything we do in DOWN2EARTH. We are learning from the work of African, feminist researchers, as well the Kenyan, Ethiopian and Somali staff in organisations like ActionAid, Addis Ababa University, University of Nairobi, and BBC Media Action, who have partnered with communities across the three countries for many years. Across our institutions situated in the global north we have brilliant East African academics, whose perspectives and expertise are essential to how we engage in the research and the consortium management.

We also recognise the importance of women’s leadership, not only in ensuring project efficiency and quality. We know from the evidence, that when women are equitably involved in climate-related decision making - you often get better policies, better implementation and better environmental outcomes. But also women leaders are critical role models to younger women in research, NGOs and communities. That is why we have a team of women leaders, from various socio-economic, regional and ethnic backgrounds who are critical decisionmakers in this project. But also, our research design explicitly seeks out the voices, agency and leadership of women within the communities. And not just the women who already have power, but those who face the biggest barriers to being heard in day to day life.

And our research methods are fundamentally set up to break away from the status quo of landing a methodology on a community who had nothing to do with it. We are co-designing the methods with women and men and civil society organisations based in the communities where the research is focussed. The research must be relevant, it must be grounded in the realities of their lives, and it must ensure that it can reach the most marginalised within those communities. This requires participation and co-development - absolutely nobody knows the dynamics within a community better than the members themselves! So we have factored in an approach of co-creation, which we aim to include a constant process of self-reflection, be led by the expertise of local people and be empowering for all involved.

And we won’t get it right all the time. It’s a journey to which we are deeply committed, but it’s likely to have some twists and turns! We know where we are headed, but we are going to have to keep a close eye on our progress and correct our mishaps when they happen. We are grateful to our African, our female, our junior, colleagues for going on this journey with us.