Third World posers for Northern donors

NORTHERN donors are being forced to rethink their basics after the Rio conference. Prominent among these are the Swedish Agency for Research Cooperation with developing countries (SAREC) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), both of whom fund research projects in the developing world. Before they can get on with developing and supporting research programmes to solve natural resource management problems in the Third World, they must first answer such apparently simple questions as What is research? and Who is a researcher?

At a recent SAREC workshop on "People's Participation in Natural Resource Management", held in Stockholm, participants stressed Third World communities best understood their own environment. The only role an external researcher could play, they concluded, was to assist rural communities to articulate their solutions, and help them organise themselves to control their environment, but would this be considered legitimate research, qualifying an academic for a Ph.D.? What international journal would publish such research? And could this research not be done by NGOs or villagers, rather than only academics?

These questions are vital for SAREC and IDRC, in particular for SAREC's new director-general, Anders Wijkman, who organised the Stockholm workshop and is keen to push ahead in environmentally-sensitive directions, but must convince his prestigious board about its worth. Wijkman, who gave up a promising political career to work on humanitarian and environmental issues, was till recently executive director of the Swedish Society for the Conservation of Nature, an NGO that has as members nearly five per cent of the country's households.

Northern donors who fund research in the South are few, though such research is critical for building up endogenous problem-solving capacities. However, even SAREC- and IDRC-funded Southern institutions have tended to neglect research on problems at the grassroots level, which is why the need has been felt to provide more research funds for participatory approaches to natural resource management. But now the dilemma is how much money should be spent on such research. With the IMF breathing down heavily on most Third World governments, research budgets are already being slashed. Should they be cut even more?