03 February 2014

Strengthening the research capacity of recipient countries has been the cornerstone of Sarec, the Swedish Agency for Research Cooperation with Developing Countries, but the approach to knowledge and development has swung back and forth between the local and the global perspective.

“Research aid has been characterised by both continuity and major tensions between different approaches and interests,” says Veronica Brodén Gyberg, researcher at Linköping University.

Her doctoral thesis was a historical study of the thinking behind Swedish policy on research aid and Sarec.

Sarec was viewed internationally as one of the pioneers of state research aid, operating between 1975 and 2008.

“It was a boundary organisation which had to operate in relation to both aid and research policy, whose goals do not always coincide. In aid policy, development and the fight against poverty receive the highest priority, while research policy prioritises scientific excellence, often with a relevance to Swedish needs,” Ms Gyberg says.

Constant negotiation

For Sarec this involves constant balancing and negotiation between the interests of the two political fields. How scientific excellence might be combined with benefit, and what kind of benefit, was a recurrent question.

Ms Gyberg maintains that ever since the beginning of Sarec there have been two dominant ways of looking at the relationship between research and development.

One is a universalist discourse which posits that scientific knowledge is the same wherever it is produced. For example, supporting the research of international organisations is seen as an effective contribution to development as the results may be applied everywhere.

Solving problem locally

The other is a localist discourse which stresses the importance of the local context and of defining and solving a problem locally. According to this approach, measures that strengthen the research capacity of the recipient country should be prioritised.

“The work of Sarec reflected both these approaches to knowledge and development, and was additionally influenced by both international and Swedish trends in the debate about aid and research. Emancipatory and anti-colonialist thinking had a strong influence, but at times there was a shift towards more universalist discourse,” explains Ms Gyberg, who analysed documents such as annual reports and evaluations, and also interviewed former directors.