In recent times, there has been growing recognition of South-South migration flows and their potential for reducing inequalities and achieving sustainable development in the Global South. In line with this, several calls are being made for a ‘narrative change’ in our understanding of migration and in particular South-South migration. These recent calls make several normative claims and assumptions about knowledge and its production. These normative assumptions are often embedded in historical antecedents. Historical framings are therefore often important in explaining how knowledge is produced, constructed and used, whose concerns and interests they may serve and why. In this blog, we interrogate the significance of the historical framing of knowledge on South–South migration and how by remaining steeped in asymmetrical relations of power, this has marginalised knowledge production from the Global South and Africa in particular. We urge the need to decolonise knowledge production to change the knowledge dynamics in and from the Global South. Although the discussion will focus on the African context, many of the issues may broadly be applied to the Global South in general.

Colonial legacies and inequalities in knowledge production

Migration and mobility have always been a part of life and livelihoods in the Global South and in Africa in particular. Despite evidence on the dominance of South-South and circular mobility flows in the Global South, South – North flows have been the focus of attention in the migration discourse until recently. When did migration to the Global North and the dominance of Global North perspectives become significant? How might this be interrogated, explained and changed?

Several authors have argued that global knowledge inequalities and the Global North’s dominance has historical antecedents. Thus the global knowledge economy is still marked by its history. In the case of Africa, colonial rule and its legacy played a major part in the dominance of Global North perspectives and in knowledge production in migration studies and the social sciences. Before colonialism, Africa and many parts of the Global South had their own way of producing, developing, recording and using knowledge. Thus their knowledge systems were often based on their own environmental, geographical, historical and health knowledge systems. European colonisers therefore met advanced and complex knowledge systems in Africa, many of which were often ignored.

This colonial legacy also plays out in the ways in which knowledge is constructed, produced and consumed. Methodologies, theoretical and conceptual approaches used in knowledge production in migration studies are largely developed in the Global North and often are Western and Eurocentric. Their application to contexts within the Global South may sometimes be difficult. Furthermore, traditional methodologies developed in the Global South such as oral histories and other indigenous knowledge systems may not be documented in a westernised format and archived for libraries. Therefore they may not be easily accessible in the Global North. Moreover, what passes as acceptable forms of theorising is also seen from a western lens. Reliance on publication resources such as journals and books produced in the Global North preserves the dominance of Eurocentric theoretical and conceptual approaches. The dependence on the Global North for funding for research and the way this reflects the interests of the funders further perpetuates the dominance of Global North perspectives.

We posit that with the recent shift in interest to South-South migration, care must be taken to ensure that knowledge production does not relegate the concerns and interests of the Global South to those of the Global North. This would maintain the status quo, with a continued focus on the current dominant narratives which see migration as “a problem to be solved”.

Decolonising knowledge production in the Global South

What must be done to enable a different focus within the Global South, which is not pushed to mirror the concerns of the North, and works in favour of the migrants in the Global South?

To counter the dependence of the Global South on funding sources from the Global North, institutions in the Global South need to prioritise more funding from within themselves for research which is southern centred. Some countries and institutions in the Global South are already showing the way. For example, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), based in Dakar, Senegal and whose core mandate is to promote social science research that is relevant for the African context has a training, grants and fellowship program which focuses on among others building the capacity of young and middle level academics in Africa. This includes a South-South scholarships programme. Some universities in Africa such as in Ghana and South Africa have set up their own grants programme. The University of Ghana for example has a small grants programme supported from the University of Ghana Research Fund (UGRF), which is funded through the university’s internally generated funds and are considered as “seed funding” to enable faculty to leverage additional or larger international grants.

In addition, there is also a need for a re-evaluation of what knowledge is, how it is produced and how appropriate it is for addressing the concerns of the Global South. We need to open out and look at other forms of knowledge production and various forms of theorising that take on board the perspectives and the context of the Global South e.g. oral histories, indigenous knowledge systems and the creative arts.

A re-evaluation of some of the dominant migration theories within the context of South-South migration is crucial for decolonising knowledge production. Migration should be seen as an intrinsic part of broader processes of social transformation in the Global South and not as a problem to be solved. Theoretical and conceptual approaches that theorise migration as part of social transformation are likely to be more appropriate for examining the issues and concerns of the Global South. A social transformation framework gives scholars the opportunity to study migration in the Global South as a change process on one hand as well as a driver of change on the other hand. This approach moves us beyond the current focus on borders to a more intricate and dynamic form of migration.

Publishing is a crucial part of knowledge production and dissemination and an established indicator for capacity and innovation measurement in academia. With most of the publishing houses and journals based in the Global North, the focus on publications further perpetuates Western, Eurocentric dominance. Decolonising knowledge production in migration studies will require more publications in journals based in the Global South to give a better opportunity to African scholars to publish beyond the established channels. Many universities in Africa have started or re-started their own publication series. Furthermore, organisations such as CODESRIA in Dakar, and OSSREA in Addis Ababa provide opportunities for publication outlets in the Global South and also circulate publications to a global network that privileges under-represented academic voices.

Changing knowledge dynamics in and from the Global South

The dominance and influence in knowledge production from the Global North is not left uncontested by scholars in the Global South. Knowledge production is increasingly being negotiated and innovative ways of increasing participation in knowledge production by countries in the Global South are being devised. For example, by creating local research programmes in the Global South, established research centres address local problems in the Global South in distinctive ways. In this regard, Egypt, South Africa and Ghana have led the way in establishing migration research centres. The Centre for Migration Studies at the University of Ghana, for example, since its inception in 2006 has blazed the trail in Africa. The centre focuses on South-South and intra-regional migration in Africa through its research, teaching, capacity building and policy development programmes, thus promoting the scope for re-structuring global knowledge production from the Global South.

Several research projects implemented from the Global North such as MIDEQ and MOOP provide a platform to connect researchers from the North and South. These projects are especially beneficial for changing the dynamics of knowledge production in the Global South. These changes show that the structure of the global economy of knowledge is not static.

Highlighting marginalised voices from the Global South

The dominance of the Global North in knowledge production, specifically on Africa and more broadly the Global South, remains characterised by asymmetrical relations of power, which are ‘historically determined’, with their origins in colonial relations . Yet there are also rapid changes in Africa’s knowledge environment, which may position Africa and the Global South in general as prominent producers of knowledge and innovations.

These have led to calls for the decolonisation of knowledge production and for a fundamental reorientation of epistemological and methodological approaches to change the dominant Western and Eurocentric paradigms and towards a shift to developing ‘ecologies of knowledge” and ‘epistemologies of the South’. This will generate endogenous knowledge that highlights marginalised perspectives and voices from the Global South. The story is therefore not one simply of northern dominance, but also a process of promoting the scope for re-structuring knowledge production from the Global South.