How to create a successful global North-South collaboration

Prof Cesar Pulgarin shares steps to setting up successful North-South collaborations – and pitfalls to avoid

By Libby Plummer - July 7, 2021
North-South collaboration in Uganda
Prof César Pulgarin has been involved in many international North-South projects, with the most recent one still ongoing. The Water – Sustainable Point-of-Use Treatment Technologies (WaterSPOUTT) project improves the process of producing drinking water so later volumes of water can be purified as part of a centralized system. Here, project colleagues in Uganda pose with solar reactors with add-on CPC aluminum mirrors, which are used to enhance the disinfection performance for various waterborne pathogens.

Working collaborations and knowledge transfer between the Global North and Global South are highly beneficial for everyone, as outlined in the first story of this series. The concept of the Global North and Global South describes the socioeconomic divide between those countries in the Northern hemisphere and many of those in the Southern hemisphere, though naturally the reality is somewhat more complex.

While the benefits to both the North and South are clear, how exactly do you go about setting up a North-South collaboration?

“The first thing is this: to be interested,” said Dr César Pulgarin, Professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering and honorary member of the Colombian Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences. “You must really want it.”

For this interview, he spoke in Spanish, and his comments have been translated into English.

He suggested that the next step is to attend congresses in the countries you want to collaborate with and seek out the best people to approach in your field.

“Nowadays it’s even easier because one can look through journals on Scopus,” he said. This helps researchers and research leaders search easily for the most prominent people in their field and see the quality of their publications and the impact they have.

The next step is to find the right people to work on the collaboration:

I’d suggest you propose that one of your students from your group or from their group, or both in each direction, come and do a short project, preferably an important one. The students should be the best you have because they will be ambassadors. Preferably they’ll be third- or fourth-year PhD students.

If the experience is successful, then at that moment what you do is try to find funds for a bigger project.

Often these interchanges are reliant on seed money, but for one- or two-year collaborations where more funds are required, North-South inter-university agreements may be the answer. These agreements may also exist between countries. For example, Switzerland has collaborations with Brazil with healthy funding from both sides but with slightly more coming from the North as Brazil is an important market for Switzerland.

There are also development agencies which, while geared towards humanitarian collaboration, often support scientific collaboration projects. In addition, there are institutions that have entire offices dedicated to North-South collaboration.

Another starting point is to seek out the diaspora of people from the South working in the North and vice versa.

How to make your collaborations successful – and pitfalls to avoid

Once the process has begun, what are the key factors for making these collaborations a success? The first fundamental point is the need for clarity to avoid any misunderstandings. As Prof Pulgarin explained:

You need to know what the interests of each and every side are, because there’s nothing worse than starting a collaboration when you start with perceptions, interests and assumptions which are not clearly expressed.

Once the goals have been clarified, an agenda can be drafted that redresses any imbalances. While the majority of funds for these projects usually go to countries in the South because they tend to have less money for research, this does not mean there should be an imbalance in obligations. The next logical step is the clarification of responsibilities.

“What has to be avoided here is a technical division of labor that’s belittling or denigrating,” Prof Pulgarin said.

An important part of the process is avoiding “brain drain,” where researchers from the South end up staying permanently in the North after the collaboration has been completed. “To avoid this, try to send students that already have institutional ties in their country, coming with institutional grants that oblige them to return,” Prof Pulgarin said. “For many years, I handled a very significant collaboration, and of the 100 or 150 people that passed through, hardly any of them went back.”

To address this, Prof Pulgarin and his colleagues provide a range of support to ensure that returning students have as much support as possible to continue their career without having to stay in the North:

I give guidance — some short courses to show colleagues how to handle research groups. I also give courses on the research process itself: how research is performed, from the setting up of the project until its being made public in the form of documents. I give courses with one colleague in particular, on writing scientific documents. I also give consultancy to faculty directors at certain universities. I support the development of national or regional networks.

Networks in the North must be made available to the South during collaborations. This includes access not only to libraries, journals and methodologies but to professional peer networks. Language must also be considered when results are disseminated to the community, as not everybody can speak English.

Making the project sustainable

Once the publication stage has been reached, next comes patenting and technology transfer. Prof Pulgarin explained:

When setting up a project, one has to look at how to graft that project into something that can give it continuity, even after the funding has ended. That project must interest a national or regional institution to move forward.

Prof Pulgarin has himself been involved in many international North-South projects, with the most recent one still ongoing. While Prof Pulgarin was in charge of the scientific work package, the project was coordinated by his colleague Dr Kevin McGuigan, Associate Professor of Medical Physics at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and his post-PhD student Dr Stefanos Giannakis also played a key role.

My team and I have been working for many years on a way of implementing simple systems for purifying drinking water in remote areas where there are no centralized water treatment works. I did a lot of this in Africa and in Colombia. I had students who went to Bolivia, and the last project was in Africa.

WaterSPOUTT project countries
Prof César Pulgarin has led scientific work on the Water – Sustainable Point-of-Use Treatment Technologies (WaterSPOUTT) project, which has involved 18 institutions in 12 nations.

Millions of people around the world use PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles for gathering water. These are filled and left in the sun for around 6 hours to make the water drinkable. The idea behind the Water – Sustainable Point-of-Use Treatment Technologies (WaterSPOUTT) project to produce drinking water was to improve this process so that larger volumes of water could be purified as part of a centralized system.

Water process in Uganda
This is a snapshot of the WaterSPOUTT process in Uganda: retrieving water from a river, transporting it, purifying it in solar rainwater reactors, and educating people how to do it at the SODIS school.

During the project, consideration of social and cultural factors was essential. A larger water container prototype that was developed had to be rigorously tested to replicate the experience of falling off a donkey because these animals are often used to ferry water from wells. The containers also had to be developed with a maximum weight in mind because much of carrying in this particular area of Ethiopia is done by women and children.

The international project included researchers from various countries, including Ireland, Spain, England, Switzerland, Italy, Turkey, Austria, the Netherlands, Malawi, Uganda, Ethiopia and South Africa. It has been a great success, both in terms of educating people to handle the new water purification vessels, and also in terms of productive research, with a number of papers published in several languages.

“This is a nice example of a project with all the components,” Prof Pulgarin said. “It was respectful, everyone was happy, and there was a network of fraternity that was created, which continues today.”

Parting advice

Finally, what advice would Prof Pulgarin give to research leaders or institutions that are considering creating a collaboration between North and South?

Faced with the scale of the world’s problems, it’s about playing one’s part,” he said. “I think this is fundamental.”

He also notes that those from the North must avoid taking on the role of “savior” or “hero” or indulging in any lurking notions of superiority”

Collaboration needs competence, rigor and skills, where charity alone is not enough.


Libby Plummer
Written by

Libby Plummer

Written by

Libby Plummer

Libby Plummer is a freelance journalist and copywriter specializing in tech, science and space. Based in London, Libby has nearly two decades of experience working across a wide array of business and consumer publications in print and online, as well as working in several fast-paced newsrooms.

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