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Blog Post | Science diplomacy from the Global South: New insights, venues for investigation, and lessons learned

Science diplomacy, broadly defined as all activities at the intersection of science and foreign policy, has become a buzzword during the past ten years.

Mainstreamed by US policymakers in the early 2000s, the concept has since found its way into national policy documents and the scholarly literature. So far, much of this literature has focused onthe science diplomacy practices of the Global North while treating the Global South as a science diplomacy target rather than a science diplomacy actor. This also applies to intergovernmental science organizations (IGSOs), through which states fund and govern large science projects. IGSOs constitute an important science diplomacy arena for participating states, including for those from the Global South, because they are often associated with considerable political and scientific prestige. In this blog post, we seek to shed light on the specific challenges and opportunities that IGSOs present for emerging powers of the Global South.

The ramifying science diplomacy literature has only recently started to pay more attention to the Global South, reflecting a broader trend to better describe and understand the diplomatic practices of emerging powers of the Global South such as those of South Africa and Indonesia. In line with this trend, a number of academic outlets have published special issues, scholarly articles, and practitioner perspectives on science diplomacy in, of, and from the Global South. Embedded in different academic fields, these contributions provide new and interesting insights into the topic. Among other things, they shed light on the science diplomacy priorities of individual countries and regions of the Global South, the global history of science diplomacy, as well as the potentials and challenges of Southern science diplomacy in specific policy areas. Overall, the contributions demonstrate that science diplomacy is – and has been – by no means a practice exclusively reserved for the Global North. Rather, they indicate that science diplomacy practices have intensified at a global level as science and technology (re)emerged as salient policy fields for states. Thanks to the increasing focus on the Global South as a science diplomacy actor, we now know that states of the Global South are just as interested and actively engaged in science diplomacy as states of the Global North. At the same time, they experience unique challenges, many of which are grounded in lasting structural inequalities and dependencies between the Global South and North. In the following, we seek to illustrate this argument by drawing on the findings of a study that we recently conducted on Southern participation in IGSOs.

IGSOs as venues for Southern science diplomacy

What are IGSOs and why are they an important science diplomacy arena for countries of the Global South? Like other international organizations, IGSOs are founded on intergovernmental treaties, have executive bodies and a council, in which government and scientific representatives negotiate all matters of fundamental importance to the organization. This includes its funding and instruments as well as the admission of new members. IGSOs offer considerable political and scientific prestige for the countries involved, not least because their research is seen as critical in addressing many pressing global challenges. In addition, IGSOs often cost several billion euros, turning them into a prime venue for science diplomacy, including for emerging powers of the Global South. In recent decades, the latter have joined several existing IGSOs in the Global North and have established new ones such as the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Application in the Middle East (also known as SESAME) in the Global South. To better understand the challenges and opportunities countries of the Global South experience in the process, we analyzed their participation in four different IGSOs: the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the Square Kilometer Array and the African Lightsource Project.

Lessons learned

In our study, we found that IGSOs present both opportunities and challenges for Southern emerging powers. On the one hand, IGSOs allow participating countries of the Global South to pursue a multitude of scientific and political objectives, like strengthening their science and technology capacities, resolving regional political rivalries, overcoming political and scientific isolation as well as re-stablishing a reputation as a trustworthy nuclear power. On the other hand, North-South asymmetries continue to shape IGSOs. For example, in many mature IGSOs, founding members, typically from the Global North, have successfully cemented their institutional rights and privileges. IGSO newcomers, including those from the Global South, often do not receive the same institutional rights and privileges and, as a result, struggle to shape key organizational, political and scientific decisions.

Our analysis revealed that emerging powers of the Global South can mitigate such asymmetries, provided they strengthen their science diplomacy capacities in three respects. First, to get involved in mature IGSOs or to establish new IGSOs, countries need an active and outspoken scientific community that can bolster its reputation in science and technology and lobby local as well as foreign policymakers to support the establishment of or participation in an IGSO. For example, the efforts to build an African lightsource are largely driven by dedicated researchers from African institutions and members of the African diaspora. Second, continuous domestic political support is needed for a state to be considered a committed and trustworthy IGSO member while long-term national contributions, in-cash and in-kind, are valuable bargaining chips that can be used in the diplomatic negotiations which precede the establishment of an IGSO. Where political support for an IGSO is lacking and contributions fail to materialize, IGSO partners may quickly fall into disgrace. In case of ITER, for example, the USA’s and India’s unwillingness or inability to contribute their in-cash contributions to the IGSO led to frustration among the remaining ITER partners. Third, to take on substantial contracts for the large infrastructures that many IGSOs rely on, countries either need strong industrial capacities, particularly in cutting-edge technologies, or have to be willing to build these up. Given that many countries of the Global South face more acute political, economic and human resource constraints than countries of the Global North, it could prove useful for them to invest strategically into the science diplomacy capacities that are needed for IGSOs. In practice, this may mean that countries of the Global South have to prioritize support for research communities and areas that are of high interest to them or in which they possess a competitive advantage. In the long run, this makes it more likely that they can meet the political and economic commitments made to an IGSO.

Going forward, additional studies with an explicit focus on the Global South are needed to fully capture the global nature, history as well as use of science diplomacy and, ultimately, to make this particular field of study more inclusive and diverse. 

Anna-Lena Rüland, PhD researcher at Leiden University

Nicolas Rüffin, Research fellow at the University of Bonn

Katharina Cramer, Senior fellow at the University of Bonn

Prosper Ngabonziza, Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University

Manoj Saxena, Visiting researcher at King’s College London

Stefan Skupien, Visiting researcher at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center


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