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Teaming Up with the Global South

The “Mecila” research center in São Paulo explains how transnational research can benefit from partnerships – especially during a pandemic

Jan 06, 2021

South America in focus. Rio de Janeiro’s Rocinha favela.

South America in focus. Rio de Janeiro’s Rocinha favela.
Image Credit: Picture Alliance / Westend61

It’s a bitter-sweet moment. At the end of 2019, the Maria Sibylla Merian Center Conviviality-Inequality in Latin America, which is run in São Paulo by a partnership of four Latin American and three German institutions and coordinated by Freie Universität, received a positive evaluation. In normal times, this would mean that the project partners at “Mecila,” as it is known, could happily embark on the six-year central phase of their interdisciplinary projects.

Scaled-Down Research and Lots of Questions

But these are not normal times. Since its foundation in 2017, Mecila has built its highly successful research program on a range of formats that are now unavailable or only possible online. Yet in its wake, the pandemic has also raised new, urgent questions, which humanities and social sciences researchers working in the “Global South” are particularly well equipped to answer, says Sérgio Costa, a professor of sociology at Freie Universität’s Institute for Latin American Studies and one of Mecila’s spokespersons – questions, for example, about our changing attitudes to death and illness, and how those changes in turn have impacted politics and democracies. Researchers in the “Global South” can also offer insights into behaviors of governments who expose their populations to danger and disease, and the effect this has on people’s trust in political structures.

The Merian Centers in Brazil, Ghana, India, Tunisia, and Mexico, which are funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, are special precisely because their researchers are based “on the ground” in the Global South. “In Europe, communities of people with diverse cultural or religious backgrounds are often seen as something new,” explains Sérgio Costa. “But in Latin America and the Caribbean, this is something that’s been on the political and intellectual agenda for centuries.” In South America, Costa continues, living in diverse societies has allowed for the development of analytical concepts and theories that are still often overlooked in European research.

Missing Out – Without Even Knowing It

“We’re missing out on a wealth of experience, knowledge, tradition, and intellectual reflection, and we don’t even know it,” says Costa. “At the five Merian Centers, we can pinpoint what we need to know and target our research to ideas that have hitherto been neglected in European academic discourse.” Susanne Klengel, a professor for South American literatures and cultures at the Institute for Latin American Studies and another spokesperson for Mecila, notes that even at a very early stage, it soon became clear that the academic exchange with South American researchers would be beneficial: “Research in Germany can profit enormously from the perspectives of the Global South. If we didn’t know it already, the pandemic has proved that the world is globalized – politically, medically, and economically. And global problems need global solutions.”

In the initial phase of their funding, each Merian Center identified the central topics that would guide their research strategies in the years ahead. At Mecila, researchers were planning to investigate how discrimination based on people’s physical characteristics or heritage – such as skin color or being from an indigenous community – affects how people live together and issues of social inequality.

Digital Fellowships and Virtual Reading Rooms

Travel and personal meetings are hardly possible at the moment. To enable four junior and five senior fellows to start their research projects at Mecila as planned, their fellowships have gone digital. The other Merian Centers in New Delhi, Accra, Guadalajara, and Tunis have adopted a similar strategy.

Dr. Jörg Klenk, a literature specialist and Mecila’s academic coordinator since earlier this year, still hasn’t met his colleagues in São Paulo in person, even though he sees them most days online. But he has noticed that the crisis has served to highlight the strengths of the international consortium. “Our Fellows are grateful for the research infrastructure that our seven partner institutions have put in place. Some of them were unable to continue researching at their home institution during lockdown. But at Mecila they have access to a virtual reading room and our archives. They can take part in online colloquia and other events.”

Staying Close When You’re Far Away

Sérgio Costa notes, “The fact that as many as 40 of us can meet up online with other researchers across the world from any number of disciplines is just amazing.” Susanne Klengel confirms this view: “The pandemic also means that we now have a common experience that we share. Everyone now knows what it feels like to be in lockdown, and everyone looks very much the same in a mask. We’ve come closer together despite our physical distance – because we know that across all the Merian Centers, we share a common, global task.”

This text originally appeared in German on December 5, 2020, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.