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It’s that Time of the Year Again: International Conferences and the Struggles of Researchers from Low- and Middle-Income Countries – even when based in the Global North

It’s that Time of the Year Again: International Conferences and the Struggles of Researchers from Low- and Middle-Income Countries – even when based in the Global North

Introduction

In the realm of global health research, international conferences serve as vital platforms for sharing knowledge, fostering collaborations, and driving impactful change. However, behind the scenes, a stark reality persists for researchers from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). They face numerous challenges and inequalities when it comes to attending and participating at these conferences, even when based in the Global North. In this blog post, we will shed light on the hardships and inequalities faced by LMIC researchers, using the cases of Carlos Rojas and Phuong Tran as examples, while addressing broader issues of mobility, funding, and visa policies. After addressing a few ‘elephants in the room’, we then offer an equitable way forward for conference participation in this era.

The Promise and Struggle of Mobility

As global health researchers, our journeys have taken us from countries like Vietnam, Uganda, and Nicaragua/Argentina to high-income nations such as Belgium, Sweden, and the UK. Our experience reflects the complex reality of researchers from LMICs seeking to make a contribution in our respective areas on the international arena. The allure of mobility holds the promise of enriching perspectives, fostering global collaborations, and driving impactful research. However, the challenges that accompany such mobility are often overlooked.

Funding Disparities and Inequality

Carlos, having recently moved to a Global North country from the Global South, epitomizes some of the struggles faced by LMIC researchers. Despite being invited to present his valuable study at the renowned IHEA World Congress on Health Economics taking place in Cape Town, South Africa in July this year, he finds himself financially constrained. His previous institution in the Global South cannot fund his travel since he is no longer working there, while his new institution in the Global North does not support him either, given that the work was not conducted here. While IHEA has generously agreed to fund his accommodation during the conference, the biggest expense, the roundtrip flight tickets, remains his own responsibility. Consequently, he must shoulder the majority of the financial burden for his trip, further exacerbating the challenges he already encountered recently as he relocated to the Global North for his new role.

It is important to recognize that financial constraints disproportionately impact LMIC researchers including those based in high-income countries – especially early career ones – and significantly limit their representation and voices at these important conferences.

Visa and Immigration Policies

The challenges faced by LMIC researchers extend beyond funding, however. Visa and immigration policies pose significant barriers, often impeding their ability to participate in international conferences (see previous video, blog, news article, research and discussion on this issue).

Phuong, currently a PhD student based in the Global North with a passport from the Global South, has faced several challenging weeks while gathering the required documents for her visa application. The process has involved obtaining an invitation letter, a confirmation of funding, a police certificate of good conduct from the local Town Hall accompanied by an official English translation, bank statements for the previous three months, flight and accommodation bookings, a letter of approval from her current supervisor, among other requirements. Not only does applying for a visa come with an administrative cost, but the cost of obtaining all the necessary documents and traveling to the consulate in the capital city also adds to the financial burden. To top it off, Phuong is constantly on edge, as she is expected to receive her passport with the granted visa a mere three days before her scheduled travel date.

Obtaining visas can be costly, time-consuming, and subject to strict requirements, making it difficult for researchers from LMICs (even if temporarily based in the Global North) to attend conferences hosted in countries with restrictive immigration policies. This further perpetuates the disparities and limits the diversity of voices and perspectives at these events.

In stark contrast, researchers from high-income countries and the Global North often enjoy the privilege of not needing to apply for visas or any types of “background checks” to travel to most other countries. They are able to bypass the tedious and often discriminatory visa application process altogether. This unequal treatment creates an inherent advantage for researchers from high-income countries, as they can freely participate in conferences without facing the additional financial burdens and bureaucratic obstacles that hinder their LMIC counterparts. Such disparities reinforce the existing power dynamics and limit the representation of diverse perspectives in international dialogues.

A Call for Change

To address these challenges, a collective effort is needed. Funding agencies, institutions, and conference organizers must work together to establish mechanisms that promote equal access and representation for LMIC researchers. This includes providing financial support for travel and visa expenses, fostering mentorship programs, and actively encouraging diversity in conference panels and keynote speeches.

Additionally, addressing this disparity requires a concerted effort to reform visa and immigration policies, advocating for fair and accessible procedures that do not discriminate based on nationality or country of origin. It is crucial to advocate for reforms in visa and immigration policies to enable an easier, smoother, and inclusive visa process for LMIC researchers. This can be achieved by streamlining visa application processes, implementing expedited visa processing, considering waiving or reducing visa application fees, fostering collaboration with embassies and consulates, and advocating for inclusive immigration policies at the national and international levels. Promoting inclusivity means recognizing the value of contributions from researchers across the globe and dismantling barriers that hinder their participation. By creating a level playing field, we can foster a truly equitable and diverse global health research community, where voices from LMICs are not stifled.

Addressing an Elephant in the Room: Reflections on Positionality and Intersectionality

As global health researchers hailing from the Global South but currently based in the Global North, we find ourselves occupying a complex space of intersectionality and positionality. While we acknowledge the injustices and challenges faced by LMIC researchers in terms of mobility, funding, and visa issues when attending conferences, and suffer from them ourselves (see above), it is crucial to situate our experiences within a broader global context. We need to acknowledge our own privilege to have access to educational opportunities that enable us to work in the field of global health, as well as the opportunity to travel for conferences. We must also be mindful of the many people facing migration and asylum difficulties (or worse), when we come to talk about the discriminatory process of visa applications for LMIC researchers. Finally, we must acknowledge that even within the Global North, there are (more and more) individuals experiencing precarious living conditions. By acknowledging the nuances of privilege and injustice, we can better advocate for meaningful change and strive towards a more equitable and inclusive academic landscape.

Furthermore, it is important to critically examine the “global academic elite system” that perpetuates inequality, particularly for LMIC researchers. This global academic elite system often favors (established) researchers from high-income countries, reinforcing existing power imbalances and limiting opportunities for LMIC researchers to contribute their valuable perspectives and expertise. By actively questioning and challenging this system and promoting collaborative partnerships, we can strive towards creating a more inclusive and equitable research environment that amplifies the voices and experiences of researchers from diverse backgrounds.

Another Elephant in the Room: Reflections on Conference Travel in the Era of Climate Crisis

In our unwavering support for dismantling barriers that hinder LMIC researchers’ participation in international conferences, it is imperative to address the pressing issue of the climate crisis. As we strive for increased mobility and opportunities, we must also recognize the environmental impact associated with extensive travel. It is essential to approach this challenge with a mindful perspective, considering sustainable alternatives and incorporating climate-conscious practices into our academic endeavors. By promoting responsible conference attendance and exploring innovative solutions such as virtual participation, we can reconcile our commitment to inclusivity with the urgent need to protect our planet.

We may also advocate for a form of “rationing” throughout a researcher’s career. For instance, younger researchers could be granted the opportunity to attend one conference per year (i.e requiring one long distance flight), acknowledging the importance of knowledge dissemination and professional development. In contrast, established researchers who have already attended numerous conferences could (and perhaps should) prioritize virtual participation through hybrid models, such as online presentations and discussions. This approach seeks to strike a balance between the necessity of conference engagement for career advancement and the imperative to reduce carbon emissions and ecological impact.

Conclusion

The plight of researchers from LMICs in international conferences highlights systemic injustices that must be confronted and rectified. It is time to address the disparities and bridge the gap, ensuring that all voices, regardless of geographic origin, are given an equal opportunity to contribute and shape the global health research agenda. Only through inclusive and equitable participation can we truly achieve impactful and transformative outcomes in the field of global health.

As authors of this blog post, we wholeheartedly recognize and acknowledge our positionality and privilege as LMIC researchers based in high-income countries. We are also deeply aware of the urgent climate crisis and its implications. Our intention in writing this blog post is not to advocate for an increase in international conferences, but rather to emphasize the importance of equal opportunities in accessing and participating in these conferences. We aim to contribute to the ongoing dialogue surrounding this topic by offering a fresh perspective from the standpoint of Global South researchers in the Global North. By shedding light on these nuanced perspectives, we hope to enrich the conversation and promote meaningful change in the field.

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1 comments
Ikenna Ebiri-Okoro says:

Well written! Food for deep thought!!