How international conferences fail scholars from the global South
Debangana Chatterjee outlines the ways international conferences exclude researchers from the global South and perpetuate colonial knowledge divides
The steps for an international studies scholar to attend a major international conference are ostensibly straightforward. They begin with a robust abstract and acceptance into a world-renowned conference programme. While for some in academia the struggle ends here, for many this is only the beginning.
The process of accessing academic conferences is a convoluted maze, especially for scholars from the global South from marginalized backgrounds. While my positionality as a south Asian woman scholar gives me standing to speak on these challenges, I am also among the few who were able to pursue an academic career at leading research institutions in my country, India. As such, my perspective is inherently limited, and I do not claim to fully address the complex dynamics of gender, caste and race which demand detailed attention. This said, below I outline some of the main barriers to attending international academic conferences faced by global South scholars, as well as the difficulties experienced by those able to attend.
Barriers to attendance
The foremost challenge is posed by geographical inaccessibility. Indeed, the predominantly western locations of most major international conferences are themselves a source of coloniality. In recent years, affirmative action has been offered to support scholars from the global South and to mitigate the representation gap that distance creates. Yet, these measures have been only partially successful, and the crippling long-term effects of the pandemic in higher education have created further setbacks.
One key barrier is the difficulty in procuring funds — the bulk of which go into covering travel expenditure for in-person conferences. Conference financing at global South universities is often difficult to obtain, with applications frequently buried in paperwork with few results. While some conferences do provide travel grants or bursaries to accommodate scholars from the global South, they usually cover no more than 25 per cent of travel expenditure. These costs have also escalated post-pandemic, with steep rises in aviation charges not reflected in funding levels. Furthermore, most of these funds are restricted to graduate students. While understandable, this leaves early career researchers who are yet to find their feet as academic professionals and often financially strained with little access to financial support.
A further issue is the often hefty registration fees. While there are some discounted rates for global South scholars, they are certainly not ‘discounted’ enough. For example, my registration for a recent conference under a global South Member category cost me about INR 15,000 (about 187 USD). While this may be manageable for some, the recent heavy fall in the value of the rupee and the fact that I earn my salary in INR makes this almost a third of my monthly wages. A feasible workaround would be to set fees for international conferences with the dynamics of international currencies and income disparities in mind.
Of course, losses have been incurred by international academic bodies due to COVID-19. However, if conference organizers genuinely want to make their events accessible, they need to extend funding to early career researchers from the global South and provide discounted registration rates rather than allowing the current downturn to entrench existing inequalities.
Finally, we need to address the elephant in the room: namely, the degrading and disruptive impact of the visa regimes of states in the global North. Even when we manage to gather the required finances by breaking into personal savings and contingency funds, we are still left uncertain as to whether our visa applications will be accepted. Being at the mercy of notoriously highhanded western visa regimes is humiliating, to say the least. Even after sincerely providing proof of conference attendance, visa applications hang in the balance, dependent on convincing visa authorities of the ‘genuineness’ of our intent to return. This is no exaggeration! This was exactly the reason cited when, in 2019, my Canadian visa was declined for the first time. A fellow scholar from India was thrice declined a Canadian visa and the next year, due to these rejections, had his US visa application rejected. Organizers, need to step in to ensure the dignified treatment of all participants during visa processing by liaising with authorities.
Exclusion at conferences
Unfortunately, the headaches do not end once one can finally attend. For example, while a boom in virtual conferences has eased some of the issues related to access, online participation hardly provides the same wholesome conference experience, especially when it comes to networking. The idea that virtual attendance is ‘better than nothing’ is frequently applied to scholars from the global South attending academic conferences. This misses the fact that conferences are about more than participation. They also provide global South scholars access to other leading scholars as well as networking opportunities and exposure, all of which are limited when confined to virtual attendance.
Even when able to attend in person, networking itself can be a challenge for global South scholars, who often do not share the same sense of belonging in spaces that remain dominated by participants from the global North. This is reinforced by the long-term effects of only being able to attend intermittently, which further push global South scholars to the fringes. Networks built over previous conferences must be painstakingly re-established when conference attendance is disrupted by structural barriers.
This is compounded by the fact that the programmes of major IR conferences have featured glaring gaps in global South representation. Even when there are names from this part of the world, few are based in universities in the global South and, of these, most are based at a small handful of elite institutions which are accessible only to a select few. Thus, the process of ‘decolonizing’ thought is limited to an academic endeavour without meaningfully including or representing scholars from the global South.
Finally, while conferences are often framed as robust peer-review exercises, what lies after is the daunting, and at times intimidating, task of academic publishing. For scholars based in the global South, the process of writing and publishing can require more personalized attention which the big conferences often fail to provide. This is particularly true for those not writing in English as a first language who face overlapping linguistic discrimination alongside the hurdles mentioned above.
While conversations around inclusivity at international conferences have gathered steam, the shackles of coloniality are far from broken. Existing systems may be in place for a reason, but there is an urgent need for substantial improvements which have the potential to bolster the careers of aspiring scholars from the global South. Only by addressing the barriers to entry and the exclusion at conferences can organization begin to genuinely expand access to scholars from the global South.
Debangana Chatterjee is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Research in Social Sciences and Education (CeRSSE), JAIN (Deemed-to-be University).
The Inclusive IR blog series aims to provide a forum for discussing the multiple structural exclusions that exist within IR academia and policy-making as well as actions that can be taken to remove, challenge and address them.
If you are interested in contributing to the series you can contact the IA team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All views expressed are individual, not institutional.