The Role of Partnerships to Shift Power Asymmetries in Research with Vulnerable Communities: Reflections from an Early Childhood Development Project in South Africa

Publication Name

Journal of Cognition and Development


The majority of the world’s children live in low- and middle-income countries, yet the majority of early childhood cognitive research is done with a small proportion of high-income countries. These findings cannot be assumed to apply across all contexts. It is therefore necessary to confront entrenched systems of power and privilege in early childhood cognitive development research as they relate to researchers and vulnerable communities. South Africa (SA) is a previously colonized, Majority World country with a history of white supremacy and racial segregation. Although early cognitive development is a growing field of research in SA, power and privilege in this field of research are yet to be properly considered. Within SA’s unique context, we highlight the valuable role of partnerships in shifting power asymmetries; in our case, between early cognitive development researchers and a community-based organization with a 50-year history of working in vulnerable communities to promote young children’s development. Our work together thus far has largely focused on executive function and numeracy skills (inspired by Minority World country research) in vulnerable SA children. We reflect on the authors’ positionality, the intersectionality of privilege where relevant, and discuss three themes: the assessment of young children’s development in vulnerable SA settings; formation of a more equitable partnership with individuals and communities whose voices are not often heard in this research; and translation and dissemination of research findings. We include recommendations for researchers to help with decolonizing early cognitive development research in order to add value to research from diverse settings.

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