By Peter-Paul Bänziger (University of Basel)

In a 2017 interview, Tuğrul Erbaydar, a physician and founding member of AİDS Savaşım Derneği (Association for the Fight against AIDS), explored the history of AIDS and HIV in 1990s Turkey. Among other things, he stated:

Another parallel development – and this may be very important for your research interest – was the emergence of EU-funded projects with large budgets that took over the societal work on AIDS in Turkey. […] Personally, I am convinced that such large projects cause great harm. […] At the head of these and similar organizations are academics with a scientific perspective or teams that earn their living exclusively through the acquisition of projects. So they are institutions that look in detail at the areas in which the EU is tendering projects with large budgets—if they are AIDS projects one year, they work in the AIDS area. If, however, the WHO or the World Bank announce a financially substantial fund in the area of literacy, then they take care of reading and writing. So they work in line with opportunities for projects – and those are always big projects. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s a project professionalism that comes with it. I always think that making project funds available is also a manipulation mechanism. […] Nobody can manipulate a whole country with three thousand dollars. But with 250,000 euros you can very well manipulate. […] For example, one of the conditions is that there are partnerships. Pro forma, it’s about cooperation. But that is a lie. It says, “You shouldn’t do anything on your own.” Because if you get something done on your own, you’re liberating yourself. And liberation is not the purpose. The purpose is that you bind yourself to the EU. In this context, the actions of the European Union come across as a kind of imperialism. […] What has emerged from all these project partnerships? Do we have stronger relationships in our scientific networks? No.[i]

The research interests mentioned by Erbaydar are the research project Disentangling European HIV/AIDS Policies: Activism, Citizenship, and Health (EUROPACH), funded by Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA), which I was involved in leading between 2016 and 2020. Focusing on AIDS and HIV, we asked about the connections between health and citizenship and the role that social movements played in this. The project was based on five case studies on Turkey, Poland, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European level, with the latter two subprojects focusing on prisons and blood transfusion. With this geographic and thematic focus, we sought to decenter the gay movement and Western European “model cases” or “best practices” as widespread structural principles of narratives about the history and present of AIDS and HIV in Europe. Instead, we wanted to know to what extent an European space of action and experience has emerged over the past four decades, especially in this area, the diversity and contradictions of which can provide the basis for future health policies that include rather than exclude.[ii]

We thus made an explicit effort to break the Western European discourse imperialism that resonates in terms such as model case or best practice. However, it must be discussed to what extent EUROPACH and similar research projects were, from a structural point of view, one of the more or less large EU projects Erbaydar mentioned. This concerns, first of all, his criticism of the partnerships. Like other funding institutions, HERA places great emphasis on collaboration with non-academic organisations and individuals, the so-called Associated Partners (APs). What the relationships between researchers and APs look like varies from case to case. But there is no denying that the latter rarely play much more than an outsider role.

In-depth collaboration is hampered, first, by divergent interests. The scientific perspective, which includes not least the career strategies of the individual researchers, is contrasted by the strong practical orientation of many APs. In this respect, however, the collaboration with our partners in Turkey also provided a counterexample: by publishing their stories, most of them explicitly refraining from anonymisation, they intervened in the political struggle over how to interpret the past and present of health policy in Turkey, a struggle they fought above all against the current government.

Second, the different time horizons are particularly significant. A major problem is the short-term nature of research associated with project funding. It not only makes for numerous project corpses on the Internet: discontinued blogs and other sites, many of which are aimed at a broader audience. It also hardly ever corresponds to the APs’ way of working, which is often much more long-term, but sometimes also much more short-term, than the scientific one. The fact that we have not been able to announce the publication of the Turkish-language version of the book in which the conversation with Erbaydar is printed is a direct consequence of these circumstances: the APs’ priorities, which change at short notice due to the political situation in Turkey, as well as the short duration of our project. Even if there had been money left, HERA guidelines would not have allowed it to be used beyond the end of the Uses of the Past program (2016–2019). The researchers, in turn, lacked the material and time resources to continue working on their own. As it stands today, the hope that a publication will nonetheless occur is due to the resources and persistence of the APs.

The short-term nature of the project also makes cooperation within the academic team itself difficult. Already quite some time before the end of the project, the employees start to worry about their financial future; personnel changes are the rule rather than the exception. Joint products are shelved in favor of individual publications, and it is hardly possible to maintain the network over the long run. At the same time, there are more and more researchers who earn their living by working on projects. For those who submit these projects, there is a moral pressure to care for the collaborators. Where this is taken seriously, it complements the increasing institutional demands to raise as much third-party funding as possible. Employees and project leaders alike are thus caught in the project professionalism mentioned by Erbaydar: one conducts research on topics for which there is money, and not necessarily on those for which one feels most competent, most interested, or which one considers a priority. Undoubtedly, synergies arise when many are doing research in the same field. But at the same time, it becomes more difficult to conduct long-term (basic) research – especially where the relationship between basic funding and third-party funding becomes skewed. Switzerland is one of the inglorious frontrunners in this respect.

Project professionalism also includes knowing how to formulate applications. Funding decisions follow trends. Professional project developers know how to make successful use of this. This is one of the reasons why a certain tendency towards a uniformity of projects can be observed at European and national levels, which is not limited to the now almost obligatory acronym (EUROPACH). Apart from the thematic specifications and the progressive enforcement of English, this affects the structure (the formulation of four to five “research axes,” for example), the writing style (the constant emphasis on novelty), the references (prominence instead of relevance), the public and application orientation of basic research, and sometimes even the methodology.

I remember how a few years ago there was a rumor that at the European level those projects with at least partially quantitative methodology had a better chance. Even though this is by no means true for all projects in which I was or am involved, such rumors contribute to a certain streamlining. Until lottery procedures are introduced for all those applications that meet minimal requirements, nothing will change regarding these problematic issues.

Major structural problems with which work in the eventually funded projects is faced are a more or less direct consequence of this situation. Due to the short-term nature and the obligation for continuous public relations and – usually annual – reporting, there is significant pressure to publish research data (too) early and to court the attention of the broader public with preliminary results. The formation of research teams and scientific work suffer from this.

At the same time, the enforcement of English – in addition to the epistemological problems addressed in Peter Moser’s blog post – leads to a double exclusion of all those who cannot express themselves fluently in this language. First, they have less chance of getting a job, if they apply at all; and second, they risk being marginalised within project teams. Even in our project, fluency in Arabic, Kurdish, Polish, or Turkish, which was essential for achieving the project goals, was often less important than fluency in English. At the same time, a special labor market has emerged for writing applications as well as for coordinating successful projects, in which people with English as their first language have clear advantages (which, of course, says nothing about their scientific qualities).

Thanks to computer-assisted translation capabilities, the language problem is likely to become less important for text production in the foreseeable future. However, even if the industry promises us a future in which coding skills are more important than language skills –no t to mention the new exclusions that come with it – this is unlikely to be the case in an oral context. There is no question that a common language is needed in everyday project work. It is not here that I see the core of the problem, but in the fact that there is a lack of experience and strategies at all levels to deal productively with this situation.

In the past decades, there has been much debate and research on exclusionary practices. Important impulses came from the Anglophone world. Not least, there has also been for some time a debate there about the exclusionary character of academic and other sociolects, but hardly about comparable effects of English as such (see also Christian De Vito’s blog post on this). We can all help in the search for solutions. Above all, however, the (European) funding institutions have a duty to demand concrete plans for this from the funded projects, but also to provide adequate resources.

As yet, the situation is characterised by inequalities even in text production. Many institutions only fund translations into English, and the COST guidelines, for example, only provide funds for proofreading English-language texts. In this way, another labor market has emerged – for translators with English as their first language. However, not least against the background of new computer-assisted translation possibilities, European funding institutions could and should declare multilingualism as a goal, instead of continuing to indulge in the outdated dream that everyone should use a single scientific language – nota bene the language of two Western empires. Translations from and into all languages spoken in Europe and the editing of these texts should be funded on an egalitarian basis. This would not least counteract the tendency, mentioned in Natalia Jarska’s blog post, for nationalist knowledge to be increasingly preserved in local languages, completely independent of the scholarly debate conducted in English. Multilingualism promotes permeability in both directions, and it accommodates the everyday lives of an increasing number of people.

A final point I would like to make concerns the imperialism mentioned by Erbaydar, the purpose of binding to the EU. It is hard to deny that this also applies to some extent to the European research area. For example, when “Inclusiveness Target Countries (ITC)” are mentioned in typically technocratic diction, the researchers of these countries are not simply supported, but always also marked as other. This is ultimately the approach of development aid, with all the problems associated with it. In the worst cases, researchers from ITCs are invited to participate in a consortium simply because this scores points in the evaluation. But also in the other cases, it remains mostly unquestioned what the standard is; it is hardly ever the scientific culture or the methodological trends of those countries that are to be included. As has been shown time and again in the context of EUROPACH, there will never be model cases that can be easily transferred to other places, social groups, and times. And what is true for public health is also true for research.[iii]

If my intention here was to draw attention to some fundamental problems of European project funding, this does not mean, of course, that it does not have many benefits as well. Not least, there are effective international collaborations. Some things to keep in mind in this regard are mentioned by Kemal Ördek, co-founder of Kırmızı Şemsiye Cinsel Sağlık ve İnsan Hakları Derneği (Red Umbrella Association for Sexual Health and Human Rights). I would like to conclude with her description of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP):

There is a board with two representatives from each continent and the focus of work is often Asia, Africa, Latin, or South America. So it is not a Western perspective that is dominant there. Because the NSWP is an umbrella organization of sex worker initiatives from all kinds of countries, there is a horizontal approach to representation. I have no fear that there could be a Western imposition.

On the other hand,

There is a Western perspective at the WHO, at UNAIDS, and such institutions in general. In many respects they are hostile to sex work, for example. They then justify that with Western arguments or they say, for example, “Muslim sex workers – how can that be? Being Muslim and sex work, that doesn’t go together at all” […]. There are such and similar orientalist statements. Well, and then we start telling.[iv]

[i] “‘Ich denke immer, dass das Zurverfügungstellen von Projektmitteln auch ein Manipulationsmechanismus ist…’: Ein Plädoyer gegen den Diskursimperialismus und die zunehmende Projektorientierung in der internationalen Gesundheitsförderung. Zülfukar Çetin im Gespräch mit Tuğrul Erbaydar,” in Zülfukar Çetin and Peter-Paul Bänziger, eds., Aids und HIV in der Türkei: Geschichten und Perspektiven einer emanzipatorischen Gesundheitspolitik (Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2019), 239–268, 236ff.

[ii] Peter-Paul Bänziger and Zülfukar Çetin, “Jenseits des Modellfalls Erzählungen über Aids und HIV in Europa – eine Einleitung,” in Zülfukar Çetin and Peter-Paul Bänziger, eds., Aids und HIV in der Türkei: Geschichten und Perspektiven einer emanzipatorischen Gesundheitspolitik (Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2019), 9–34.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] “‘Die Menschen hier betreiben ihren Aktivismus in dem Bewusstsein, dass ein einziger ihrer Sätze der gesamten Gruppe schaden könnte…’: Ein Kampf für die sexuelle Gesundheit und die Rechte von Sexarbeiter:innen zwischen lokalen Interventionen und transnationalen Bündnissen. Zülfukar Çetin im Gespräch mit Kemal Ördek,” in Zülfukar Çetin and Peter-Paul Bänziger, eds., Aids und HIV in der Türkei: Geschichten und Perspektiven einer emanzipatorischen Gesundheitspolitik (Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2019), 55–83, 77ff.