NGOs and Research

13 March, 2014

Get the two development tribes to work together

We are all working in the same space looking for the similar results yet there is clearly a serious barrier between the two tribes of the research community and Non-Governmental Organisations.

Ever gone to an international development conference and thought “Uh oh, I don’t know anyone here at all!” It’s happened to me twice in the last few months – I felt like a stranger in my own job. Why this sudden loss of identity? As a person with responsibility for helping to coordinate research that benefits international development I’ve strayed from my core mandate and started to wander into foreign territory:  NGO conferences!

On the first event’s attendance list (which boasted over 400 names) I only spotted one university-affiliated attendee. At the second event, Practical Action’s ‘Seeking sustainable impact at scale’, two of us from the research community were on the same panel in a parallel session to discuss how science can contribute to development outcomes and there were only two or three academics in the whole audience.

We are all working in the same space looking for the similar results yet there is clearly a serious barrier between the two tribes of the research community and Non-Governmental Organisations.

From my perspective new and exciting ideas often emerge from conversations when different organisations get together. So where were all the academics? Why aren’t they mingling, networking and connecting with the NGO community at these conferences? After all, demonstrating impact of one’s research is now a fundamental part of a researcher’s obligations to his or her funder. NGOs work at the coal face of development and have first-hand experience of what does and doesn’t work.

I heard some reasons why there was such a gap when on the panel in the Practical Action event. The parallel session was entitled Research institutions and systems change. Incidentally, and inevitably, the other parallel session on monitoring and evaluation led by DFID was by far the most popular with the NGOs and consultants.

A Venn diagram was offered by an NGO representative showing minimal overlap of interests between the two different communities. Lots of reasons were given, but one particularly telling example came from a story told by one of the audience: when talking to a university academic about an area they wanted some insight and solutions for, the academic’s only response was “there must be at least four PhDs in this!”

Phrases such as ‘ivory towers’, ‘need for translation’, ‘what does all this uncertainty mean?’ and ‘give me a straight answer’ were typical of the discussion. The need for urgent practical advice in plain language was clear.

We progressed, as many meetings do, from discussing all the things that are wrong to examples of where researchers have worked successfully with NGOs and putting forward some constructive suggestions on how communities could move forward together.

I was struck by how little we know about each other’s worlds and the differences in what is seen as ‘success’ or the rewards and incentives the different communities operate under. Researchers produce excellent research and publish in peer reviewed journals while NGOs work to directly improve and save lives.

The need for urgent practical advice is at conflict with a scientist’s core mandate. Scientists produce independent evidence researched over a minimum of three years. Translation, application and advocacy are all things that are relatively new and even if the researcher is inclined to follow the pathway to impact of his or her research, there is little funding available to do so (in comparison with overall research budgets).

In UKCDS we have begun to work successfully with NGOs but mainly in the natural disaster and humanitarian space. Institutional, cultural and behavioural change have led to great initiatives like ELRHA – originally supported by HEFCE  and with programmes now backed by DFID and the Wellcome Trust – that bring universities and NGOs together to share expertise and achieve measurable impact. Our own Disasters Research Group worked closely with NGOs and has helped to produce a set of guidelines on how to integrate science into humanitarian and development work.

UKCDS sees there is an enormous opportunity to bring the two different communities closer together and we’d love to hear your views on what we can do to facilitate more partnerships. We can introduce parties with similar interests, we know where funding might be available and we’ve begun to understand how successful partnerships are made.

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