What does Systems Thinking tell us about how INGOs and Academics can work together better?

April 21, 2017

How could a ‘life cycle analysis’ help aid organizations engage better with the public?

April 21, 2017

Improving collaboration between practitioners and academics: what to do? (with a little help from Einstein)

April 21, 2017
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Previous posts in this 3 part series explored the obstacles to INGO-academic collaboration, and the lessons of systems thinking. This final post suggests some theory v factsways forward (with some sarcastic asides from Einstein)

Based on all of the above, a number of ideas emerge for consideration by academics, INGOs and funders of research.

Suggestions for academics

Comments on the blogposts that formed the basis for this article provided a wealth of practical advice to academics on how to work more productively with INGOs. These include the following:

  • Create research ideas and proposals collaboratively. This means talking to each other early on, rather than academics looking for NGOs to help their dissemination, or NGOs commissioning academics to undertake policy-based evidence making.
  • Don’t just criticise and point to gaps – understand the reasons for them (gaps in both NGO programmes and their research capacity) and propose solutions. Work to recognise practitioners’ strengths and knowledge.
  • Make research relevant to real people in communities. This means proper discussions and dialogue at design, research and analysis stages, disseminated drafts and discussing findings locally on publication.
  • Set up reflection spaces in universities where NGO practitioners can go to take time out for days, weeks or months, and can be supported to reflect on and write up their experiences, network with others and gain new insights on their work.
  • Catalyse more exchange of personnel in both directions. Universities could replicate the author’s ‘Professor in Practice’ position at the London School of Economics and Political Science, while INGOs could appoint honorary fellows, who could help guide their thinking in return for access to their work.

Suggestions for INGOs

In addition to collaborating in the ways discussed above, INGOs could encourage cooperation by:

  • Being open about their knowledge base, especially the large amount of data collected while monitoring and evaluating their projects. Oxfam now makes its impact evaluation survey data free to download.
  • Finding cost-effective ways of cooperating through long-term but loose networks maintained over time, which can be activated when necessary (e.g. in response to events or new priorities). This is less time intensive than establishing dense and time-consuming networks that often peter out for lack of resources.
  • Setting up arm’s length collaborative watchdogs on particular institutions or issues with a research function, that maintains a network of academics and activists, as well as maintaining institutional knowledge. Good examples are the Bretton Woods Projector Control Arms.
  • Building bridges at all levels of the knowledge ‘food chain’: INGOs need to go beyond the academic big names and conference attractions to build links with early career researchers. For example, Transparency International has set up a programme called Campus for Transparency that match-makes a Transparency International chapter or staff member who has a specific research need with a university MA programme or student who would then deliver this specific research product as part of their study requirement. PhD students can be involved along similar lines, provided the issues identified are sufficiently core to the INGOs’ work that they will not be made redundant by shifting priorities before the thesis is even written!

einstein theory v practiceSuggestions for funders

By insisting on evidence of impact, and supporting partnerships and consortia involving both researchers and practitioners, governments and aid donor funders already contribute significantly to bridging the academic–INGO divide. But they could do more, including the following:

  • Innovative financing – for example, offering 50/50 funding, half for programmes on the ground and half for research. At the moment donors seem to fund one or the other (research with a few links to practitioners, or programmes with a bit of money for monitoring, evaluation and learning), which misses a chance to foster deeper links.
  • They could also fund intermediary organisations with a mandate to build bridges between the two worlds. According to a recent Carnegie UK report:

Numerous studies reveal that people and small businesses outside universities find them impenetrable institutions. A member of the public or a community or voluntary organisation seeking a relevant point of contact in a university to discuss their research-related query often encounters a huge, incomprehensible organisation whose website is structured according to supply-side logic (faculties, departments, degree programmes) rather than according to demand considerations or user needs.

You can download the chapter in the IDS book on which these posts are based here.



  1. I think you have missed the main point in these posts: academics and NGOs are (usually) answering fundamentally different types of questions and producing different orders of knowledge. Generalising massively, academics in the social sciences – who you seem mainly to be talking about here? – are interested in the ‘whys’ of human structures for their own sake; NGOs in the ‘hows’, from an already decided perspective.

    So an NGO might want to know, say, how different forms of aid impact the nutrition of children in families, wanting to know which method to develop/ fund and to be able to decide quickly before the money or political will move on. On the same topic an academic might want to question every single assumption (what is ‘a family’? is aid a type of gift, and do gifts alter social relations, or adapt to existing ones? what is the long history of food circulation in the area, and how does it link to other global, local, national processes? what is ‘national’ anyway – is there such a thing as a state and how did it come about?), and will not assume they can come up with the answers before longterm engagement in the topic/ area, or decide on a course of action before the research has happened. It’s not ‘sluggish’ as you call it, it’s a basic principle.

    People will have their own opinions on which is more valuable (and both sides are certainly capable of producing crap research), but I don’t think it is useful to compare NGO and academic research directly or to suggest the latter can always be ‘boiled down’ to provide action points for the former. A big question: does knowledge always have to lead to ‘policy and practice’? As an anthropologist with a development background who has worked in an institution specifically designed to ‘broker knowledge’ between the two, this is a big assumption from the development side that I think needs to be put to rest. Sometimes knowledge that ‘just stays on the shelf’ (constant gripe from former colleagues) is doing fine work right there in that journal article or book, informing the minds of those who read it or teach it – not all knowledge needs to lead to a ‘measurable outcome’. Or, I would argue, to be easily understandable by people outside the intended audience. Yes, ideally there should be a summary/ a blogpost/ a video post or whatever, but some research just is complex and better suited to long written texts. It’s not wrong for academics to be talking to each other using specialised language, as you imply.

    Of course there are academics who concentrate on applied work and all are capable of doing other types of research – reactive, solution-driven, rapid, evaluative or whatever – but please don’t start with the assumption that all research is there to serve the interests of ‘development’. It is not and should not be.

    1. thanks Adrian, we really need an equivalent of Google Images, where you click on a quotation, and it tells you who (if anyone) originally said it!

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