Ford v Toyota – is it time to change the way we do research for development?

I took part in a conference on fragile states last week. Because it was held under Chatham House rules, I can’t say much about it, (except for the excellent on-the-record presentation by Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which I blogged on at the time), but it got me thinking about a wider issue. Do we need a new model for conducting research that can be absorbed by aid workers?

information-overloadTo caricature, here’s the problem: on the one hand, a research establishment whose funding and career incentives generate mountains of long, closely argued papers and books that look horribly off-putting and inaccessible to many non academic aid workers. Pressure from people who don’t settle down with a sigh of satisfaction to read 80 page technical papers with lots of annexes has meant that these are now accompanied by executive summaries and a proliferating number of ‘one pagers’ and ‘two pagers’ for policy makers, aid workers and others.

Is that the best we can do? It means that research is conducted, written down in a paper, heaped on a conference table or uploaded to a website, and then the researcher’s work is largely done. The aid worker or other harassed, time-constrained person is then expected to find it, pick it up, read, digest and apply it to their own lives. In practice, that often doesn’t happen – partly because of the length of the paper, but partly because of the indigestibility of so much external information and analysis that is not tailored to the aid worker’s needs. If it was in a classroom, it would be called ‘chalk and talk’. We need to come up with better ways to encourage ‘knowledge absorption’ by practitioners.

A comparison: research is essentially a Fordist exercise, churning out hundreds of standardized products – the model T Fords of

quick, the next research grant is coming
quick, the next research grant is coming

knowledge generation. Model Ts have their place of course – research of this kind sets agendas, shapes debates and can be absorbed by people who really want to do so, and (to mix metaphors) eventually finds its way into the political and practitioner bloodstream. But it’s uphill work – what would post-Fordist, ‘Toyotist’ (OK, maybe I need to change that comparison) research products look like, customized to the needs and preferences of the user?

At the moment customization occurs largely through outsourcing – an aid agency pays a consultant to do its thinking for it, and produce a report. But that doesn’t transfer skills or make the aid agency better next time.  So why not try ‘co-production’ – a researcher and an aid worker travelling, researching and talking together, challenging each other, and then writing up the results? Think farmer field schools for aid workers. IDS has probably done more thinking on this than most development outfits – John Gaventa made his name organizing ‘participatory action research’ in the Appalachians, and Andrea Cornwall has tried this kind of thing with NGOs in Brazil (see below).

One problem with this model is expense – NGOs just can’t afford the IDS’s of this world, without some kind of subsidy, and if the knowledge generated applies purely to that specific example, then the research could be very expensive indeed. But if we really want practitioners to absorb and apply research, we should find a way to pilot more of these approaches, perhaps working with less expensive research institutions in developing countries.

Any positive experiences of co-production that people can point to? Best example I’ve seen so far is ActionAid’s Knowledge Initiative.

And to show just how different such a process could look, here’s one small example of co-production at work from Andrea Cornwall at IDS:

subverting the research process
subverting the research process

‘The project began as a long, slow conversation between Sue Fleming, DFID social development adviser in Brazil at the time, Jorge Romano, country director for ActionAid at the time, Alex Shankland who used to work for Health Unlimited in Brazil and had just been working with IDS and myself.  Our conversations were about Brazilian experiences of citizenship and how to make them legible to an international audience, and about how to bring together a diversity of perspectives on what had happened in the period since the dictatorship to understand social movements’ struggles and contribution to Brasil’s democratization.

We started by putting together a workshop with a selection of activist-researchers, activist-intellectuals and activist-practitioners. About thirty of them. Those invited came from our professional (ActionAid partners, DFID social development grantees, academics and activists we’d all worked with) and activist networks. 

The workshop was structured as follows:
–   practitioners were given the floor to share their experience, with academics as discussants who prodded them for more information, asked questions, drew out interesting syntheses and analyses from what the practitioners said. It worked really well.
–   we had various participatory exercises on concepts and buzzwords that helped clarify what we meant by terms, but also create a common (critical) language
–   we had a few presentations at the start on the historical trajectory of participation and citizenship in Brazil and in international development as a backdrop against which the practitioners’ stories could be told and understood, which really helped contextualise them.

We then selected four case studies & created teams to research them. They consisted of:
–   the practitioner as protagonist at the heart of the action
–   a Brazilian academic with an interesting perspective on the issue
–   a researcher/practitioner representing a perspective from international development

The practitioner told their story to the researchers. The researchers listened and came up with a checklist of things they thought were especially interesting about the story. The practitioner then added to the checklist and refined the questions, answered some of them and sent the researchers off to research the others, pointing them in the direction of particular people, gathering secondary information for them to read, and generally orienting them – sometimes attending interviews to make introductions and cut through the crap, sometimes sending researchers off on their own. The process was iterative, over the course of a very intensive week, with daily meetings and discussions, refining questions, gathering more information, asking more questions, drawing out the analysis.

The researchers then took the lead in writing up the case study, with inputs from the practitioner.

This was presented at a workshop at which the four cases were brought together with a series of short papers about the trajectories and victories of Brazil’s social movements.

In such a very short time, I gained more of an insight as a researcher than I could ever have imagined – and the insights we were able to feed back helped the council to reflect and possibly also make changes.’

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Comments

7 Responses to “Ford v Toyota – is it time to change the way we do research for development?”
  1. Well, here is something practical in developmental research. As I understand the difference between economic development and economic growth, economic development is concerned with changing the environment in which economic growth can take place. This I always thought meant that economic development could take place without economic growth, but that economic growth would not necessarily lead to economic development.

    The requirements for economic growth to contribute to economic development research are as follows:

    1 That one finds appropriate technology that would benefit the level of expertise of people using it;
    2 That it must be labour sympathetic technology, especially in labour surplus countries;
    3 That it must use those resources that are in abundance within a country or community, to maximise the benefit for the country or community;
    4 That it must not require vast amounts of capital, which is usually in short supply in most developing countries;
    5 That the use of the technology will allow the beneficiaries the opportunity to enhance it through use, practical research and development at grass root level;
    6 That it should help to focus the education system on practical rather than academic issues; and
    7 That it could in the long run enhance the competitiveness of the country or community in local and international trade.

    Is it possible to do this, of course it is if we forget all our preconceived ideas of how one can adapt Western technology for use in less developed countries. I doubt whether any of the aid workers from developed countries will be able to do this. The Brazilian example quoted seems to work, but where do one find the such a group for each, let us say African country, to implement this. My view is that one will have to investigate the current production processes and through research adapt it to increase its efficiency, going about it with baby steps. As people become more efficiency and profit orientated the next steps will be to go into research and development process more or less that one sees in developed countries.

  2. These are good points. Too few of the target officials and influencers read the long studies that NGOs produce. (And too few advocates, either).

    But I was surprised you didn’t go further – beyond Fordism, beyond Toyota, to Wikinomics/Web 2.0. I.e. crowdsourcing, collaborative writing, frequent updates, etc.

    For a good overview of where this is heading (far beyond Oxfam’s worthwhile opening of a paper for comments earlier this year), see: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/oli-conner/future-of-collaborative-investigation

    Duncan: hmm, not sure if that would be any more accessible to harassed aid workers than the Fordist model, Alex, but will take a look at the Open Democracy piece

  3. Kirsty

    Maybe I can also add an example from within Oxfam. Since I started work on a project (kindly funded by DFID CHSF) which aims to “increase the use of evidence in development/humanitarian programming” – I realise how much research is produced and how little most of it is used! Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance (website coming soon) is a consortium project of 4 INGOs (Oxfam, Care, Save the Children and World Vision) and ODI. In each of the 3 countries (Uganda/Mozambique/Ethiopia) there is also a partnership wth a local research institution. We then do joint research and involve our staff and the government in designing the research tools, collecting and analysing the data – aiming for the research to be seen as part of their job as well as a personal development opportunity. We’re also investing in time for doing the accompanying power analyses / consultation / influencing strategies for all our key audiences (both practitioners and decision makers) – to try and build interest/ownership in the findings from the start! There is a higher value in the shared experience of the process – much greater than the resulting report in my opinion. On the downside – it does require funding and an investment of time from all involved – but if more funding opportunities existed for these kinds of projects then I guess the incentives for practitioners to invest time in such processes would also increase!

  4. Duncan the idea is to spread the work beyond the current base of “harassed aid workers”.

    There are more people with knowledge and evidence than those employed or directly involved through formal channels.

    All the other examples in Wikinomics (a book) as well as that link above show the opportunities very well. If people can design and make aeroplanes and motorbikes in a decentralised and participatory way, surely development research also!

    Would need Oxfam staff and others to set the framework and facilitate, not fill in all the blanks themselves. As Kirsty hints that could be valuable for dissemination as well as for the output itself.

  5. Perhaps a first step would be the big donors/NGOs creating more opportunity for their staff to reflect, discuss and potentially change some of their practices. But from my experience (briefly as aid worker, now as PhD researcher) the space to do this is often pretty limited – even if I had had more time to consider recent research etc in my previous job, there wouldn’t have been much opportunity to apply it because of the constraints on me.

  6. Tracey Martin

    I think Stephen is right. Unless organisations – whether donors of INGOs or research institutes for that matter – make learning a valued and central part of their work, it is very difficult for practitioners to be involved in or digest research and then use it meaningfully in their work. Videos of research findings, space to talk about them are as important as practitioner involvement in the research.

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