How can research funders work better with international NGOs like Oxfam?

June 20, 2011 5 By admin

I spoke recently to a meeting of the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences. It’s a great initiative, bringing together 13 UK funders and stakeholders with an interest in international development research, but is ‘collaborative’ really a noun? Anyway, the topic was how research funders (mainly state funded) can link up more effectively with large INGOs like Oxfam. Let me talk you through the powerpoint……

First, why do INGOs do research? Above all, to improve impact of programmes and advocacy in three broad areas, according to a nice distinction made by my colleague Kimberly Pfeifer at Oxfam America: ‘tactical research’ (reactive to broader events and policy agendas); formative research (setting new agendas and directions) and evaluative research (MEL, learning lessons). INGO people are doers and activists, with little time for theorising – they think in terms of guidelines and toolkits. That is probably why UKCDS wanted to talk to me, because government is increasingly demanding that researchers demonstrate the impact of their research, rather than the beauty of pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

But what do we mean by the word ‘research’? For INGOs it is often much more about a clear narrative than about data. The risk is doing happiness v researchersviolence to a complex reality, but the upside is that we tell stories that stick in the heads of policy makers and others. There is also a priority on case studies and bearing witness – exploring how large scale phenomena (climate change, food prices etc) affect the lives of people living in poverty. What some academics dismiss as anecdotes are for INGOs (and most normal people) closer to reality than some massive number-crunching exercise (though we still need to be careful about correlation v causation and attribution). For some examples, check out the Oxfam publications website.

What does good policy research look like, from an INGO standpoint? A clear story, bringing together a decent review of the academic literature with those real life stories; preferably relevant to what is on the agendas of decision-makers over the coming months; drilling down into the issues of power, inequality and social relations that often go missing in conventional research. For impact it also needs a sprinkling of killer facts, an answer to the inevitable ‘what’s new in this research?’ question, and clear and convincing recommendations and solutions.

Are INGOs any good at research, thus defined? Generalizations are perilous, but here goes:

Strengths: at its best INGO research is rooted in real life, the experiences of partners and communities (e.g. our work on the impact of the global financial crisis, or forthcoming stuff on food prices); INGOs have been pioneers on participatory methods; the research packs a punch both in content and in the ability of INGO media teams to make a media splash that gets it noticed. And they have a global constituency and reach that many academic researchers can only dream of.

Weaknesses: often stronger on qualitative than quantitative; sometimes a bit cavalier on methodology (although we outsource a lot of research to academics which, if they’re any good, should fill that gap); weak systems of peer review (and some confusion over what constitutes a ‘peer’); suffers from short INGO attention spans, so few examples where research builds up over time; patchy links to developing country research institutions and always short of cash and capacity compared to the formal research institutions.

after-peer-reviewHow can funders improve the relevance and use of research by INGOs? Well, they could fund it directly of course, but that is often going to be difficult given the way they are set up, so here are some other ideas. Insist that research institutions work with INGOs to co-design research programmes (the norm is alas, for an institution to decide on a largely irrelevant agenda  and then approach the INGO as an afterthought to help with the communications, or ‘do the voices of the poor bit’.) Sure, we could (and do) take the initiative and approach research institutions with our own ideas, but the timescales, interests and approaches are often just too different to find common ground. Funders could provide incentives to help bridge the gap.

That means understanding what research INGOs are going to need over the next few years. Luckily the level of intellectual herding is pretty high, so if you get a bunch of them in a room, they will probably all come up with a similar set of priorities (current ones would probably include climate change, scarcity, food security, theories of change, measuring impact, multipolar world and the absence of gender and disaggregated data from most research questions).

And a few more specific suggestions for the higher education researches themselves, (and where prodding by funders can probably help):

If you want access to communities, the research had better be relevant to the people and partners (e.g. testing new approaches through action research). It needs to be properly discussed at draft stage and disseminated and discussed locally on publication. INGO staff time and direct costs (and those of their partners on the ground) should be properly funded. Finally, you need buy-in at country level, where harassed staff may have very different priorities from INGO HQ.

What is at stake is, I think, pretty important – building a regular and productive interchange between funders, higher education institutions, thinktanks and INGOs. Funders could help by creating incentives for better links between these groups, requiring researchers to demonstrate impact and relevance. They could also help create a space for collective reflection on research priorities among INGOs (that only happens in a very ad hoc way at the moment, for example by everyone commissioning papers from Alex Evans……) and build INGOs’ capacity to understand, commission and use existing research (as well as do a bit themselves).

Any other suggestions?