Memory, Wisdom and Mentoring: what do practitioners need from academics, beyond research papers?

June 14, 2017 14 By Duncan Green

Spent an interesting, if bleary (the morning after the UK election) day at Birmingham University’s International Development Department last week. We heard from some of the top research going on there on topics such as the Political Economy of Democracy Promotion, or the Developmental Leadership Program, but what really piqued my interest was a new take on that old chestnut, how researchers and practitioners can work better together.

Birmingham is home to the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC), which, among other things, acts as a ‘Research Helpdesk’ providing rapid-response research on questions from donor agencies and partner governments in developing countries. Set up with initial funding from DFID, GSDRC has been going since 2001, and has a pile of invaluable literature reviews and topic summaries online (I used loads of them while writing How Change Happens).

But when GSDRC manager Brian Lucas reflected on what the Centre has learned in 15 years of trying to bridge the IDD mastheadacademic-practitioner divide, what caught my attention was the stuff that goes beyond simple ‘research products’. GSDRC user surveys show that in addition to well-researched and accessible papers, practioners would really like more ‘institutional memory support’ – aka can anyone tell us what we have previously done in this country/on this subject?’

It may seem odd that aid workers should need a resource centre to tell them what their own organizations have been up to, but high staff turnover + constant restructuring induces a deep level of institutional amnesia in most aid organizations. I would add to the broader issue of topic memory – I once ran into Oxfam’s gender adviser from Afghanistan at Dubai airport, who told me as she was leaving after a two year stint, that she was now the longest serving expat gender specialist in Kabul. Organizations like GSDRC can identify the sources of long term wisdom among local or international academics, or retired aid workers, who can help fill the gap, and help put them in touch with harassed aid workers desperate for advice and support.

It may be that practitioners actually need academic mentors more than yet more research (my words, not Brian’s!) Users want to tap into unpublished (informal, tacit) knowledge, wisdom and above all advice. They want to talk to someone who has tried a similar thing tp whatever it is they are planning, or at least has watched it play out before. Unlike aid workers, academics tend to stick to the same topic through their careers so could be ideal at playing this kind of role, but currently there are few incentives for them to do so. Instead, they feel under pressure to get on with writing the next journal paper, not chat to aid workers on skype.

Anyone need a mentor?

Anyone need a mentor?

But these days, academics are also being pushed by processes like the Research Excellence Framework to demonstrate that their work has impact, so now seems like a good time to try and realign those incentives. For example, the university system could agree to make mentoring practitioners a bit like supervising PhD students. Academics would be credited in some way for taking on a limited number of practitioners and supporting them over time. I’d be interested in hearing from those in the know about whether this has been tried and/or how it could be institutionalized.

In return for mentoring/accompanying practitioners, academics could be given access to new sources of data from monitoring and evaluation of aid programmes or other sources – gold dust for any academic career.

And what of the practitioners? Everyone in the aid business says they want time to read and reflect, so the standard answer is often ‘why not pack them off to a university for a week every year so they can do just that?’ But it’s not that simple. The change of rhythm between activism and reflection can be jarring. When we sent our senior advocacy team to IDS for a reading week a few years ago, IDS was horrified by their attention deficit issues – they just couldn’t stay off their blackberries. A mentoring scheme would respond to the needs and rhythms of the practitioner, rather than the need to fit around university timetables (eg by boosting their coffers through summer schools).

Any other ideas for supporting relationships, wisdom banks and memory, not just churning out the lit reviews and case studies?