Theories of (climate) change and a nice song about complex causal chains……

Spent a happy half day with the climate change team at IDS last week, at the invitation of the team leader Matthew Lockwood, who besides being a climate change star (see his Political Climate blog), wrote The State They’re In, a brilliant book on the politics of African development. We were exploring the theories of change (explicit and implicit) that underpin their work, and the conversation reminded me of similar discussions in the NGOs (only with a bit more Foucault). A few observations:

The discussion was useful because although research is undoubtedly essential in improving our understanding of climate change, its impact, how people are adapting, new ideas for mitigating carbon emissions etc etc, if that research is to influence policy, researchers need to think hard about the political environment and the complex transmission belt that determines whether research findings do or do not influence policy.

The IDS team  seem to have three main targets in mind for their research and advice – donors, states in developing countries and social movements. But thinking on the donors and social movements is much more developed than on the state, with some real ambivalence about whether they see the state as part of the solution or the problem (as you’ve probably worked out by now, I definitely think it has to be at the heart of any long term solution on both development and environment).

Their theories of change seemed attuned to a steady state world – a steady accumulation of evidence, research and nifty policy papers will lead to incremental but in the end transformative (whatever that means) change. Wrong. In reality, most such evidence and research will be ignored until moments of opportunity arise (probably linked to massive natural disasters in powerful countries, but also elections, changes of leaders etc etc). So you need a mechanism to identify those moments, drop everything, rehash and update existing research and advice, and get your thinking rapidly into the hands and heads of post-shock policymakers desperate for answers. That is not going to be achieved through the usual slow grind of journal articles and academic seminars.

The approaches also seemed based on the assumption of positive change, when climate change in particular is currently marked by stasis rather than change – I would have liked to hear more about how IDS is trying to understand why things aren’t changing (north and south) and how research could perhaps help unblock the sources of inertia.

As always in these discussions, success partly comes down to what kind of people we need to be to ensure research has some influence. A lot of what makes research successful in influencing policy is down to networking skills and influencing. But as Malcolm Gladwell so graphically describes in The Tipping Point, we are not all natural networkers, and I’ve met a fair few academics who really struggle with that kind of interaction. In particular, if you’re going to influence elites and governments, you’re much more likely to succeed if you can like and empathise with them, rather than say through gritted teeth ‘OK, I’d much rather be down with the grassroots, but I am now going to engage with the enemy.’ For some reason the enemy in question doesn’t find that very appealing…….

The change processes being discussed often seemed largely linear and purposive rather than complex, random and chaotic – but at this point I will leave it to team member Tom Tanner and his memorable song on the traumas of proving impact.

If you want to check the references in Tom’s song, they are:

1.     Mitchell, T., Tanner, T.M., and Lussier, K. (2007) ‘We know what we need’: South Asian women speak out on climate change adaptation. Institute of Development Studies and Action Aid International, Johannesburg.

2.     Bahadur, A., Ibrahim, M. and Tanner, T.M. (2010) The Resilience Renaissance? Unpacking of resilience for tackling climate change and disasters. Strengthening Climate Resilience Discussion Paper 1. Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, UK.

3.     Tanner, T.M. and Allouche, J. (2011) ‘Towards a new political economy of climate change’, IDS Bulletin 43(3) pp1-14.

That’s academia for you – even the songs have footnotes…….

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7 Responses to “Theories of (climate) change and a nice song about complex causal chains……”
  1. First, a big thanks to Duncan for coming down and helping us wrestle with theories of change and thinking through how the work of the team might have more impact in the big bad world outside the ivory tower. I think the blog piece picks up on many of the big issues we discussed and points to some of the areas that we need to work on.

    However, I think you could give a bit more recognition to that fact that what we do (and what academic institutions generally reward people for doing) is a bit different from an NGO activist or advocacy staffer. Researchers tend to be good at research, and often their primary goal is just getting a better understanding of what is going on. Not a bad objective in itself, and sometimes a very useful one for changing the real world. But obviously for research to have any impact, you need people who know what they are doing on elites, windows of opportunity, and above all, spinning good stories, as you point out. There are a few academics out there who are good at the narratives as well, but they are far between. Few people do everything exceptionally well.

    To my mind, that’s an argument for researchers like us working more closely with people who are better at non-linear processes, policy windows and spotting opportunities, like you. The overall aim should be to ensure that we have the products of all that thinking and understanding ready in the back pocket for the moments when they can be applied. Surely this has to be a joint effort.

    Oh, and a final point, to have a lasting effect, the research itself has to be good!

    • Duncan

      Thanks Matthew, and a good pushback. My response would be, if we separate out the ‘pure’ research from the influencing/advocacy/networking bit, how do we ensure that research is designed for influence in terms of methodology and timing? The risk is that we revert to a point where ‘pure’ research is dumped on the world via seminars and journals, and lots of opportunities for impact are lost. So how do we strike the right balance between the intellectual integrity and credibility of the research and its instrumental value in influencing?

  2. Matthew Lockwood

    Some thoughts in response:

    – sometimes “pure” research that doesn’t look very promising from an influencing point of view does end up having a big impact, even if it take a few years. Remember the famous Keynes quote…
    Examples might include Milton Friedman’s weighty and obscure 1963 tome on money supply that eventually came to drive policy in the early 1980s, or indeed some of the more recherche works on complexity that have worked their way through the popular science books and thence to development blogs…..
    – The research-policy gap is a problem, and I should know because I’ve worked on both sides of it. My view is that an important part of the problem lies in the incentives driving people on both sides of the divide, partly reflecting the fact that there is no serious investment in the interface. Think-tanks come closest, but in the UK they tend to work in political cycles, alternately starved of resources, chasing funding, and then stuffed with money but hounded by special interests. We have no Brookings Institution equivalent, with an endowment. On the other hand, the knowledge service industry has grown, but in my view is mostly too scatter-gun to connect with the kind of change making processes you identify.

    This leaves Oxfam, with its research team, free to work in depth on issues, without having to chase funding half the time, in a position of unique influence, but also responsibility. Use it well, my boy, use it well…..

  3. This is an interesting question and one that we have thought about a lot in the past few years—our organization (Development Gateway) has been working closely with two universities, the College of William and Mary and Brigham Young University, on a joint initiative called AidData. As someone who has been out of the academic world for a while it’s been a lot of fun to get to work closely with real researchers again, and I think that from their side it’s been an interesting window on the “other side” too. One of the things we hoped to achieve with this collaboration was to find ways to make our work more rigorous and informed by relevant thinking from the research community, and also to help make research more informed by practical needs and demand from the real world (for lack of a better term).

    We’ve seen this happen through a few different projects, including a recent example—AidData has been working with the Climate Change and African Political Stability (CCAPS) research program at the University of Texas to create an interactive map/dashboard that makes it easier to see the linkages between climate change and conflict. They also wanted to see how aid fits into the picture and since Development Gateway works with governments in a number of countries to implement the Aid Management Platform (a system for tracking aid), we have contacts with government officials who are interested in this as well. Malawi agreed to be the pilot country, so a team of researchers traveled there to work with the government and donors to geocode all the projects tracked in the platform. Now, this data is available on the map, so you can see where projects funded by 27 donor agencies are happening across the country. CCAPS will use this in their research, but at the same time, since the project was done in conjunction with an established government system that is used on a daily basis, the idea is that the geocoding can continue in the future and this can become part of the information the government tracks. It will therefore be useful for their own budgeting and planning (though admittedly, recent political developments cast some doubt on this in the particular case of Malawi).

    Anyway I think it’s a small example of a way that through partnerships, it’s possible to get some cross-fertilization, making “practical” work more substantive and making research more relevant for policymakers (more detail on this particular project, in case you are interested, here:

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