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Collaboration between NGOs and academics on research: perspectives from INTRAC

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The following is a blog post which was written recently by Rachel Hayman of the International NGO Training and Research Center (INTRAC) in Oxford, UK on productive relationships between NGOs and academics in the design and execution of research. This was based on findings of a small research project on this topic which INTRAC undertook recently, and for which one of the case studies was the research collaboration between Plan International Guatemala and the Transnational NGO Initiative in 2009 in the context of Plan's strategic evaluation of their transition in Guatemala towards a Rights Based Approach.



Should NGOs be shapers, producers, or consumers of research? Reflections on academic-practitioner research collaboration?

 

Posted by Rachel Hayman on 18 May 2012, INTRAC website

 

 

Stakeholder engagement seems to be all the rage in certain research funding circles. For a while the debate has focused primarily on how research can be better used by policymakers, government institutions, NGOs and civil society organisations. This 'research-to-use' debate is concerned with how research can be communicated in a way that makes it relevant, accessible and useable. It resonates with the 'impact' agenda hitting academic institutions – the need to demonstrate that research brings tangible benefits to society.

 

But the trend may be shifting towards more profound research relationships between NGOs and academic institutions. Practitioners are actively seeking academic partners – partly in response to the results agenda; donors and research funders seem to be encouraging collaboration. We see this happening in international development circles and within the humanitarian sector (for example, ELRHA's work).

 

Why should NGOs consider collaboration? It requires resources, institutional support, skills, a culture of critical enquiry, and a willingness to accept both positive and negative findings that may emerge. But it can also bring insights, solutions, credibility, evidence, and new opportunities.

 

At a recent workshop, one participant proposed that we consider the role that NGOs might or should play as shapers, producers or consumers of research. Here are my thoughts:

 

NGOs as shapers of research

 

NGOs should be doing this but could be doing it so much more. I've yet to look into this, but I wonder how many representatives of NGOs sit on the research funding committees that decide on research themes and funding priorities, or seek to influence them? In theory, practitioners should be extremely well-placed to observe gaps in the international development research that academics might plug, and to highlight potentially innovative ideas which some funders claim to encourage.

 

But this assumes that practitioners act upon those observations; that mechanisms exist for NGOs to feed research questions to academics – beyond personal links and happenstance; and that funders are willing to listen to NGOs. But there is more to shaping than just posing relevant questions. Much research in international development involves NGOs (international, national, local), their staff and the people that they work with, often in a very informal way. NGOs should also be proactive in monitoring how research is conducted, shaping the form of research as well as the content (an ethics role – another debate!).

 

NGOs as consumers of research


Translating research findings into action, policy lessons, advocacy campaigns, etc. seems an obvious role for NGOs. However, to do this, NGOs need to have a good understanding of the research being presented. If practitioners are fully involved in the research then the chances are they will have a reasonable idea what they can do with the findings. Too often, unfortunately, it is only at the point of dissemination that researchers attempt to engage potential end-users. This relies too heavily on academics taking the lead on sharing their knowledge – and many do this very badly. But NGOs also need to actively go in search of research, to demand that it be more accessible (more to follow on that point too!) and to make noise if research that is being produced and publicly-funded is not sufficiently addressing real needs and gaps.

 

NGOs as producers of research

 

But what about as producers? Many NGOs do not have a culture of critical enquiry and even the largest NGOs only devote a small percentage of their budgets to research (and that often gets squeezed when times are tough). This contrasts with the situation 10-20 years ago when NGOs were much more active producers of research and were pushing research boundaries in international development (see A Survey of Research by UK NGOs, INTRAC 1994). Nevertheless, NGOs still carry out research for many reasons – to feed advocacy campaigns, to improve programming, or to evaluate their activities. Collaborative research with academics likewise serves a range of purposes.

 

The question is whether researchers from NGOs should complement the expertise offered by their academic partners, for example in facilitating fieldwork or commenting on findings, or be fully involved. There are strong arguments for both positions. NGOs are not research institutions, but with the increasing cross-over of researchers between academic and practitioner worlds, much academic expertise on topics of relevance to practitioners does not sit within research institutions but within NGOs and think-tanks. And there are many NGOs who also want their staff and local partners to be involved, hence the growing interest in action research which may create (in theory) better ownership of the research, and has benefits in terms of organisational learning.

 

Where does this leave us? There are strong arguments for NGOs to collaborate more with academics, to play roles as shapers, consumers and producers, and to take advantage of the purported desire coming from some funders for more innovation and imaginative thinking. But there are a lot of hurdles to overcome for good collaboration to happen: different perspectives and mindsets, different time frames and institutional structures, different objectives and motivations, different publishing and dissemination needs. It requires NGO senior managers and boards to be open to scrutiny, willing to engage with whatever the research throws up, beyond searching for simple answers and headlines, and to accept that the answers will not come tomorrow.

 

It requires academic institutions to be open to genuine partnership, to place value on relationships and outputs beyond peer-reviewed articles in top journals, and to comprehend NGO timeframes, structures and advocacy needs. It requires research funders to take collaboration seriously and support genuinely innovative topics and partnerships, not treat stakeholder engagement as merely a means to achieving impact.

 

It is time to move the debate away from how NGOs (or other 'end-users') use the research that academics carry out, and move it much more towards good collaboration or co-production. If space is genuinely growing for collaboration, NGOs should grasp the opportunity, starting with recognising the value of collaboration and actively pushing to break down some of the institutional, financial and psychological barriers.

 

 

 

INTRAC is collaborating with the University of Bradford and World Vision on a project, funded by the Development Studies Association, looking research collaboration between academic institutions and NGOs.

 

 



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