Dorothea Hilhorst and Adriaan Ferf
In a research programme like the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC), that is meant to produce knowledge for practice, research uptake is an especially important issue. As part of the ODI-led SLRC, we have been leading research in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the last 6 years, and have developed a range of initiatives for research uptake. The long-term nature of this work gave us a unique opportunity to think about possibilities for durable impact. So what have we learned about how to make research count for development?
A history of research uptake
In past decades, donors have often put a premium on research uptake. A clear research uptake plan tends to be a requirement for any research funding. The primary focus of such a plan is to highlight that both researchers and funding partners have a responsibility to ensure that research findings reach key audiences. In recent years, research uptake has evolved from mere dissemination and communication strategies built around bombarding policy-makers and development actors with messages in the hope that some would get through.
But some of these traditional approaches to research uptake have shortcomings. They often solely target decision-makers (including donors). This assumes that policy shapes practice, and hence that influencing practice should start with policy. But it has long been recognised that practice is shaped by many factors outside of policy. Often, innovation starts in the field, and practice gradually influences policy over time. That means it is as important for research uptake to get communities of practice to engage with research.
A second problem with focussing mainly on decision-makers is that they spend far less of their time than researchers imagine on ‘the technical’ and ‘the practical.’ The challenge of keeping big programmes running and hungry bureaucracies satisfied may draw decision-makers’ attention from research-based insights (even if they would rather be spending their time on reading research). Conversations and conferences that draw in the great and the good from the policy and decision-making worlds can cause temporary flashes of interest, but their impact tends to fade quickly.
A third problem with established approaches to research uptake is that they assume that those commissioning research mean it when they say that they want to base their programmes on evidence. Unfortunately, policy agents tend to cherry pick what they find useful in research, to then act only on pieces of evidence that speak to their frame of reference. Finding out that your leading governance or social development programme, which has taken years to design and implement, is actually challenged by emerging research evidence is a major headache. In the politicised pulls and pushes that inform the process of policy-making, the space for using evidence can be rather small indeed.
Not just messages—relationships
But this does not mean that we should abandon the research uptake. We now understand the ‘relational’ aspects of research uptake better. This means that messages need to be tailored to specific audience needs and packaged appropriately. But even then, to get research to have an impact on policy and practice means travelling on a long and difficult road.
SLRC has as much as possible worked on reaching out to communities of policy and practice in a systematic way. Having the luxury of an eight-year programme allowed us to pay attention to the relational aspects of research uptake and to invest in relations with representatives of policy and practice. This enabled us to tailor our communications to the specific needs of these audiences. Research into the networked governance of the health sector by Aembe Bwimana and into livelihood strategies by Gloria Nguya both fostered the type of relationships that allow the researchers to repeatedly meet key-stakeholders and spend time discussing the meaning of their findings for policy and practice.
In addition to the traditional approach of broad messaging to decision-makers, we should also broaden it and seek to complement the efforts to reach audiences with research findings with alternative forms of more lasting research uptake. Here are a number of examples from SLRC’s work in DRC on how we have done this.
Durable Research Uptake by SLRC in DRC
Strengthening the institutions that enhance evidence-based approaches
In the DRC, the SLRC programme includes a collaboration between a Netherlands-based university and the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural (ISDR) in Bukavu. Joint production of evidence and research papers, and shared investment in research networks helped strengthen the institutional pillars of the ISDR. Through the SLRC, the collaboration resulted in an initiative to jointly set-up a Centre of Research and Expertise on Gender and Development (CREGED). The centre is hosted by ISDR and supported by different universities and NGOs in South Kivu, as well as by the Dutch Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.
Strengthen individual researchers through PhD trajectories
Because the SLRC is a long-term programme, we were able to offer a number of the researchers a PhD scholarship. These researchers advanced their academic skills through fieldwork in a programme that was also pro-development and pro-poor. We placed a premium on research uptake as well as academic excellence. Thus the SLRC has helped foster a generation of grounded, practice-oriented PhD holders who, we hope, will further advance the research principles that are at the core of the SLRC.
While finishing their theses, Aembe Bwimana and Gloria Nguya have both invested in building relations with development actors. Gloria has done an internship with UN-WIDER in Helsinki, and when Aembe was conducting research into performance-based financing he collaborated closely with the NGO Cordaid.
Incorporate research findings in the curricula of higher education
When research findings reach higher education curricula, they can resound for years and inspire students that may well be future decision-makers in policy and practice. And years (rather than one-off research conferences) is what it takes to achieve durable impact. The DRC team is currently planning to develop a Master’s course on gender and development, partially grounded in the findings of our research.
This initiative has been taken on by ISDR, in collaboration with a national network of gender studies that is based in Kinshasa and CREGED is preparing to offer this course in the next academic year.
As the DRC struggles to make its way through another difficult time in its troubled history, we look forward to hearing further perspectives on how to translate knowledge into policy and practice and to the challenge of using our future research findings to see how we can further improve our research uptake.