Making systematic reviews work for international development research

Jessica Hagen-Zanker, Maren Duvendack, Richard Mallett and Rachel Slater with Samuel Carpenter and Mathieu Tromme

Type: Briefing Paper

Organisation: ODI

Country: Global

Full summary

The question of ‘what works’ in international development policy and practice is becoming ever more important against a backdrop of accountability and austerity. In order to answer this question, there has been a surge of interest in ‘evidence-informed policy making’.


Systematic reviews are a rigorous and transparent form of literature review, and are increasingly considered a key tool for evidence-informed policy making. Subsequently, a number of donors – most notably the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and AusAid – are focusing attention and resources on testing the appropriateness of systematic reviews in assessing the impacts of development and humanitarian interventions. 


This briefing paper reflects upon the use of systematic reviews in international development research and argues:


  • Using systematic review principles can help researchers improve the rigour and breadth of literature reviews
  • Conducting a full systematic review is a resource intensive process and involves a number of practical challenges
  • Systematic reviews should be viewed as a means to finding a robust and sensible answer to a focused research question