I took part in a conference on fragile states last week. Because it was held under Chatham House rules, I can’t say much about it, (except for the excellent on-the-record presentation by Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which I blogged on at the time), but it got me thinking about a wider issue. Do we need a new model for conducting research that can be absorbed by aid workers?
To caricature, here’s the problem: on the one hand, a research establishment whose funding and career incentives generate mountains of long, closely argued papers and books that look horribly off-putting and inaccessible to many non academic aid workers. Pressure from people who don’t settle down with a sigh of satisfaction to read 80 page technical papers with lots of annexes has meant that these are now accompanied by executive summaries and a proliferating number of ‘one pagers’ and ‘two pagers’ for policy makers, aid workers and others.
Is that the best we can do? It means that research is conducted, written down in a paper, heaped on a conference table or uploaded to a website, and then the researcher’s work is largely done. The aid worker or other harassed, time-constrained person is then expected to find it, pick it up, read, digest and apply it to their own lives. In practice, that often doesn’t happen – partly because of the length of the paper, but partly because of the indigestibility of so much external information and analysis that is not tailored to the aid worker’s needs. If it was in a classroom, it would be called ‘chalk and talk’. We need to come up with better ways to encourage ‘knowledge absorption’ by practitioners.
A comparison: research is essentially a Fordist exercise, churning out hundreds of standardized products – the model T Fords of
knowledge generation. Model Ts have their place of course – research of this kind sets agendas, shapes debates and can be absorbed by people who really want to do so, and (to mix metaphors) eventually finds its way into the political and practitioner bloodstream. But it’s uphill work – what would post-Fordist, ‘Toyotist’ (OK, maybe I need to change that comparison) research products look like, customized to the needs and preferences of the user?
At the moment customization occurs largely through outsourcing – an aid agency pays a consultant to do its thinking for it, and produce a report. But that doesn’t transfer skills or make the aid agency better next time. So why not try ‘co-production’ – a researcher and an aid worker travelling, researching and talking together, challenging each other, and then writing up the results? Think farmer field schools for aid workers. IDS has probably done more thinking on this than most development outfits – John Gaventa made his name organizing ‘participatory action research’ in the Appalachians, and Andrea Cornwall has tried this kind of thing with NGOs in Brazil (see below).
One problem with this model is expense – NGOs just can’t afford the IDS’s of this world, without some kind of subsidy, and if the knowledge generated applies purely to that specific example, then the research could be very expensive indeed. But if we really want practitioners to absorb and apply research, we should find a way to pilot more of these approaches, perhaps working with less expensive research institutions in developing countries.
Any positive experiences of co-production that people can point to? Best example I’ve seen so far is ActionAid’s Knowledge Initiative.
And to show just how different such a process could look, here’s one small example of co-production at work from Andrea Cornwall at IDS:
‘The project began as a long, slow conversation between Sue Fleming, DFID social development adviser in Brazil at the time, Jorge Romano, country director for ActionAid at the time, Alex Shankland who used to work for Health Unlimited in Brazil and had just been working with IDS and myself. Our conversations were about Brazilian experiences of citizenship and how to make them legible to an international audience, and about how to bring together a diversity of perspectives on what had happened in the period since the dictatorship to understand social movements’ struggles and contribution to Brasil’s democratization.
We started by putting together a workshop with a selection of activist-researchers, activist-intellectuals and activist-practitioners. About thirty of them. Those invited came from our professional (ActionAid partners, DFID social development grantees, academics and activists we’d all worked with) and activist networks.
The workshop was structured as follows:
- practitioners were given the floor to share their experience, with academics as discussants who prodded them for more information, asked questions, drew out interesting syntheses and analyses from what the practitioners said. It worked really well.
- we had various participatory exercises on concepts and buzzwords that helped clarify what we meant by terms, but also create a common (critical) language
- we had a few presentations at the start on the historical trajectory of participation and citizenship in Brazil and in international development as a backdrop against which the practitioners’ stories could be told and understood, which really helped contextualise them.
We then selected four case studies & created teams to research them. They consisted of:
- the practitioner as protagonist at the heart of the action
- a Brazilian academic with an interesting perspective on the issue
- a researcher/practitioner representing a perspective from international development
The practitioner told their story to the researchers. The researchers listened and came up with a checklist of things they thought were especially interesting about the story. The practitioner then added to the checklist and refined the questions, answered some of them and sent the researchers off to research the others, pointing them in the direction of particular people, gathering secondary information for them to read, and generally orienting them – sometimes attending interviews to make introductions and cut through the crap, sometimes sending researchers off on their own. The process was iterative, over the course of a very intensive week, with daily meetings and discussions, refining questions, gathering more information, asking more questions, drawing out the analysis.
The researchers then took the lead in writing up the case study, with inputs from the practitioner.
This was presented at a workshop at which the four cases were brought together with a series of short papers about the trajectories and victories of Brazil’s social movements.
In such a very short time, I gained more of an insight as a researcher than I could ever have imagined – and the insights we were able to feed back helped the council to reflect and possibly also make changes.’