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Whither Development Studies?

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Localizing Research Partnerships

A recent comparative study carried out by UK’s Development Studies Association focuses on the comparative value-addition of development studies carried out in partnership with NGOs and community-based organisations (CBOs). Entitled ‘Cracking Collaboration’, it analyses the factors that can enhance such value-addition. Much of the collaboration on research continues to be such where NGOs and CBOs are ‘users’ of research carried out by academics. Very few collaborations entail NGOs/CBOs setting the research agendas or co-producing the knowledge. The report makes a strong case for enriching development studies by deepening collaboration between academics and NGOs in ways that can improve contextual evidence and knowledge to inform practice and policy.

In recent years, there has been an increasing global discourse to derive contextual knowledge of development. Diversities of contexts significantly shape the processes, mechanisms and outcomes of national development policies and programmes. Yet, local knowledge is not readily available for adapting such programmes to local dynamics.

In a recent seminar in Delhi, a nation-wide study of economic contributions of the urban poor from 50 largest cities of India was discussed (www.pria.org). The associations of urban poor—rag-pickers, vendors, hawkers, rickshaw-pullers, construction workers, etc.—present in the seminar wanted to generate more localized and particularized knowledge about the contributions of their members in a particular city itself. This is where localized research partnerships between hawkers association in Kolkata, for example, and several universities and colleges located in that city can partner together to undertake more locally relevant research.

Likewise, in another seminar on People’s Budget Initiative (www.cbga.org), some participants shared findings of local studies carried out by NGOs and social movements on the realities of weak implementation of several national development programmes in education, water, sanitation and health. Several participants expressed desire to gather further local evidence so that they can support people’s struggles for a better life. Once again, such support can be enhanced if local colleges and universities from the district levels can partner with social movements and NGOs in undertaking locally relevant research.

However, for such local research partnerships to materialize, it is critical that NGOs, CBOs, civil society and social movements engage with institutions of higher education in their neighbourhoods. Local post-secondary educational institutions have researchers and students who can be inspired, encouraged and enabled to undertake locally relevant research on a wide variety of issues in a locally appropriate partnership with local NGOs and civil society. There is also a need for civil society to assertively demand such research collaboration from the principals and vice-chancellors of local colleges and universities. Unless civil society articulates that demand on a consistent basis, the present apathy, indifference and inertia from both sides will not be transformed.

Local knowledge for local practice and policy is critical for ensuring relevance and sustainability to local development. Local demand for improving the quality of development studies as applicable to local realities is indeed extremely critical. Can we all facilitate voicing of that demand more loudly?

Rajesh Tandon October 25, 2013

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