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Rethinking Research Partnerships

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Evidence and the Politics of Participation in Academic-INGO Research Partnerships
A Conversation on Knowledge Democracy

On Monday of March 27th in London, UK, I had the opportunity to attend a day of the two-day workshop jointly organized by a wide range of academics involved in international development and researchers from international NGOs, mostly based in the UK.  For many years the two solitudes of academic international development researchers and international NGOs passed each other in airports and bars on their respective ways to their projects in countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere in the global south.  In the past 5-10 years these separations have been breached as academic researchers have established a series of research partnerships with the UK-based INGOs.  The Rethinking Research Partnerships initiative has been a two year series of seminars, reflections and conversations around the politics of evidence and participation within the academic-INGO research partnership process.

The ESRC-funded seminar series took a case-study approach, involving the presentation and analysis of seven cases of research partnerships. While these case studies could broadly be characterized as ‘successful partnerships’, the series identified and analysed a variety of challenges and tensions arising from collaborations. Despite the range of evidence preferences and research approaches adopted by the partnerships, and the diversity in scale and distribution (with many of the case studies involving additional partners from the Global South), the common thread running through the cases was the importance of understanding the context in which the partnerships were formed. The dynamics, agendas and priorities of the UK’s INGO and academic context (including policy and funding mechanisms for research and development) impacted on motivations for partnerships and shaped the types of evidence valued in partnerships with implications for the prioritization of certain approaches, skills, roles, knowledge and languages. A key aim of the event that I took part in was to share lessons from the seminar series from a UK-perspective while incorporating actors from the Global South, in addition to people working in other UK sectors, to engage with these insights, and affirm, challenge and extend them.

An impressive collaboration

The breadth of the collaborating organisations struck me.  In fact most of the major UK academic units in the field of international development were there as well as many of the best-known UK-based INGOs working overseas.  I was struck as well by the depth of the relationships that have sprung up over the years of collaboration.  People knew each other well judging from the up-beat and collegial mood in the room.  Most of those who were in the room had participated in one or more of the previous seminars, were part of earlier case studies or had been part of earlier efforts at harvesting new learning.  Personally, it was a delight to see the mixture of young people as well as some friends of mine from 30 years or more.  The way that the workshop was organised was wonderful! It was very participatory with a focus on allowing for the maximum sharing by the largest number of participants.  The NGO mode of analysis in this case dominated the academic normality! And good to see that there has been funding over recent years for both academics and NGOs to pursue their independent and common interests. How much the UK Conservative sweep and the Brexit focus will take away from what has been was a worry on the minds of everyone. Clearly INGOS have increasingly been recognized as knowledge creators and not simply sources of data, although challenges remain.

Towards a decolonising practice

Taken as we have been in the UNESCO CBR team with the meaning of knowledge democracy, the decolonisation of knowledge, epistemide and cognitive justice, it might be understood that those were lenses through which I processed the experience. There were several thoughts that I want to share. 

First is the importance of connecting the international partnerships between development-oriented academics and INGO partners with the rich array of domestic research being co-produced by universities and local NGOs/CBOs.  It was significant that one of the seven ‘international development’ case studies explored through the RRP series had a UK-focus and involved CBOs, locals government and Trade Unions as well as the central partnership between a university and INGO.  The workshop I attended also integrated a perspective from the UK’s community development and public (health and education) sectors as well as learning from the large-scale AHRC-funded Connected Communities programme.  A key partner of the RRP initiative has been the UK’s National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement with a view of linking learning between the international development sector and domestic community development on issues of universal concern such as affordable housing, violence against women, countering Islamaphobia and so forth. 

Another question that I asked in one the small groups that I was in was to what extent did they involve academics from the universities in Ghana, Nigeria, and so forth; universities in the Global South.  I was told that those kinds of partnerships were very rare because the UK based INGOS were more likely to link up with UK based academics and that international academics had more prestige and could be seen as more objective than local academics.  This tendency has been enhanced by the shift in international development policy and research funding by the Conservative government with its explicit agenda around exporting British technical expertise as part of ODA. However, most of the case studies explored through the RRP seminar series involved additional partnerships with academics from Africa, Asia and Latin America and the ESRC increased the project’s budget to support academics from South Africa, Ethiopia, Brazil, the Philippines and Qatar to attend the workshop. Day 2 of the event also included a presentation from the South-South Exchange Programme for the History of Economic Development, which is a network of academics from the Global South engaged in re-theorising ‘development studies’ from a Southern perspective. The challenge then becomes how to influence funding and policy structures to ensure that these alternative knowledges and approaches are integrated into action-oriented research partnerships.

My next question then was what about the role of national NGOS?  Every country that I know of in the global South now has a wide range of quite skilled national NGOS.  Those NGOS that are funded by the INGOS were of course part of the process, but what about the independent ones?  One story that I was told was that when a project was being created in one Middle East country, the national NGO(s) were critically involved as they had the on-the-ground experience, but when the proposal was finally finished only the INGO was mentioned as it was felt that they had more prestige.  This challenge – and its related issues of extending networks, addressing complex power relations and building capacity was explored in the RRP workshop in a session led by INTRAC (the International NGO Training and Research Centre) who are engaged with these issues in their own work.  It also relates to an emerging argument being made by activists such as Kumi Naido about the importance of involving Southern-based transnational social movements in knowledge production for the development of better policy and practice.  

Budd L Hall and Jude Fransman, Open University  March 30 2017

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