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Opinion

Could INGOs be the future of evidence for development?

Published on 16 May 2019

Image of James Georgalakis
James Georgalakis

Director of Communications and Impact

Long gone are the days when academic institutions could claim a monopoly on good quality research on development. Many INGOs (international non-governmental organisations) who acquired their initial experience of research as an advocacy tool now have very significant and sophisticated research capacity. Some of the most valuable learning on conducting research in challenging contexts, improving its production and use for policy and evaluating its impact, is coming from these organisations.

BOND’s recent report on INGO research describes big changes in the use of research by international charities and think tanks. However, progress is very uneven with only some of the larger organisations like Christian Aid, Oxfam, Sightsavers and ActionAid having developed full blown research strategies linked to their overall strategic goals.  For much of the sector it is business as usual says the report, with ‘Death Star research’ deployed to support specific advocacy objectives.

INGO researchers deserve more recognition

INGO-based researchers themselves face some real challenges. Unlike their equivalents in universities there is no recognised career path and often little recognition of their skills. Your name may not even appear on the reports you contribute to and your work, even when enjoying high circulation and influence, is rather patronisingly referred to as grey literature. It is rarely cited by academics and your employer is unlikely to support you to get it published in peer-reviewed journals. However, things are beginning to change as larger organisations invest in research capacity and support staff to pursue research careers. More and more development master’s and PhD graduates are choosing a career in NGOs where they feel they can make a difference to the use of evidence.

Blurring the boundaries between university and INGO

Unhelpful counter narratives have emerged that either portray academics as socks and sandal wearing blustering professors and NGOs as slick users of evidence for change, or see academics as the guardians of rigorous research and NGOs as reckless activists. But a new generation of researchers and policy professionals are demonstrating that the boundaries between these sectors are blurrier than we imagine. People are increasingly moving between the INGO sector and academia. A new breed of practitioner researcher is dividing their time between their original research and professional work which are mutually reinforcing. All this has further magnified the absurdity of research evidence being published in journals behind a paywall, rendering them useless to non-university based researchers and policy wonks.

Development NGOs can produce, with their local partners, excellent research and use it very effectively to improve their learning and influence change. Academic institutions and independent research organisations can mobilise long-term research to inform policy and engage in wider public discourse. Perhaps the answer to improving evidence use to respond to global challenges is to work better together.

If you liked this blog then check out IDS’ live-streamed event on 25 July: ‘How can NGOs and civil society organisations enhance their production and use of research?’ with the author of BOND’s report, Jude Fransman,  Oxfam’s Ruth Mayne and Elena Schmidt of Sightsavers.

And check out our three-day course ‘Engaging Evidence and Policy for Social Change’, which takes place in July 2019 at IDS.

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