Evidence and learning for development impact – what works?

How rapid research supports evidence-based policymaking

Published on 2 July 2021

University of Birmingham

The Covid-19 pandemic and recent cuts to the UK’s aid budget are critical reminders that policy decisions require timely and rigorous evidence. As the IDS-led Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development Programme (K4D) celebrates its 1000th Helpdesk Report, Sian Herbert explains why this milestone matters.

The K4D Helpdesk, and its previous iterations, has for the past twenty years been providing evidence and knowledge services to the UK Government – specifically the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and prior to that the Department for International Development.  Last month, we published our 1000th rapid-response literature review (otherwise known as a ‘Helpdesk Report’). Our longevity is testament to the usefulness of our work to the UK Government, and to the crucial need for rapid and responsive evidence, knowledge, and learning services for policymakers.

Busy civil servants do not have the time or headspace to do deep dive research, or to keep up with emerging evidence, on their specialist areas. Yet they have to make decisions on a daily basis on how to address some of the world’s most serious challenges, decisions that affect millions of vulnerable people across the globe. This is where the Knowledge Evidence and Learning for Development Programme (K4D) Helpdesk comes into play. One of the critical successes of our model is balancing timeliness with rigour to produce evidence-based reports to help bridge academia and policy.

Unique model for timely, bespoke evidence

The Helpdesk is a unique and innovative model where anyone from FCDO, and across UK Government with FCDO backing can request a rapid literature review through the K4D Helpdesk on a subject of their choice – just as long as the countries selected are eligible for overseas development assistance (ODA). We deliver an average of 20 research reports to the UK Government each month, and the vast majority are published online in recognition that sharing knowledge and research is a public good. This also includes other evidence and learning products such as the larger Emerging Issues Reports, and ‘Learning Journeys’ that support organisational learning and professional development. Helpdesk reports can provide a very broad, high-level view, such as looking at urban food systems and nutrition or focus on a very specific element such as family planning for refugees in camps in Tanzania.

Each Helpdesk Report takes up to a month to develop. At the beginning of our six-day research process, we have a quick call with the government official to understand their needs, which include  informing business cases, programming, bilateral and multilateral discussions and negotiations, diplomatic telegrams, and organisational learning. By fostering a greater understanding of the issues, K4D has helped shape the UK’s Africa strategy, informed mental health programming in the Middle East, and fostered cross-sector learning on climate change education, to name a few.

Over the past 20 years, we have devised a standardised research method for our Helpdesk work that means we set a clear and bounded research question at the outset, then we develop core search terms and use those to sift through and select literature from across academic journals, policy and practitioner publications, and grey literature, and perhaps also from the media and blogs, if the question is related to a new or evolving crisis. Our approach is not iterative with the government requester, so there are no follow-up comments and edits. This allows our work to be rapid, and unbiased, providing a review of the most relevant literature that we find during the six-day research process. As our processes have crystallised over two decades, we have seen the complexity of requests increase, and also the complexity of our work.

We write in a distinctively policy style that focusses on concision and clarity, with pithy ten-page papers our standard. This is no mean feat when tackling hugely complex and often politicised issues such as migration and violent conflict, humanitarian activities and deradicalization, and how elite groups exercise power in Iraq. We endeavour to provide a guide to the literature while also carefully highlighting the gaps in knowledge and the biases that the literature may reflect. We don’t provide recommendations or opinions, we leave that up to the decision-makers. This all fosters our ability to work rapidly and rigorously in times of crisis and uncertainty, such as those we are now witnessing.

In times of crisis, like the current Covid-19 crisis, having established and trusted research networks is critical for effective decision-making. K4D have proven to be responsive and innovative throughout the pandemic, producing more than 50 timely publications that focus on indirect impacts of Covid-19 to date. In an increasingly multipolar world where there is overabundance of information, and also misinformation, disinformation and narratives, rigorous evidence also acts as a critical form of soft power. So, join us in celebrating our 1000th report, and we hope for many more!

Sian Herbert is a Research Fellow at Birmingham University’s International Development Department, a core partner in K4D. 

Other blogs in this series on ‘Evidence and learning for development impact – what works?’:

  • Continuous learning for effective development
  • What the theory tells us about how organisations like FCDO can learn (coming soon)
  • What works for rapid evidence commissioning and uptake? (coming soon)
  • What works for successful learning processes? (coming soon)
The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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