Knowledge translation in the global South: a new approach

Published on 7 September 2022

Enrique Mendizabal

In this blog, Founder and Director of On Think Tanks, Enrique Mendizabal, reflects on a joint research project with IDS which seeks to take a new approach, exploring Knowledge Translation in the Global South.

Knowledge translation (KT) practice has evolved over the decades. Research on KT practice hasn’t to the same extent. The literature still predominately focuses on the global North, and the same sectors and actors.

After some discussion and initial exploration, we interpret KT broadly as processes designed to engage evidence with policy, practice, and communities to influence behaviours, policies, and practice. And we’re focusing our investigation on research-based evidence.

Supported by IDRC and steered by an advisory group of academics and practitioners from Africa, South Asia and Latin America, this article explores where our current interests lie. +

1. Advancing thinking about Knowledge Translation

It’s easy to get stuck on terminology around KT.

In 2012, a group of researchers published the K* framework (K = knowledge, * = translation, brokering, communication and so on). The idea was to ‘get on with it’ and ‘not let terminology get in the way’. I was critical of the framework at the time; it seemed ironic to criticise jargon with more jargon. But I agree with the principle: of focusing on practice. 

KT is hugely diverse and impossible to define function. It happens everywhere. I hoped the K* discussion would include other actors (filmmakers, journalists, exhibit designers, teachers, political advisors and many more) who don’t necessarily see themselves as belonging to a KT community or who would use that terminology but are important players.

In this project, we want to move beyond the KT examples that we are most familiar with to contribute to a more diverse and inclusive understanding of KT practice. The ‘non-usual suspects’, as Vanesa Weyrauch, a member of the project’s steering group, called them.

A few weeks ago, I invited examples of innovative KT practice on LinkedIn. The response was overwhelming and included other actors previous alluded to:

  • The Peruvian media organisation RPP, which convenes and broadcasts policymakers and researchers in conversation.
  • The FreshEd education podcast, turning research into narrative.
  • Blue Adventure’s film on climate change impact, Kokolywhich won best short film at Naturetrack film festival in 2020.

2. Capturing adapting KT practices

The rapid changes in how knowledge is generated, communicated and used ushered by the internet and social media platforms were further exacerbated (and disrupted) by the pandemic.

I’ve read about and listened to a few podcasts recently on how conspiracy theories originate and can ‘take hold’ of otherwise very rational people – like the rise in educated, middle class anti-vaxxers.

These beliefs are not isolated. There’s a web of belief +. The ideas that people hold true are connected to each other. When one idea is challenged, it may lead to an unravelling of many other things we believe to be true.

Similarly, a change in policy in one sector can have a knock-on effect on other sectors. But research and funding tend to be organised along vertical lines: education funders fund education researchers, who engage with education practitioners and policymakers.

If most KT is thought of in terms of a ‘push’ from research to practice and policy, it simply won’t be able to address the entire web of beliefs.

So, we’re interested in finding KT practices that escape mono-disciplinary or sectorial straight-jackets and connect disciplines, sectors, narratives and beliefs.

The future, I expect, will have to be far more interesting than KT practice has been so far. Otherwise, the battle against misinformation will be lost!

Some research organisations are taking notice of these changes and adapting their strategies. Such as:

  • REDES in Peru launched the  Desenrredados podcast that aimed to explain key issues with clear relevance to the public debate (it’s not your usual think tank podcast).
  • Or a scientific TikToker from Serbia, drcosmicray. has close to 50,000 followers and over 950,0000 likes.

3. Paying attention to diversity, equity and inclusivity

Research and policymaking are generally elite activities. In most of the Global South resources for policy research are captured by a small number of organisations and individuals with close and long-term connections with Northern research communities and funding agencies. These often rely on overlapping alumni networks of US/European and local universities.

Even when funding goes directly to the Global South, we may unknowingly reinforce national or local inequalities.

Government embedded policy labs tend to prioritise certain types of evidence and expertise.

A group of African education practitioners and researchers we recently helped to convene pointed out that much research is communicated in the donor’s language despite those who are in greatest need for practical evidence-based advice don’t communicate in.

But there are examples of KT practices that promote diversity, equity and inclusion. Here are a few:

  • A Peruvian digital news channel La Encerrona intentionally featured political scientists from outside the capital city during the 2021 elections.
  • CIPPEC’s campaign in favour of a new paternity leave policy took their research to the train stations in Buenos Aires. Enlarged photos of men looking after their children and were seen by 15 million citizens who were invited to reflect on the role of fathers and the need for policy change.
  • WIEGO, an international organisation gives its grassroots membership organisations the first and final say on what to research. WIEGO’s role is to create and manage horizontal spaces to allow their researchers (and other research partners) to engage with the primary intended beneficiaries of the research. This is also KT: the lived experiences of millions of informal workers informs the research agendas and, ultimately, researchers’ policy recommendations.

Our research will ask important questions about who sets the agendas, who asks the questions, who generates and presents knowledge, who sets the terms of participation, whose questions are addressed, whose interests are represented, and so on?

We’re also interested in understanding the range of intended outcomes – how different actors think change happens and the role of research-based evidence itself – does it make a difference? Policy influencing is often an assumed goal among northern actors. When in fact, local actors may have very different aims.

4. Shining a light on KT protagonists

Research projects can easily become extractive exercises, relegating the protagonists to anonymous informants. We want this research project to be different.

We want to acknowledge the ideas and practices of the people and organisations in the global South who are doing the work.

5. Maintaining a local view

Although our focus is the global South, the world is not neatly divided along per capita income lines. The Equator is not the defining criteria either.

La Encerrona is led by a Peruvian based in Spain. The Conversation Indonesia originated in Australia but has expanded to the South and the North. The Conversation, Spain also serves the Latin American market. In fact, the Universidad de Buenos Aires is a founding member.

We intend to take a local perspective in this project. This means paying attention to the institutional setting within which KT takes place. While the channels and tools available for KT practitioners across the world are roughly the same, the context in which they operate differ: universities are underfunded, corruption in policymaking is endemic, the media lacks independence, and so on.

This approach will help ground our work and give us a useful starting point as we venture into the relatively unchartered world of KT practice in the Global South. But we will let the most interesting and useful experiences decide the journey, wherever they emerge from.

If you have an innovative KT example or case to share with us, please do via Twitter @Onthinktanks @QQMendizabal or via [email protected] 

This blog was originally published by On Think Tanks.

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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