Reflecting back on K4D’s achievements: 2018 to 2022

Published on 11 February 2022

Paul Knipe

Director of Consultancy, Impact and Influence

The Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development (K4D) programme has provided a rapid research helpdesk, knowledge brokering, and learning service for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and other UK Aid-spending government departments since October 2016.

I joined IDS to manage the programme in 2018 and now I’m handing over the reins after nearly three and a half memorable years.

This blog shares some reflections on what stands out when I look back over this time, and ahead to September 2022 when K4D is due to close.

Such a broad range of issues are ODA eligible

Prior to joining K4D, my experience of UK Aid-spending government departments was as a recipient; a project beneficiary in the field. K4D gave the opportunity to experience the internal workings of such a ministry. In the case of the Department for International Development (DFID) and now even more so with FCDO, the breadth of issues being thought about and strategised, and that are eligible for Official Development Assistance (ODA), is staggering.

K4D has responded to issues ranging from marine diversity to civil aviation. No wonder ensuring effective organisational learning and institutional memory can be so challenging, as highlighted in this ICAI review.

As part of its legacy, K4D has started planning how its large repository of reports and learning materials will be organised to ensure easy access. This may well build on mapping and synthesis around crosscutting themes carried out in 2021, such as this report on K4D’s work on the indirect impacts of Covid-19 in low- and middle-income countries and another report on conflict.

K4D has been constant despite ongoing change and upheaval

Has there been a period with as much upheaval to ODA as the last three and a half years? First Brexit (or Yellowhammer as it was known in UK Government), then Covid-19, the huge reduction to ODA, the merger between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and DFID to form FCDO, the crisis in Afghanistan, and all at the same time as several changes in Secretaries of State and priorities.

Yet through all of this, demand for K4D services remained constant – perhaps unsurprisingly, as civil servants commissioned evidence syntheses or ‘learning journeys’ to inform development policy and programming amidst the change. K4D is a case in point for the importance of, and need for, independent evidence and learning services to enhance development business, as shown in this blog  outlining IDS’ response to the UK’s Integrated Review. 

Rapid research helpdesks are an essential service

The K4D Helpdesk builds on a model that has provided independent rapid research reports to FCDO and predecessors for 20 years. During this time, the approach and service has been refined. For example, increasing the amount of time a researcher spends on a query by half a day to ensure more detailed discussion with the commissioner to frame the request.

I’m in awe of researchers who can turn around a report on a specific or broad area with very little or vast amounts of literature in a matter of days. A highlight of 2021 was the publication of K4D’s 1,000th Helpdesk report – reflecting the continuing importance of the service to development policy and programming.

Although they can be challenging, learning journeys work

Learning journeys were a new idea to many when K4D started. It took time to embed the approach and learn what works for an organisation like FCDO. With K4D’s 40th Learning Journey recently launched, a couple of design points standout: firstly, the most successful have a core team, bringing together experienced researchers, project management, and FCDO staff with thematic expertise and knowledge of Government systems. It’s important that all involved are aware of the commitment needed to deliver learning journeys, sometimes a few days per month or more.

Secondly, bringing together people from a range of disciplines in a series of structured spaces has been very valuable to participants. Simply having the time in busy schedules to discuss emerging issues, learn from peers, and determine recommendations and actions, can have positive individual and development outcomes.

A strong relationship between FCDO and supplier management helps

I feel fortunate to have been part of a programme where governance works so smoothly. K4D benefited from a strong relationship with Heads of Profession and programme staff in FCDO, who were approachable and responsive, despite contextual challenges. K4D could determine strategy, escalate and resolve issues, and share and sign off new work quickly – a key requirement given the rapid response nature of the service.

More of the same, please

K4D runs until September 2022. It’s not yet clear how K4D services will be taken forward by FCDO. The ongoing demand for rapid evidence and accompanied learning services and examples of contribution to development outcomes, shown by K4D, are a strong case to continue. In the coming months K4D will focus on business as usual, alongside legacy planning to ensure research and learning is easily accessible. It will hopefully also be a time to refine services and plan for what may follow.

I’d like to thank colleagues at IDS, across the K4D consortium, and at FCDO for making K4D the success it is and an enjoyable experience to be part of.


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