The bounded mutuality of research-policy partnerships

Published on 11 June 2019

James Georgalakis

Director of Evidence and Impact

Engaging research with policy means dealing with the realities of partnering with those whose agendas and mandates differ to your own.

The Impact Initiative for International Development Research, which has spent the last four years supporting over two hundred research projects funded by the ESRC-DFID Strategic Partnership, has become increasingly focused on the dynamics of research policy partnerships.

What has become abundantly clear is that the impact of research on alleviating poverty, developing economies, reducing inequalities and responding to emergencies, largely rests on collaboration between researchers and potential research users. In a new IDS Bulletin on research-policy partnerships, my co-editor (Pauline Rose) and I challenge the assumption that these policy-orientated research collaborations need to be built on the identical agendas of like-minded and equal organisations. In the real world, mutual agendas are ‘bounded’ by political and social realities that demand compromise and sometimes collusion.

The campaign for equitable research partnerships

The movement to place equity and fairness at the centre of research partnerships has been driven by participatory researchers who are committed to the principles of cognitive justice and research as a democratic tool to empower citizens and hold the powerful to account. They have successfully raised these issues up the agenda of donors and research organisations. The case has been well made that failure to involve communities in decisions about programmes that will affect their lives invariably lead to poor outcomes. These values and theories have been cited as part of the critique of the Newton Fund and its apparent failure to direct more resources to its partners and build their capacity.

A critical report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) on the Fund has raised serious questions about why 90 per cent of the ODA funding has stayed in UK institutions when the Fund was envisioned to support innovation partnerships with those working in developing counties.

Bounded mutuality

In our study, we have focused not so much on partnerships between universities and research institutions in high, middle- and low-income countries, as on the engagement by researchers (from both the north and the south) with non-academic partners. The case studies from ESRC-DFID funded research projects that co-designed, co-produced and co-communicated research with partners from policy and practice provided little evidence of mutual agendas and equal partnerships.

Despite this, the lived experience of communities was often heard and in some cases, evidence-informed policy formulation and delivery were supported. As political scientists have been pointing out for quite some time, agendas need to overlap but they are almost never going to do so entirely. Whether researchers’ partners are NGOs, government agencies or the private sector, the trick seems to be to find enough common ground to make the collaboration a productive one. In transdisciplinary partnerships that span research and policy or practice, you can strive for fairness, transparency and ethical standards, but don’t look at your partner and expect to see yourself staring back.

In democracies, policymakers, their advisors and civil servants have quite different accountabilities and evidence needs to a university. Just because research is epistemologically robust does not make it fit for policy. Policy actors inevitably need viable and quite short term solutions that will meet with public approval but researchers are sometimes hard-pressed to deliver these.

The world as it is rather than how you wished it was

The term ‘bounded mutuality,’ as featured in our new analytical framework for research-policy partnerships, is not used pejoratively. To admit that agendas can only be partially aligned is to free oneself of unrealistic goals and the tokenistic use of the term partnership. Power asymmetries will always exist in the production and use of evidence.  Dominant partners, who are often the potential users of the research will always seek to frame the issues and may value some types of evidence over others.

However, if despite these challenges you can still find enough common ground to make your work together worthwhile then proceed (albeit with caution). Of course, we must challenge injustice and power inequalities whenever we can. Sometimes this is easier to do out of the limelight of high stake politics. Despite the popular advice to exploit policy windows the arrival of your issue on the political agenda can be a mixed blessing. At this point, success may largely rest on whether you have successfully built up the necessary relationships and networks and framed your evidence for the world as it is rather than how you wished it was. The real test is whether there is sufficient agreement on what the problem is and what a good outcome might look like.

The case studies we looked at ranged from attempts to leverage evidence around the lived experiences of pastoralists in Ethiopia, the influencing of regional strategies to improve health systems in South Africa to promoting more inclusive education in India and Uganda. In none of these contexts were researchers working as equal partners in policy processes or shared identical mandates with ministries, development agencies and NGOs. Nonetheless, by carefully navigating these contested spaces they did influence the use of evidence.

By all means let’s keep campaigning for more equitable partnerships in development and especially better engagement with research communities in developing counties. However, when engaging with policy and practice be mindful that the sweet spot for influencing positive change may be predicated on relationships between slightly odd bed-fellows.

Read the IDS Bulletin.


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