The value of implementing international research partnerships led from the South

Published on 30 September 2019

Richard Longhurst

Research Associate

It does seem rather obvious now when we look back at the successful completion of the Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA) Research Programme Consortium that achieving an effective and useful research consortium means that the consortium should be led by a Southern institution.  LANSA, received a grade A+ on completion from its funder, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), and as Martin Broadley and Rachel Lambert from DFID’s Agricultural Research team highlighted in their recent blog, has ‘already helped to change the public and political discourse on nutrition sensitive agriculture in the region’.

‘sandeepachetan.com travel photography’, Terrace farms at Sanasar, Jammu, India, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ensuring policy makers and professionals see the value of using research

LANSA started with the objective of improving understanding of how South Asian agriculture and food related policies and interventions could be better designed and implemented to increase their impacts on nutrition outcomes, especially the nutritional status of children and adolescent girls. Among many factors, two things were key: first, the continued institutional presence  in country after the research has been completed and second, the importance of the ‘uptake of recommendations’ phase that starts before the conclusion of the research. Having Southern partners in the driving seat is critical to ensuring agriculture and health professionals as well as policy makers and programme implementers in governments see the practical value of using the research.

The value of global partnerships for research

LANSA’s research programme was underpinned by a truly global partnership led by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), with BRAC Bangladesh and The Collective for Social Science Research Pakistan from South Asia; the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH) and IDS in the UK and the CGIAR’s International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Focal countries were Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, all countries with undernutrition rates that are among the highest in the world, and with populations that are largely dependent on agriculture.

At IDS, our Director of Communications and Impact recently argued that to achieve a truly ‘Global Britain’ we need to take international research policy partnerships seriously, and that genuinely international collaborations involve handing over some of the funding to partners. It was pointed out that a recent critical report by the International Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) on the Newton Fund has raised serious questions as to why 90% of the ODA funding has stayed in UK institutions, when the Fund was envisioned to support innovation partnerships with those working in developing countries.

UK must invest in sustainable research partnerships

The UK government and UK universities must invest in building sustainable research partnerships that value local knowledge and southern research expertise as much as the careers of academics at home. With effective partnerships, the value of UK taxpayer’s investment in research funding allows the UK to play a role on the world stage in meeting global challenges such as climate breakdown, disease outbreaks, conflict, rapid urbanisation and food insecurity.  There are several aspects that support and hinder international research partnerships and finding common ground between all institutions is key.

Learning from LANSA on building sustainable partnerships and meeting global challenges.

First, vesting managerial power in an institution in the South shows governments that the research takes a direction that understand their needs.  The presence of an institution that is directing such a global programme over an extended period and located directly in one of the research areas provides an intellectual and physical focal point that attracts a range of agriculture professionals, journalists and the general public. LANSA was also of sufficient size and duration to link up with several other initiatives in South Asia on food security and nutrition.  The similar nature of problems and contexts, meant that findings in one country often had relevance across the region.

Second, LANSA’s governance, quality control and internal peer review mechanisms were well organised, and effective with a broad representation. A consortium steering group met regularly either in person or virtually and reviewed all research proposals, which were then vigorously reviewed internally. Healthy peer review drove the research consortium along and raised quality of outputs.

Third, we all appreciate that leadership and the role of the people in charge is a key element, especially if they are strongly supported and influential in their actions. In this instance, LANSA had such precious commodities in substantial amounts. MSSRF was set up in 1988 and directed by Prof M S Swaminathan, world renowned scientist and recipient of the World Food Prize. The CEO of LANSA, the late Professor Prakash Shetty, formerly professor of Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was very highly respected for his professional and personal skills, skilfully navigating a path through many obstacles to the large number of research outputs and new findings, (as cited in the DFID blog).  Sadly, Professor Shetty passed away at the end of the programme.

Fourth, LANSA set up from the start a Research Uptake Unit with a focal point in each institution.  This means that relationships and communication with governments, other researchers and the public in general, including farmers themselves, did not suddenly start up once the research was completed. The research strategy itself was presented at the very beginning allowing these key actors to shape the process and ensure the research was addressing a clear need. Preliminary research findings were being disseminated at an early stage in a variety of formats, not only research reports and high-quality journal articles, but also social media, learning labs at large conferences, policy briefs, face-to-face meetings, blogs and videos during the progress of the research. After all, research work always starts with knowing something so why not start sharing that with your partners of practice. The work of research uptake cements the research partnership across countries and institutions.

The experience of LANSA shows the strong value of locating research centres in the South. All partners and the networked partnerships that LANSA initiated now have an implementation agenda to work towards with policy professionals.

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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