By Philippa Smales*
Research for Development Impact Network
Bringing together academics and practitioners can strengthen research in many different areas, including in human rights and in international aid and development. Due to the nature of their work, academics and practitioners tend to conceive of and measure their research impact or outputs differently. While this can lead to a failure to connect, harnessing the strengths of both approaches can produce better outcomes, overall.
In academia, research on specialised areas can take place over long periods of time – often years. Outputs are usually conference papers, journal articles, maybe a book; these have impact if they are widely read, cited, and purchased. Research for practitioners is often done over a very short time period – days or weeks, and is usually on a particular thematic issue or centred around case studies. Outputs are often a research report which is distributed internally and to a limited degree, externally, or development of policy, frameworks, tools, media or advocacy materials. The output has impact if it changes policy or practice, is used by practitioners, or is useful in the field.
National implementation of the International Labour Organisation’s Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers provides an example of how bringing together the different approaches of academics and practitioners can yield stronger outcomes than either sector working alone. The Convention entered into force in 2013 and is an important piece of international human rights law; its implementation can make a difference in the lives of thousands of domestic workers who under national laws previously had few, if any, rights as workers.
After its adoption in 2011, academics researched and wrote on how the Convention could be implemented by extending or adapting existing laws, regulations and policies, as well as on the intricacies of other laws that could be affected by bringing domestic work into the formal economy. This research often failed to connect with how the framing of these laws would affect domestic workers in their everyday lives.
On the other hand, practitioners researched the lives of domestic workers and considered the likely impact of legal and regulatory initiatives. Practitioners used this research to better advocate or assist civil society organisations to advocate for changes in laws and policies. Their work often lacked an understanding of how exactly protections for domestic workers could be incorporated into legal and regulatory regimes.
Had academics and practitioners worked together, they would have been better able to ensure that proposals for law and policy reform were relevant and effective for protecting the rights of domestic workers not just in theory, but in practice.
Working together enables academics to benefit from practitioners’ local relationships, knowledge and access to communities, while practitioners can benefit from the additional research capacity, expertise and methodological rigor of academics.
In the field of international development, academics and practitioners are already working together in several ways.
Firstly, practitioners are increasingly moving from field work into doing a postgraduate degree at a university, often in order to research a specific issue encountered in the field. They bring with them a practitioner’s viewpoint and contacts in not-for-profit, non-governmental organisations (NGOs). They want their research to be relevant to the field and eventually to be used by practitioners, or to change policies that affect the work of practitioners in the field.
Secondly, there are consultants with an academic background who are commissioned by NGOs to do evaluations, policy or research where capacity is lacking within NGO staff.
Thirdly, there are also increasing examples of formal partnerships, such as the Oxfam-Monash Partnership, built on the idea that working in partnership can achieve more in international development than working alone. The Oxfam-Monash Partnership conducts action research projects that combine the disciplinary knowledge of Monash academics and ground-level expertise of Oxfam staff to achieve research outcomes that would not otherwise be possible.
In November 2014, the Oxfam-Monash Partnership and the Research for Development Impact (RDI) Network (named the ACFID University Network at the time) jointly hosted a Partnerships Brokering Workshop. The Workshop was highly regarded by all participants, particularly as it was based on current partnerships between NGOs and universities on specific development priorities and focused on the realities involved in collaboration across different organisational cultures. The workshop had a practice-oriented nature with training by specialist partnership brokers and the development of case studies of existing NGO and academic research partnerships.
As well as partnership brokering, the RDI Network is also working to strengthen research by supporting cross-sector research and publications, holding regular and collaborative symposia, workshops and conferences focused on key areas relevant to development practice and theory, and providing leadership in developing much needed guidance in the area of ethical research. It is also at the core of communications for Australian academics and practitioners on international development research. Those who join the Network have access to information on key sector events and conferences, latest research and reports, sector jobs and consultancy positions, as well as news from within the Network.
Dr Philippa Smales is RDI Network and Partnerships Manager for the ‘Research for Development Impact Network’, a collaboration between the Australian Council for International Development and Australian universities. The views expressed in this post are her own.
The RDI Network is free and open to all practitioners, researchers and evaluators working in international development and global social justice. If you are interested in joining, you can sign up through the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) website. Growing out of an existing partnership between ACFID (the peak body for the not-for-profit aid and development sector in Australia), twelve leading Australian universities, and the Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), over the past six years, the Network is the only body of its sort in the Australian development community.