5 takeaways from the Research for Development Impact conference

Helen Clark, among the audience listening to speakers at the 2017 Research for Development Impact conference. Photo by: Lisa Cornish / Devex

In Sydney on June 13 and 14, the 2017 Research for Development Impact conference hosted a diverse range of development players to discuss partnering for impact on sustainable development. Collaboration, coordination and solidarity were chief on the mind of the attending researchers, NGO workers and government staffers from Australia and the region.

For many, the conference was a chance to discuss issues impacting collaboration between NGOs and the research sector, share lessons learned and highlight the challenges in delivering development outcomes today.

Devex was in attendance and has five key takeaways from the two days of intense debate and exciting discussion.

1. The impact of global nationalism on the work of NGOs

Global nationalism, it was argued, is increasingly impacting the security of aid workers. In today’s political environment, aid workers are more likely to face attacks and imprisonment. Paul Ronalds, CEO of Save the Children Australia, said in 2014 a total of 96 countries passed laws that increased restrictions on civil society. The war on terror, Ronalds said, was being used to infringe on human rights and stop NGOs from speaking out about abuses.

It is not just in developing countries where the voices of NGOs are being marginalized, warned Ronalds. Former Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison’s attack on Save the Children for speaking out against the treatment of children in detention centers was an example of threats to the sector closer afield. And worse, noted Ronalds, Morrison’s attack received no public backlash. Instead, he was deemed a strong leader and was rewarded with a promotion to treasurer.

For Ross Piper, COO of World Vision Australia, one case is a “test case for the sector:” ongoing judicial proceedings against World Vision Gaza head Mohammad El Halabi, who has been accused by Israel of diverting millions of dollars to Hamas. Although a donor investigation by the Australian government said there had been no wrongdoing, the judicial proceedings continue and require investment in resources to clear both Halabi and validate the work of the organization.

Piper said he believes the case represents a make-or-break moment for the sector as whole, impacting its ability to operate on the ground in politically tumultuous regions.

2. Is ‘partnership’ just a buzzword?

The theme of the conference was partnerships. But at the conference, some questioned whether it was simply the latest development buzzword.

Previously, NGOs’ work with other sectors, including the research community, was not necessarily identified as a partnership. But at La Trobe University alone, more than 50 academics have the word “partnership” in their title. What was the legitimacy that came out of using the word? It was a topic up for debate.

The need to seek diverse streams of funding and support the desires of existing donors was key to the issue. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, for example, are heavily focused on private sector engagement as part of their aid program to increase nongovernment sources of funding for the aid sector.

“The mess and complexity of partnerships is obscured by the soothing pacifier of the way the word is used,” Yeshe Smith, programs and partnerships manager for the Institute for Human Security and Social Change, told the audience.

Clearly defining what is a partnership and what is not, Smith told the audience, was an important first step in ensuring the word is not misused. Paying someone to do work on your behalf is not a partnership; it’s an agreement for work outcomes. “Genuine partnerships is about losing power and control and embracing vulnerability,” Smith said.

In reality, Smith said, partnerships should be about losing yourself and your organization to seek new ideas and outcomes. But currently, the term is being used incorrectly where organizations are involved in a combined work plan, not collaboration in the true sense of the word.

3. Can scientific research provide ‘proof?’

In an address to the conference, Oxfam Australia Chief Executive Helen Szoke explained the importance of research to her organization and its ability to advocate for developing communities and their needs.

“We rely heavily on evidence, so that means that we rely heavily on evidence that is proof checked, that is sound and means we can go onto the global stage, national stage or local stage with very strong evidence,” she said. Research partnerships were a critical component in this strategy to develop evidence.

But in a session discussing social and scientific proof, the question on their role in developing evidence was debated.

“There is very little such thing as scientific proof,” Dr Tari Turner, a senior research fellow with Cochrane Australia, said from the onset. She said that science can be used more accurately to disprove an idea or theory rather than support it. “We can accumulate evidence but we can rarely prove it.”

In her experience working in developing countries, Turner found that it was not often research that drove change. Instead, it could be someone with influence, on the ground, who made the decision that a change would occur. The time and effort that went into research was not always well spent. Understanding the drivers of change and whether research could contribute to it — as a way to influence that cog, for example — was important. If rigorous scientific research had no value in creating change, then investing in it was not of value.

Trusted evidence can assist in informing decisions, but asked whether it could reduce uncertainty, Turner was skeptical.

“Sometimes, maybe, I’m not really sure,” she said. The legitimacy and information collected could depend on range of circumstances, including where research is occurring, who is conducting it, time available and what it is intended for.

4. Who is asking the research questions?

Szoke said that research needs to be driven by the needs of the community in which it aims to support. But Chris Roche, director of the Institute for Human Security and Social Change, argued that it was important to think about who is asking the research question, as it can be swayed by personal opinion and politics.

Citing a personal experience, Roche explained that in running a monitoring and evaluation workshop for a bilateral agency — which he did not name — he presented a range of methods to evaluate impact. This included storytellers, micro-ethnographic narrators and quasi-experimentalists.

“We had everybody,” Roche told the audience. And the purpose was to show various approaches that could be used to evaluate programs.

At the end, a senior policymaker within the agency told Roche that the session had been extremely useful. “But frankly, I don’t care what effing method you use, as long as it doesn’t make the minister look like an idiot in front of Senate Estimates,” Roche told the audience, the policymaker said.

Politics, Roche explained, do matter and cannot be ignored. And it certainly makes an impact into the research question being asked, how its success is evaluated and the “evidence” it depicts.

“Politics is reality,” he said. “You can’t escape it, particularly in evaluation processes. Who funds what research, why ask the questions — that is real.”

5. Tips for successful partnerships

At the end of the day, the conference was focused on building partnerships, particularly between NGOs and the research sector. Shared goals and objectives were frequently discussed, but there were a range of additional suggestions speakers shared through their on-the-ground experience.

1. Understand each other and establish goals and objectives — and be courageous. Attendees at the conference spoke about the continued barriers that exist between NGOs and the research sector. The motives of researchers can come into question, with NGOs arguing that they simply want to collect their data and leave. And researchers argue that NGOs are not providing them with enough time to rigorously evaluate issues to identify barriers and test solutions.

Lack of discussion is part of this problem.

Smith explained that acknowledging each other’s discomfort was an important part of the process of creating a good partnership. Being courageous to speak up, ask questions and push agendas was an important part of the process to establish successful partnerships, according to Smith and other speakers.

2. Be open to new views. Rosie Wheen, chief executive for WaterAid Australia, urged attendees to be open to new views generated through new partnerships and collaborations.

From her experience with WaterAid, Wheen found that NGOs may initially be reluctant to have outside perspective on their work. But rather than being fearful of new ideas, she said that they can be “liberating” by reinforcing good practices and identifying areas for improvement.

“They are about a clear and shared purpose, celebrating our diversity and building trust and empathy so you can expose vulnerability and build on strength,” Wheen told the audience.

3. Continue looking for ways to improve partnerships. Signing a memorandum of understanding should not the end of a partnership, speakers urged, explaining that relationships need continual improvement and nurturing. Face-to-face meetings are an important part of building improve partnerships, with Dr. Jacqueline Thomas from the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney. She explained that in her experience working in Tanzania, direct contact and discussion is more efficient than remote communication — especially when working with government.

But above all, successful partnerships take work from both ends. And they need continued will to thrive and prosper.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.