Understanding how research can better engage aid policy

A researcher doing field work in Brazil. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CIAT / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — Between 2007 and 2016, Australian aid invested $58 million Australian dollars ($45.9 million) on an ambitious program to foment research — blue sky research as well as more grounded efforts that directly related to the aid program’s policies.  

The wealth of data produced by the Australian Development Research Awards Scheme is now the cornerstone of a new report from the Research for Development Impact Network outlining the interaction between research and aid program policy development.

Presented at last week’s 2018 Australasian Aid Conference in Canberra, the report outlined a slew of findings that provide key insight into how research can better engage aid policy.

Takeaways from the 2018 Australasian Aid Conference

The 2018 Australasian Aid Conference, hosted by the Development Policy Centre and The Asia Foundation in Canberra on Feb.13 and 14, brought together development and humanitarian researchers and professionals to discuss and debate the current state of aid.

The report found that 40 percent of ARDRAS projects sampled directly impacted aid policy — from policy change, system change to capacity development change, the research impacted a range of aid outcomes. And research directly related to aid priorities were more successful in leading to policy impact compared to blue sky research.

But from interviews with 25 stakeholders from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, development research funders and research institutions, the report identified a range of frustrations on both sides of the fence, with both researchers and policymakers keen to get more value from the partnership.

RDI Network Project Steering Group member Joanne Crawford, from the International Women’s Development Agency, spoke with Devex about the findings and recommendations — which she hopes will be used by both researchers and donors to create an aid program that better utilizes evidence-based policy.

Translate research into digestible information

For researchers, the ability to communicate information succinctly and in a language policymakers can digest is critical in ensuring it can be translated and make a development impact. But for many, this is easier said than done.

“You need to work really hard to clearly communicate complex things,” Crawford said. “But really, you should be able to take key takeaways in two minutes. If you can’t do that, you haven’t done your job.”

“Donors don’t have the time to get across all of the information — they need researchers presenting this information, and they need it aggregated and digested.”

According to Crawford, DFAT staff highlighted the inability for in-depth research documents to be translated into digestible chunks as barriers to them being able to use research outputs. The Department for International Development, she said, was an example of a donor that is actively investing in making research more digestible. Focused on violence against women, they are producing a regular digest of research on the topic, making staff aware of key research that could inform their policies and programs.

But beyond providing simplified messages to communicate research results, researchers need to be engaging their donors often throughout the research process.

“Good research communication is about engaging end users and working side-by-side throughout the research process,” Crawford explained. “These strategies exist and are of interest to a range of research. But what we are seeing is that more than 70 percent of researchers never receive formal training in research communication. They have self-identified that they would like upskilling and there are moves in university to demonstrate more impact from research.”

Crawford, a lead researcher on the Individual Deprivation Measure, or IDM) holds meetings at least once a month with key DFAT staff to communicate her research process and enable close engagement to support any ongoing information needs of DFAT.

“This opens doors and allows us to align with DFAT’s priorities,” Crawford explained, saying it was an important model for researchers to follow. “If you engage in an ongoing way, it creates momentum and opportunity as you go. That is our experience with the IDM.”

Maintaining expertise and liaisons within donor agencies

While researchers need to play a stronger role in communicating their research to donors, the donors also have to bridge the gap. But Crawford said that with reduced aid budgets and outsourcing of aid expertise, DFAT was seeing less capability in-house to be able to effectively use research and evidence to support better aid policy and programs.

“The best thinking in the world doesn’t sell itself. It needs to reach people at a point they can do useful things with that information.”

— Joanne Crawford, member of the Research for Development Impact Network

“Having the capacity to use research well is important. But it is tricky — it takes a lot of experience to know what good research is, where the innovations are and what the policy linkages are if there is no one doing a regular digest and update.”

A role that would better enable benefit to donors is an identified liaison within the agency, acting as a conduit between researchers and the DFAT. One case study used for the report was a project researching violence against women with disabilities in Cambodia, which was directly referenced in the Cambodian National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women, 2014–2018. The success of the research, Crawford believes, was the availability of liaisons both in Cambodia and Canberra.

“Having people whose job it was to be that conduit and coordinate wider engagement, know who needs to know — to have those people in the department and research team is making best use of engagement in the research,” she said. “The best thinking in the world doesn’t sell itself. It needs to reach people at a point they can do useful things with that information. Often those windows of opportunity open and close quite quickly — and you don’t see them if you are outside. You need people who are the link person outside.”

Having translating roles in the organization — staff who understands their role within the aid system well — Crawford said are worth their weight in gold. “They make a big impact internally and can cut through the red tape.”

Research expertise and liaisons are roles Crawford believes donor agencies need if they are serious about better utilizing evidence. But they also need to know their limitations — and for DFAT, their inability to effectively turn blue sky research into policy means this is an area of thinking that should be conducted through other research funding mechanisms which enable longer timeframes. DFAT should instead focus on research relating to program priorities.

The state of research in Australian aid today

Since 2016, research within DFAT has being commissioned in a disaggregated way based on needs of sector or country desks.

“Within DFAT, gender and disability teams are drawing on a well of evidence,” Crawford said. “Elsewhere, it is a bit patchy. What we see today is that there is no competitive coordination or research. We don’t have a current research strategy or centralized research section within DFAT, so it is a different landscape.”

But she said where there are incentives for research, there is uptake.

The RDI network report is an important step in better engaging DFAT on their investment in research.

“We are at the start of engaging DFAT on this topic,” Crawford said. “The current funding for the RDI Network is coming up at the end of the year and it is in our self-interest to promote this work.

If you don’t have some entity there to look across the different parts of the system, what you have are gaps, duplications, inefficiencies, and work not used as well. Aggregating and communicating research doesn’t happen by itself — and the RDI network sees itself as having an important role in conversations with DFAT around the need for this kind of mechanism.”

With the challenges facing developing world and evolving environments aid programs operate in, Crawford said research is more important than ever to better direct efficient and effective spending of aid money. And it takes a joint effort between all partners, including donors and researchers, to achieve this.

“It’s about individuals, structures, and incentives and relationships, and recognizing drivers,” she said. “There is no one solution. Working to connect those parts will deliver targeted and effective evidence. But it doesn’t happen without attention and care.”

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.