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Getting Academics and Aid Workers to Work Together

December 11, 2013

By Matthew Arnold

Aid workers and academics would seem natural collaborators. Development studies courses are common and it is routine to find academics who oscillate between the academy and the field as aid workers. In turn, the aid world often calls upon academics to provide expert advice and looks to their literature for guidance. Overall, though, the relationship is in ways distant; there exist natural tensions between those implementing on the ground and those who observe, assess, and comment.

Finding opportunities to cooperate more extensively, and naturally, is not easy, but it is possible. The Asia Foundation began a multi-year collaboration in 2012 with the London School of Economics’ Justice and Security Research Program (JSRP) to look into the “theories of change” the Foundation uses to underpin its justice and security programs. A bit of aid-speak jargon, theories of change are most simply understood as the explicit rationales guiding aid programming. They are proving themselves as natural mediums for academics and aid practitioners to engage with each other, intellectually but in a practical manner. On the one hand they allow practitioners to directly tie research to their actual programs on the ground. On the other, they allow academics to look at the relative causality of aid programs in relation to wider social change.

The partnership between the Foundation and the JSRP is producing a series of “theories in practice” working papers. These provide a rare area of systematic collaboration between social science researchers and development practitioners that will contribute to improvements in development practice and policy through a routine analysis of evidence around common theories of change. This joint project is producing research examining community meditation and dispute resolution in Nepal and northern Sri Lanka, conflict management in Mindanao (read post by researcher Jeroen Adam), and local governance reform in Timor-Leste, and has motivated further thematic research, including on the gender dynamics of community mediation in Sri Lanka, party politics in Nepal’s mediation program, and land disputes in the Terai. The findings of this research have started to influence programmatic management, with Asia Foundation country offices working alongside researchers in critically analyzing their programs, including through Foundation staff authoring some of the working papers.

An important aspect of the Foundation’s partnership with LSE is its model of working together. Currently much interaction between field practitioners and academics is focused around individuals, with an aid agency, for instance, contracting an academic as a consultant. In terms of costs, this can be very expensive for the agency but also limits the amount of field time for the researcher. In contrast, the Foundation-JSRP collaboration is a multi-year institutional arrangement that allows either side to garner from the other what can otherwise be a challenge to access. LSE academics are given extended field access as they are hosted by Foundation country offices and provided with 3-month research grants. In turn, Foundation staff are provided with a relationship that allows the complexities of their work to be written about in detail outside of the pressing timeframes of their routine work.

Moreover, each side covers its own core costs, with the Foundation’s hosting of the researchers providing great savings to the JSRP side and the extended writing requirements back in London picked up by JSRP. Overall, this makes the financial burden much more manageable for both sides. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) is providing funding to the JSRP as well as to the Foundation for research into justice and security programming. The ability of its two grantees to leverage cost savings from one another represents good value-for-money.

Finding areas where academia and aid practitioners can more effectively work together to strengthen the quality of development assistance is an important area for further refinement. Certainly every dollar spent on research is one that could potentially be spent directly on programming. Given this, there is an onus on those who believe research can sharpen development approaches – in both academia and the field – to prove how the two sides can effectively cooperate. Perhaps the burgeoning Foundation-JSRP collaboration is a model worth considering elsewhere.

Matthew B. Arnold is The Asia Foundation’s assistant director for Program Strategy, Innovation, and Learning. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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