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How Practitioner-Academic Research Collaborations Can Improve Development Outcomes

January 14, 2015

By Henry Radice

“Theories of Change,” as Craig Valters argued recently on In Asia, offer development practitioners a potential way to grapple with the complexity of social change. But understanding how to get the most out of the tool is still a work in progress. As Valters quipped, “We need a ‘Theory of Change’ for how theories of change can create change.”

Within development organizations, one of the functions theories of change can serve is as an entry point for academic research and evidence to inform practice. Arguably, this is best achieved when practitioners see this aspect of formulating a theory of change not just as a one-shot review of the literature, but rather as an opportunity to build an iterative and ongoing relationship between research and practice.

Since 2012, researchers from the Justice and Security Research Programme (JSRP), an international research consortium, have been engaged in a research dialogue with Asia Foundation country offices, exploring how theories of change are used in the Foundation’s programming. Researchers from a number of JSRP partner institutions, including the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Conflict Research Group at the University of Ghent, and the South-East European Research Network, have visited Foundation offices in the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal for sustained periods of fieldwork, leading to a series of “Theories in Practice” working papers.

It has been a rich collaboration in many ways. Simply in terms of research outcomes, the working papers, blog discussions (many of them in this blog) and public events have thrown up many interesting insights, and gained significant traction among key figures in the international development community. Foundation staff have been remarkably open and eager to join in silo-busting and challenging phony divides between research and practice. But here I would like to reflect briefly on the broader structural benefits of engaging in this kind of collaboration, and run through three reasons (among many others) why it has been valuable.

  1. The learning has flowed both ways. A key focus of the collaboration was, through a study of theories of change, to explore ways in which practitioners might better use evidence to inform practice. But the advantage of such a sustained engagement, across multiple country offices, is that as researchers we have also learned a great deal about how a large-scale development organization thinks, learns, and acts. This has been invaluable in helping us refine our knowledge about how the findings we produce across the JSRP might best be presented to and come to be understood and used by practitioners, and indeed, donors, since the JSRP and Foundation programs under scrutiny share a donor, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), which has shown interest in the project from the start.
  2. The collaboration has created new spaces for learning and dialogue, both between researchers and practitioners but also within each group. Just as we as researchers have had opportunities to draw on the collaboration to reflect on our own practice, we would like to think that the meetings, workshops, and conferences that have come about as a result of the collaboration have created new opportunities for Foundation staff to come together and, by engaging in a slightly different, perhaps more reflective and less urgent kind of discussion, to generate new thinking about their work.
  3. The challenges of producing and using evidence have been brought to life. Having a rich, iterative process wherein research findings go back and forth between researchers and practitioners, with both parties challenging each other about what constitutes evidence, has been valuable in and of itself. Perennial questions about how to capture and analyze the lived experience of practitioners as a source of evidence in its own right have not necessarily been resolved, but have been interestingly illustrated time and again. Furthermore, issues around sources of evidence that cannot easily be made public, especially regarding delicate conflict-affected contexts, and their relationship to the public record, have been thoughtfully explored in the workshops we have held together.

While the topics investigated by our researchers have been fascinating in their own right, engaging in a research collaboration of this kind over a sustained period has been a revealing journey that suggests a model for a more productive and systematic set of relationships between practitioners and researchers. This should enable the latter to form a richer picture of the everyday realities, constraints, and opportunities of development work. But more importantly, it could help the former improve the design and implementation of programs to better support positive change on the ground.

Henry Radice is a research fellow and the research manager of the Justice and Security Research Programme, based at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He tweets @henryradice. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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