7 billion people to feed. 1 planet to cool.

7 billion people to feed. 1 planet to cool.
4 June, 2014

Any questions?

Julia Oertli

Julia Oertli talks about the ID100 workshop and NGO-Academic collaborations.

Julia Oertli is Membership and Communications Assistant at Bond and organised the ID100 workshop in partnership with UKCDS and SIID.

It’s a good time to be thinking about the big issues our planet and populations are facing, and it’s also a good time to be thinking about them collectively. The Millennium Development Goals will expire in 2015 and intensive debates about what a legitimate successor framework might look like have long been under way. At the same time, in the world of NGOs, organisations are increasingly expected to deliver ‘evidence-based interventions’, and in the academic landscape, researchers face the growing imperative to conduct ‘impact-based research’. Could something be gained from linking the two conversations? We felt it was time to try.

In partnership with UKCDS and the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID), Bond (the UK network of international development NGOs) organised a workshop with representatives from 20 INGOs and 15 academics at the Wellcome Trust on 19 May 2014. The objective was to collectively articulate research questions that will be relevant for development policy and practice beyond 2015, to feed into SIID’s ID100 initiative.

It was an ambitious ask: five discussion groups grappled with questions across very broad themes in just over one hour, followed by a cross-challenge debate. The results were encouraging: over 50 questions covering a range of topics from sustainable crop farming to water footprint reduction and to the tax obligations of multinational corporations. The full set of questions can be found on the Bond website and the questions have also been submitted to SIID’s initiative.

The most ambitious part of the event for us, however, was not the articulation of potentially challenging questions, but to involve both NGO practitioners and academics as equal contributors in a conversation about research in development. What strikes me about the debates on the post 2015 framework is that many different actors – governments, NGOs and other civil society groups, researchers, think tanks, private sector, etc. – consider themselves, and are considered, stakeholders in the agenda-setting process, presenting their own evidence to be taken into account by decision-makers. In that sense, post 2015 is a good opportunity to highlight that research and evidence is not only produced by academics, but there are many other actors that are heavily involved in research processes, whether it is commissioning, conducting or utilising research.

There is a dominant assumption that the two ‘worlds’ of academics and practitioners are separated by a clear divide. But many encounters with researchers employed by NGOs, ‘pracademics’ working with and for NGOs, PhD students collaborating with NGOs on their theses and NGO staff returning to higher education suggest that the boundaries are much less clear-cut.

While it was challenging to package some of the really big issues into potentially researchable questions at the workshop, the anticipated ‘divide’ between practitioners’ and academic approaches didn’t appear so obvious. Sure, the encounter was of limited scope and time and set in a particular format, but we felt encouraged by the ease with which the discussion was flowing. The buzz at the workshop almost seemed to echo an argument made recently in the Journal of Public Affairs Education(p. 765) that background and training only represents one aspect of the difference between academics and practitioners – overlap in other areas such as level of education, age, gender, interests and values can create fertile ground for collaboration.

The workshop was an experiment because we weren’t entirely sure how much appetite there would be for this type of academic-practitioner exchange beyond rhetoric. As Andrée Carter, Director of UKCDS, recently pointed out in her reflections on attending the Bond conference as an academic, encounters between the academic and practitioner ‘tribes’ appear to occur rather rarely. However, academics and NGO staff seemed keen to start a conversation and some familiar faces even recognised each other from previous lives. Perhaps face-to-face interactions should be emphasised more when it comes to NGO-academic engagement to create opportunities to discover potential common ground?

Going forward, we will be thinking more about the kinds of topics and events that might attract academics and NGOs in equal measure rather than keep asking ‘why don’t they collaborate as much as they could?’ Providing opportunities for ‘inter-tribal’ engagement and debate might go a long way in encouraging more academics and NGOs to work together, and undoubtedly help identify significant barriers along the way. We would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions!

Image credit: Clark Van Der Beken via Unsplash

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