Book Review: Knowledge, Policy and Power in International Development: A Practical Guide

January 4, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

This review appears in the Evidence and Policy journal, where it is now available free online (after I protested about the sKnowledge policy and power covercandalous, rip-off $30 they were charging). Or you can just read it here. Note to self: in future, I will not write anything for journals that are not open access (thanks to Owen Barder for that suggestion).

In recent years, the public and policy debate over climate change, ‘climategate’, and the debacle of the Copenhagen Summit (and seemingly the wider UN negotiations) has brought home the tenuousness of the links between knowledge and public policy-making. ‘Do the research and they will come’ is clearly not a credible doctrine. Knowledge, Policy and Power, written by a group of researchers from the Overseas Development Institute, tackles some important aspects of these links, building on ODI’s strong track record on the interface between research and policy-making.

The book has good instincts – sceptical of all things linear, of researchers claiming to know more than they do, stressing the importance of values, beliefs, assumptions, taboos and other group pressures, hidden power  and in/exclusion in what are often portrayed as neutral processes of research and debate. There is ample discussion of the relative strengths and weakneses of different kinds of knowledge, whether derived from practice, ‘pure’ research or the people themselves.

Knowledge, Policy and Power argues that four key dimensions need attention in understanding how research translates (or doesn’t) into policy:  the political economy of the knowledge-policy interface, the actors who engage at it, the types of knowledge used and the role of knowledge intermediaries. It devotes a chapter to each of these, and concludes by summarizing its ‘core messages’ as:

1. Systematic mapping of the political context is necessary to improve the success of knowledge-policy interactions. Adopting the position that ‘it’s all down to political will’ is not only inaccurate but also counterproductive.
2. Understanding the role and behaviour of actors is not a simple matter of imputing self interest, but of considering the interplay of actor interests, values/beliefs and credibility and the power relations that underpin these.
3. Research needs to be complemented by other forms of knowledge, based on local conditions and practical experience.
4. Anyone working in this field as a ‘knowledge intermediary’ needs to think through a range of possible approaches to ensure their role is effective.

evidence based change placardAlong the way, it scans a vast literature to cull numerous useful typologies – of states, schools of thought, influencing factors, forms of knowledge etc, which can provide useful tools for those seeking guidance. The chapter on ‘facilitating knowledge interaction’ is the most practical and useful, setting out and discussing a spectrum of roles for ‘knowledge intermediaries’ (which I guess includes people like me), from low level ‘informing’ to ‘engaging’ to ‘building adaptive capacity’. With sensible guidelines on how do decide which approach to use in a given situation, it came closest to fulfilling the ‘how to’ promises of the book.

For the book claims to be a practical guide, which brings me to my first of three main criticisms. It isn’t very practical. The style doesn’t help: Firstly the language is variable, (chapters feel like they have been written by very different authors), but veers overall towards the opaque, with the verbiage of post-modernism (plural contexts mediated by contested discourses etc etc) scattered liberally over the text, seriously blunting its ability to communicate a clear message. Even the (very welcome) case studies seem too abstract! Example: ‘The difference between an informal designation process (Viet Nam) and a dual system where birthright and elected leaders share control (Morocco) is manifest in the degree of regulation and openness.’ Yeah, right.

That may be why, although I had regular glimmers of recognition and the odd wry smile, I had no ‘aha moments’ when reading this book. That is unfortunate– I think revelatory ideas are probably in there somewhere, but are so buried beneath the dense language, that several readings would be required to uncover the gems, and few people will have sufficient time or patience.

My second problem with Knowledge, Policy and Power is the alarming extent to which it blurs (or more accurately, ignores) the boundaries between research and advocacy. The book recommends that researchers consider ‘shaming techniques directed at veto players’ and ‘building wider movements’ as part of their day job.  It contrasts the Brookings Institution (high credibility, but limited advocacy role) with the much more overtly partisan and activist Heritage Foundation, and the authors seem to prefer the Heritage model, but don’t discuss the costs of doing so. The section on credibility is rather weak and ignores the issue of reputational damage.

I work for an organization which specialises in ‘research for advocacy’, but even I was alarmed by this – if research organizations veer too blatantly towards activism or ‘policy-based evidence making’ they risk reputational damage that can be close to permanent. Instead, I would have liked to see much more discussion on the kinds of alliances researchers can make to improve impact, while preserving their reputation, and the challenges they face in forming those alliances (for example NGOs typically work on much shorter timescales than researchers, resulting in much mutual frustration). The book seems to assume that researchers can do it all – they can’t, and nor should they.

My final point is that Knowledge, Policy and Power includes only passing reference to shocks, or ‘critical junctures’ as they areevidence categorised in Why Nations Fail. The discussion portrays a largely steady state world of research, engagement with policy makers, and civilised debate, but in advocacy terms, readiness for such junctures is all. Very often, it is scandal, failure, crisis and disaster that drive change in policy, and that carries important implications for researchers and advocates. The most obvious is that when a shock hits, researchers should be repackaging existing research to show its relevance to the current crisis and making every effort to get it into the hands of policy makers, even if that means temporarily abandoning the cherished five year research programme. A discussion on the use of research before and after elections would have provided another excellent example of influencing in practice.

Overall, I think there is enough in here to warrant close study by researchers seeking to improve the policy impact of their work, but be warned – you will have to work at making this book produce practical guidance.

January 4, 2013
Duncan Green