In Search of the Helpful Academic: 10 ways they can support Practitioners

February 6, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

OK, I admit it, I’m sometimes a bit rude to academics, even though I have a foot in both camps (I’m 3 days a week at Oxfam, 2 at LSE). I’ve accused them of treating everyone in the aid business as either stupid, or venal, or both; I’ve complained that they slag off aid practitioners without ever bothering to talk to us or read our stuff; they take down but never feel obliged to offer constructive suggestions.

And then last week at a conference in The Netherlands (more on that tomorrow) an academic – Willem Elbers – called me out. OK, I agree with a lot of your critique, he said, so how, as an academic, can I play a more constructive role for practitioners? He had gently pointed out that I was being a total hypocrite – behaving towards academics exactly as I was accusing them of acting towards practitioners. Oops. So I sat down with Willem and came up with some constructive roles that academics can play, and then continued by email. Here are our initial ten – please add your own.

1. Inspirer. Think Robert Chambers – rather than a detailed take down of existing practice, come up with a visionary alternative, and inspire people to try it out. Robert has been doing this for decades, and I think provides a fantastic role model for a better way of contributing through the power of ideas.

2. Critical friend/mentor: Accompany practitioners, really listen to them, then ask intelligent questions. I’m doing this with a few different initiatives and it’s huge fun and, I hope, actually helps people reflect on their work and improve it.

3. Story teller/praise singer: Often practitioners are too busy to stop and reflect, or their brains just aren’t wired that way. Academics can work with them to draw out the origins of success, systematize it and then publicize their work (when they get things right….).

4. Connector: If academics can bridge between different countries or disciplines, they can oxygenate discussions, widening the range of experiences and ideas open to practitioners.

5. Navigator: Rather than slag off the entire aid system, why not try and identify where the wiggle room exists and help practitioners exploit it?

And then there’s one role which I sometimes play, but am having second thoughts about

6. Codifier: take what practitioners are coming up with, look at it, and turn it into A Thing with a conceptual underpinning, that can help good ideas spread. The trouble is, as I am beginning to find with Adaptive Management, codification very quickly becomes isomorphic mimicry, in which everyone adopts the new vocabulary, without necessarily changing much about what they do.

And here’s four additional roles from Willem:

‘7. Showing the bigger picture. Practitioners are not always aware that parts of their thinking and practices actually originate from broader paradigms. Take the example of managerialism, which has its own assumptions, norms and values. Academics can show that seemingly ‘neutral’ discussions about enhancing effectiveness, are not so neutral after all. That managerialism does not necessarily sit well with development work that is difficult to plan, predict and quantify (advocacy for example) or with relations based on trust and solidarity.  

8. Asking (really) critical questions. It is not always realistic to expect that practitioners, or the consultants funded by them, ask questions that affect the organization’s own interests. Academics, also due to their independence, or better equipped to do this. To ask uncomfortable questions which need to be asked.

9. Educating and inspiring the change agents of the future. This is about offering (post-) academic education that is (also) relevant from a practitioners point of view. This is not only about choosing relevant topics (and ignoring others), but also about choosing an appropriate didactical approach. It is about making sure that practical experience and realities find their way in the classroom. Here I mainly refer to my experience with the AMID-programme.

10. Making existing knowledge accessible. Practitioners do not always know which information is already out there and have no time to read lengthy reports or papers. Academic jargon is not particularly helpful either. A recent policy brief I wrote, for example, synthesizes 31 academics studies from 7 disciplines (political science, social work, development studies, gender studies etc.) dealing with the relation between advocacy effectiveness and capacity.’

Obviously, some of these overlap, but I’d be interested in hearing back from both practitioners and academics (and fellow hybrids) – what resonates? What’s missing? Over to you

February 6, 2020
Duncan Green