The Role of ‘Critical Friends’ in Research and Aid Programmes

July 20, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

One particular chapter in How to Engage Policy Makers with your Research felt particularly relevant to me. For some years, I have been working with Exfamer Jane Lonsdale, in Tanzania, Myanmar and now in Papua New Guinea (PNG), where she helps run a big Aussie-funded programme on citizen engagement.

I support Jane and the teams she works with by commenting on draft papers, chewing over ideas together and occasionally visiting the programmes and swapping notes on what’s been written/done elsewhere. In PNG we decided to call the role ‘critical friend’, only to find out that it is already A Thing, eg in senior military circles.

So imagine my delight to find a whole chapter in the book on CFs, by Debbie Johnson, Geeta Nathan and Syahirah Abdul Rahman, which helped me understand my role, and how it cd be extended. Some extracts:

[What’s in it for them?] ‘For policy makers, the starting point of any policy begins with a problem. A CF helps to sense-test the policy makers knowledge of this problem.’ OK, slight difference here, the chapter is about CFs to policy makers, whereas I am a CF to an aid practitioner, but there’s a lot of overlap, as you will see.

[What’s in it for the CF] As one CF said ‘Being a CF helps keep you real!’

[How a CF role emerges – spot on]: ‘It is likely that working arrangements with a CF will begin informally, most likely as ideas and tasks are set in motion. It is therefore a necessary consideration as to when more formal arrangements should be set out. This is essential in maintaining the trust and respect which underpin the arrangement.’ [My translation: start informal, and is probably better not to rush into something more fixed, but at some point, the CF needs a contract, to crystallize how often and what to engage on, and to avoid them starting to feel exploited!]

‘Often, policy makers may have a vague proposal on what the problem may be. The critical friend helps to shape this problem into a more concrete discussion, using academic evidence and practices to support the policy maker’s thinking.’

Yup, Jane and I still laugh about the time in Tanzania when we had to go and convince the funder that we knew what we were doing – I came up with some academic justification for the brilliant stuff Jane and team were doing (basically applying Darwin/natural selection to the programme theory of change – more here). But it was comparing it to a Venture Capitalist model (fund 10 startups, knowing that only one or two will go big) that really made DFID happy (feel that private sector vibe!) and ended up with them doubling the funding.

‘No matter how successful a critical friendship, the relationship could face unexpected challenges. Policy discussions may fizzle out, only to be picked up months or years later’. Luckily Jane is an ace networker and made sure we stayed in touch in the years between Tanzania and Myanmar.

‘A CF requires an open mindset. No matter how robust and thought-provoking the insights provided, sometimes the academic finding is simply not palatable to the policy maker. It could be that the discussion has not come at the right time, given the current political and/or economic climate. For the CF, even though their role is to give input, there is an importance of accepting that the listener may not take on board what is being said.’

Absolutely, being a CF is about chucking lots of ideas and experiences into the mix, but definitely not getting attached to any in particular or upset if they don’t get picked up (as most won’t).

I showed this draft to Jane, and here’s what she said…..

‘The relationship I have with Duncan has been really valuable over the last dozen years. We have a great trade of ideas, theory, practice and banter. It helps push my thinking that bit further. In a catch up I might come with a couple of topics to sense check and get some theory/practice back up or explain a tough problem I need to work through. I filter as he throws (many!) suggestions out and we then work up thinking together on what feels feasible. He respects that I know what will or won’t fly at that moment. I sometimes come back to ideas we’ve dismissed years previously. That iterative joint thinking has helped develop adaptive management practice.

When I’m deep in a program and context, having Duncan on hand to give a partially outsider view can give me new energy and perspective. He gets how I think and what I’m trying to achieve with a team. I get what his strengths are and where he’s likely to add most value. That mutual understanding has built up over years of working together. I can appreciate there’s also benefit for Duncan in seeing programmes and management challenges first hand and taking that reality back into his own work. It’s a great continual exchange.’

Apologies for the mutual love-in, but it really does work well. The obvious comparison is with mentoring, but I think this is a bit different – more embedded in the substance of the work, rather than the personal/emotional challenges of a particular job (although we cover a fair bit of that too).

Anyone else doing the CF role? Would be interested in insights and advice

July 20, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. As you’re looking for fellow ‘critics’ – in the peace sector, CMI has used it on an organisational level (see and and we have developed a critical peer methodology as a tool to review and adapt our projects as part of our adaptive M&E approach at the HD Centre (

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  2. I love the CF approach, and think it can be used in many different ways. I’ve used in a strategy development process, particularly at the problem analysis (fish-bone) and early theory of change stage – bringing in academics, members of social movements, people involved in policymaking, and giving them a CF “hat” to wear at that stage in the workshop, explicit permission to be more critical and less friendly at that stage. I’ve also been part of a small mutual support group of CF facilitators, a trusted group of CFs engaged in similar areas of work, to share challenges and possible alternative approaches in a very honest way. In fact, we wrote a guest blog on FP2P based on some of those conversations. I really like the longer-term approach you have with Jane and the work she is engaged with though, very much a mutual learning/mentoring approach, although is it critical enough I would ask? Within Oxfam’s Campaigns & Advocacy Leadership Programme, one activity we run is a peer feedback process. Once trust has been developed, participants who have exchanged closely on the course offer each other constructive feedback on the leadership and influencing approaches of their peers. It can be very powerful, and feels more honest than the formal appraisal and 360 feedback mechanisms we have. Finally, for those of us without a critical friend to hand, I wonder if there are CF-type questions we can be asking ourselves, things like “What went well/not well?”, “What did you do/could you have done?”, “What assumptions are you making?”, “Why do you believe/think that?”, “How does that influence what you do and the way you do it?”, “What other insights are available to you?”, “What could you try differently?”…

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