What does Systems Thinking tell us about how INGOs and Academics can work together better?

April 20, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Yesterday, I wrote about the obstacles to NGO-academic collaboration. In this second of three posts on the interface between practitioners and

You are where exactly?

You are where exactly?

researchers, I look at the implications of systems thinking.

Some of the problems that arise in the academic–INGO interface stem from overly linear approaches to what is in effect an ideas and knowledge ecosystem. In such contexts, systems thinking can help identify bottlenecks and suggest possible ways forward.

Getting beyond supply and demand to convening and brokering

Supply-driven is the norm in development research – ‘experts’ churning out policy papers, briefings, books, blogs etc. Being truly demand-driven is hard even to imagine – an NGO or university department submitting themselves to a public poll on what should be researched? But increasingly in areas such as governance or value chains, we try and move beyond both supply and demand to a convening/brokering role, bringing together different ‘unusual suspects’ – what would that look like in research? Action research, with an agenda that emerges from an interaction between communities and researchers? Natural science seems further ahead on this point: when the Dutch National Research Agenda ran a nationwide citizen survey of research questions they wanted science to look at, 12,000 questions were submitted and clustered into 140 questions, under seven or eight themes. To the organisers’ surprise, many citizens asked quite deep questions.

Most studies identify a need for ‘knowledge brokers’ not only to bridge the gap between the realms of science and policy, but also to synthesise and transform evidence into an effective and usable form for policy and practice, through a process akin to alchemy. An essential feature of knowledge brokers is that they understand the cultures of both worlds. Often, this role is performed by third-sector organisations of various types (from lobbyists to thinktanks to respected research funders). Some academics can transcend this divide. A few universities employ specialist knowledge brokers, but their long-term effectiveness is often constrained by low status, insecure contracts and lack of career pathways. Whoever plays this crucial intermediary role, it appears that it is currently under-resourced within and beyond the university system. In the development sector, the nearest thing to an embedded gateway is the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC),  run by Birmingham University and IDS and largely funded by the Department for International Development. It conducts literature and evidence reviews on a range of topics, drawing evidence from both academic literature and non-academic institutions.

Critical junctures

Anyone involved in advocacy knows that the openness of policymakers to new ideas is episodic, and linked to things such as changes of administration, scandals, crises and failures, known in the political science literature as critical junctures. Currently, thinktanks are reasonably good at responding to the windows of opportunity presented by such moments, updating and repackaging previous research for newly attentive policymakers or providing rapid informed commentary (see, e.g. on Brexit, Collin and Juden 2016; ODI 2016). In contrast, universities are often much more sluggish, trapped by the long cycle of research and dissemination, and with few incentives to drop or adapt existing work to respond to new opportunities. What would need to change in terms of incentives or leadership to make universities as agile as thinktanks?

complexity signPrecedents: history and positive deviance

The development community spends little time thinking about what has already worked, either historically or today. Research could really help fill in historical gaps, whether on campaigns or redistribution. It also makes little use of ‘positive deviance’ approaches, which identify positive outliers: where good things are already happening in the system, for example identifying and studying villages with lower than average rates of maternal mortality and then trying to find out why.

Feedback, adaptation and course correction

In systems, initial interventions are likely to have to be tweaked or totally overhauled in light of feedback from experience or events. Yet both academics and INGOs still portray their research papers as tablets of stone – the last word on any given topic. Digital technology allows us to make them all ‘living documents’, subject to periodic revision. At the very least, publishing drafts of all papers for comments both improves quality and builds bridges between researchers, practitioners and policymakers, as the author has discovered on numerous occasions.

Engage with whole systems not just individuals

Reflecting on Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair campaign in the early 2000s, Muthoni Muriu concluded:

You need to engage different policy makers, on different aspects of the same policy, sometimes in different geographies, to create the sort of critical mass that will drive conversation and hopefully decisions in the desired direction. One or two ‘validation’ workshops or conference won’t do it. Our experience… was that we needed to speak with technocrats in the Ministries of Agriculture, Trade, Planning and Foreign affairs, relevant embassy trade advisers (and ambassadors) in Brussels and Geneva; trusted policy institutions; random academics working for CIDA/SIDA/DFID etc who had connections with said ministries; equally random World Bank/IMF/EU commission folks in-country; friendly journalists etc etc… to get the Minister of Trade to take a position on one policy recommendation!

Tomorrow: What to do about it

April 20, 2017
Duncan Green