08 September 2011

Development research's Love-Hate relationship with policy and practice

I was asked to make some introductory comments at the Development Study Association-Ireland (DSAI). DSAI is the newest part of the DSA, and this was its second conference with the theme of linking research, policy and practice.

I started off noting the Love-Hate relationship development research has with policy and practice.

Love: many of us took up development research through some personal motivation to make a difference; normative aspirations are firmly and openly embedded in development studies; many of our institutional homes reinforce this sense of mission; and finally, we are quite good at it by virtue of our multidisciplinarity and our comfort with evaluation and learning.

Hate: on the other hand we are sometimes not so enthusiastic: when there is a sense that the "use" orientation is taking us away from fundamental relationships and questioning assumptions and framings; when we feel we are no longer able to speak truth to power; when we get drawn into researching the amenable and not the meaningful and finally when we are told to do it (e.g. the value for money imperative).

Most of these risks can be managed, it seems to me, and in any case, we can't help it, it's in our DNA this linking of policy and practice.

How do we do it better? I used the Motives/Means/Opportunity model.

Motives: there are many ways of inculcating the motive to connect with policy and practice--supporting young PhD researchers to spend time in the field and recruiting Masters students who have some overseas work experience.

Means: models are useful (I like the problem stream, solution stream and political stream approach of Kingdon)

Opportunities: "build it and they will come" is a slogan for non-dissemination. We need to build relationships with key people we want to influence. Be clear about it and be focused on it.

It's easy for researchers immersed in the daily grind of writing proposals, supervising students, writing papers, teaching courses, doing administration and management of projects etc. to forget the privileged position we occupy. We should not underestimate how inspiring the best of our work can be to people outside the sector. I am constantly reminded of it. That's good, because it is easy to forget the potentially transformative potential our work can have when it is firing on all cylinders.

The DSAI had a couple of terrific panels bringing together researchers and organisations like Trociare (a large Irish NGO) and Irish Aid. We reflected on how difficult it was to make time to develop and invest in these relationships, but we also noted several instances when it had made a big difference.

DSAI seems to have found a valuable niche in bringing research, policy and practice together in Ireland. It has tremendous energy from its members and steering group and I wish it well.

Footnote: At the DSA-EADI conference in York Sept 19-22 --places still available, topic "Rethinking Development in an Age of Scarcity and Uncertainty", over 1000 people will attend--I will step down as DSA Chair after 3 years and a new Chair will be elected from the nominees. I will remain an advocate of the DSA--I believe it does a very good job of promoting development research, connecting researchers with other researchers and with policymakers and practitioners, supporting the next generation of researchers and providing a stimulating space to draw out new ideas.

You should join!

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