The NGO-Academia interface: obstacles to collaboration, lessons from systems thinking and suggested ways forward

Duncan Green at LSE Impact Blog: “The case for partnership between international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and academia to advance development knowledge is strong. INGOs bring presence on the ground – through their own operations or long-term local partnerships – and communication and advocacy skills (not always academics’ strong point). Academia contributes research skills and credibility, and a long-term reflective perspective that the more frenetic forms of operational work and activism often lack.

In practice, however, such partnerships have proven remarkably difficult, partly because INGOs and academia are too complementary – there is so little overlap between their respective worlds that it is often difficult to find ways to work together.

Obstacles to collaboration

  • Impact vs publication:…
  • Urgency vs “wait and see”: …
  • Status quo vs originality: …
  • Thinking vs talking: ….

Systems thinking approaches

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. 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 the 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….

Ways forward

Based on all of the above, a number of ideas emerge for consideration by academics, INGOs and funders of research.

Suggestions for academics

Comments on previous blog posts provided a wealth of practical advice to academics on how to work more productively with INGOs. These include the following:

  • Create research ideas and proposals collaboratively. This means talking to each other early on, rather than academics looking for NGOs to help their dissemination, or NGOs commissioning academics to undertake policy-based evidence making.
  • Don’t just criticise and point to gaps – understand the reasons for them (gaps in both NGO programmes and their research capacity) and propose solutions. Work to recognise practitioners’ strengths and knowledge.
  • Make research relevant to real people in communities. This means proper discussions and dialogue at design, research and analysis stages, disseminated drafts and discussing findings locally on publication.
  • Set up reflection spaces in universities where NGO practitioners can go to take time out and be supported to reflect on and write up their experiences, network with others, and gain new insights on their work.
  • Catalyse more exchange of personnel in both directions. Universities could replicate my own Professor in Practice position at the London School of Economics and Political Science, while INGOs could appoint honorary fellows, who could help guide their thinking in return for access to their work….(More)”.