As a panellist for the recent webinar ‘How do we manage the delicate balance between ‘technical’ and ‘social’ in translating evidence to action?’, I was invited to share my experiences of ‘engaging the middle’ as part of the Gender, Education and Global Poverty Reduction Initiatives (GEGPRI) research project
How can we understand the social – as well as technical – processes involved in translating research into action? And how are these processes affected by issues of trust? These were some of the questions raised in the webinar hosted by Institute of Development Studies (IDS), The Impact Initiative for International Development Research, and Health Systems Global (HSG). It was a great opportunity for me to reflect on the GEGPRI project’s experiences regarding the importance and challenges of building trust with stakeholders that were integral to our research and its impact.
Who’s in the middle?
The GEGPRI project looked at how global frameworks (such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)) concerned with advancing gender equality in and through schooling in contexts of poverty were engaged with a range of local and national settings in Kenya and South Africa.
Through research conducted in national and provincial education departments, global and local NGOs and a school in each country, the project revealed the significant role played by stakeholders operating within what we have termed ‘the middle space’ that lies between global sites of policy formulation and its realisation as practice, in shaping the form that this realisation takes. Our research found that many stakeholders working in this middle space - including national and local level bureaucrats, NGO staff and members of school governing bodies - felt disconnected from the global frameworks and interpreted the aspirations for gender equality associated with them in very narrow ways.
Opening up spaces for stakeholders within the research process
The GEGPRI project sought to use the research process as a way of opening up spaces for critical debate and reflection on gender equality, the global frameworks, and what these meant for practice. The research design itself therefore built in opportunities for the discussion of emerging research findings between researchers and participants over two cycles of data collection.
Through this process, which entailed participatory feedback sessions at the end of each phase of data collection, linked to the co-production of knowledge between research team and research participants, the team hoped that concerns around gender and education policy and practice across the research sites could be discussed collectively. As we discuss in our case study Engaging the Middle, in the Social Realities of Knowledge for Development, this process was valuable in catalysing discussion and critical reflection which, in some cases, led to changes in both policy and practice.
However, the extent to which it was able to do this successfully varied, and was affected by two key issues:
- The sorts of discussions, and associated forms of practice that could be developed were affected – and sometimes constrained - by participants’ existing understandings of gender.
- The nature of the relationship established between the researchers and the research participants played a significant role in shaping the form and extent of impact that could be achieved. This relationship was affected by horizontal and vertical forms of connection and boundary making, by the positioning of researchers as insiders or outsiders in relation to each research site, and, importantly, by the extent to which relationships based on trust were able to open up opportunities for more sustained forms of engagement.
Building trust for research impact
In some cases, trust was facilitated by pre-existing relationships with key stakeholders. In South Africa, for example, the research team’s previous working relationship with the national education department, together with the fact that a number of key officers had an interest in gender issues, not only facilitated access to research participants, but also enabled a deeper level of engagement with the research findings.
This was reflected not only in the discussions that took place in feedback sessions with researchers, but also in the direct way in which officials told us that the research influenced their policy and practice. This could be seen, for example, in relation to their work on teenage pregnancy. In contrast, in the national education department in Kenya, although some members of the research team had prior personal and professional connections, crossing insider-outsider boundaries and building relationships based on trust was much more difficult. This, together with narrow interpretations of gender equality as a technical issue, resulted in a more limited engagement with the research findings.
Providing ongoing opportunities for participants to engage with the research process was also important in building trust and sustaining relationships. In both countries the establishment of research advisory committees in each project, which included participants from case study sites as well as other relevant stakeholders, such as representatives from teacher unions, gender and women’s rights groups, and NGO campaigners, as well as from within the research community, was particularly important in ensuring sustained engagement with the project and the issues with which it was concerned. Advisory committee members often played an important role in helping to facilitate access and bridge the insider–outsider divide between researchers and research participants.
The experiences of the GEGPRI project highlight the importance of engaging with stakeholders in the ‘middle space’ when thinking about research impact. They also point to the need pay close attention not only to the social and political spaces that these stakeholders occupy, but also to the boundaries, connections and power dynamics that exist between researchers and research participants, and to the extent to which the research process can facilitate the establishment of critical and trusting relationships between them.