The social realities of knowledge for development
Sharing lessons of improving development processes with evidence
Knowledge and evidence for policy and practice matters in any context. But critical scrutiny of this process is particularly important in development contexts, where knowledge is often produced or brokered by external actors. This useful collection illustrates the varied and complex pathways through which research, knowledge or evidence may (or may not) be taken up by policymakers and practitioners. Drawing on examples of research into policy/practice relationships, from context-specific action research, to engaging with embedded, national policy institutions and global processes, the central message is that social relations rather than the ‘technical’ aspects of evidence are key to influence or uptake.
Such an argument should not surprise many in the large community of knowledge producers, brokers and users operating at the research–policy interface. Shifts in ideas about research for development have seen externally imposed models and theory-based policy prescriptions replaced by processes of participation and co-production, with a greater focus on local knowledge and engaging key stakeholders. Paradoxically, however, greater acknowledgement of the social process involved in translating evidence into practice seems now to be accompanied by a loss of social content in the very knowledge that is recognised as evidence. What constitutes good evidence is increasingly defined by a particular set of claims to scientific rigour; methodological advances have moved the field towards clinical-style trials and experimental methods, making claims to value-free objectivity at the expense of attention to messy, contested, complex social realities.
This tension plays out within many development organisations as demonstrated in this collection with its valuable insights from the likes of ESRC DFID funded research projects, MSF, Oxfam, Practical Action, the Overseas Development Institute, the African Population and Health Research Centre and Makerere University. A welcome commitment to rigorous evidence and data as a basis for programming is increasingly demonstrated by operational agencies such as UNICEF, and as shown in the chapter by Wessells et al. (this collection), this can have impressive results when the right actors are aligned. The risk, however, is that a relatively narrow or instrumental view of evidence of ‘what works’ for programming and for delivering results within a defined time frame is prioritised over other forms of knowledge, including research with less immediate application but which may nonetheless be relevant for framing and guiding policy choices, or to support scaling up, transferability and institutionalisation of interventions. All are of course necessary and complementary, but may compete for resources and space in the discourse. Currently the evidence-based, data-driven and results focus has the upper hand.
Research institutes within larger agencies, such as UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre, can play an important role in countering the tendency towards this instrumental view of evidence. They demonstrate the challenge of the ‘embedded’ institution as raised by Sen et al. (this collection), attempting to balance a degree of autonomy and independence of research with the needs and demands of the organisation. Their ‘embedded autonomy’ is key to keeping alive the critical challenge function of research; bringing in fresh ideas and innovation, exposing blind spots and biases, or moderating pendulum swings in ideas and ideologies that may be driven by internal or external changes. Such centres are few and under threat – whether from tighter budgets or through the erosion of their autonomy – but their position within a trusted agency with country-level presence means that they can play a critical role in the eco-system of trusted development knowledge actors.
Within such large operational agencies, as in government bureaucracies, the skills and capacities needed to use research and knowledge effectively, to move from data-driven and evidence-based decision-making to using evidence to inform choices, are often limited. Investment in such research and policy analysis capacities – particularly within national institutions in the global South – is a critical element for creating an effective knowledge–policy interface but has been largely neglected by donors. This shift would recognise that evidence is only one among many inputs to decision-making; that policymakers need to make informed choices and act even when evidence is imperfect; and that co-production is not always possible with the actors who can take change forward. Brokers will rarely be neutral, but will bring a particular stance and allegiance, while policymakers will also invite research and evidence around particular positions. In particular, as illustrated in many of the following chapters, relationships of trust create the conditions in which evidence can inform and influence.
This publication is a timely contribution to the growing critique of the evidence- and results-based discourse of recent years, reminding us of how and by whom knowledge is constructed as evidence and used to frame and influence particular positions. In this respect, while challenging the narrative of neutral evidence that drives policy and practice, it points to how this construction of knowledge is in itself part of the process of social change.
The editors gratefully acknowledge the financial support from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Department for International Development (DFID) and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). This project grew out of the Impact Initiative for international development research which seeks to maximise impact and learning from the ESRC-DFID’s Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and their Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. It was only through the breadth and quality of ESRC-DFID funded research and IDS’ global partnerships that we were able to compile such a diverse and valuable set of case studies and think pieces on evidence into action. We would also like to thank the production team, all the authors and the peer reviewers for their time and dedication.