Equitable collaboration? Reflections on developing a research proposal

Karen Brock (Research Communication Adviser, Christian Aid)

When development aid is used to fund research, that research must have impact beyond publishing findings or recommendations in a journal article, with the expectation that they will be acted upon.

In the international development sector, focusing on impact has often been translated as an emphasis on collaborative research between academics from different disciplines, between academic and practitioner researchers, and between researchers from different parts of the world.

But collaboration means more than listing diverse partners in a proposal. If it is to lead to impact, attention needs to be paid to creating equitable relationships that nurture ownership and engagement, ensuring high quality research that is relevant to development challenges (see for example Newman et al 2019).

What can be learned from current practice in constructing equitable, collaborative research partnerships?

Co-creating a proposal for collaborative research

I work for a UK-based international NGO, Christian Aid, which does research and gathers evidence as part of its development, advocacy, campaigning and policy-influencing work.

I am a practitioner researcher rooted in a participatory tradition in which the purpose of research is to generate action for social change. I’m an experienced social scientist, but I choose not to define myself by discipline.

I recently became involved in the development of a proposal for research funding from UK Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). Led by a Principal Investigator (PI) from a UK university, the partnership behind the proposal also included academics at other UK and Southern universities; Christian Aid Ireland and four Christian Aid country offices; and five Southern research and policy-focused CSOs.

The composition of this partnership is unusual. It includes both Southern academics and an international NGO as co-investigators, and the implementing partners include both development practitioners and non-academic Southern researchers.

The partnership submitted an initial research idea and received seed funding from GCRF to develop a full proposal for a four-year programme. This supported scoping studies and country workshops, and an international workshop. Attended by representatives from each country, the aim of the international workshop was to co-create a full proposal. Once it was over, a smaller team was responsible for revising and submitting the final proposal.

I facilitated sessions on fair and equitable partnerships and research impact at the international workshop, and my observations as a facilitator are the basis of this blog.

Co-creation: courage, openness and note-taking

Genuine efforts at co-creation are rare and demand courage from the more powerful members of a partnership – normally the Northern academics. Acknowledging your own power and adopting a behaviour that changes its distribution is far from easy.

During this workshop, the PI frequently asserted and re-asserted that the process we were engaged in was co-creation, and that everyone in the room could make changes. The draft on the table was a necessary place to begin, but everything in it was up for discussion. This attitude, and the behaviour of re-stating it many times, were essential to creating openness for discussion and debate.

This openness meant that by the end of the workshop the research questions had been substantially revised, and a shared definition of economic justice, the central concept of the research, had been agreed. This was a considerable achievement and testimony to the commitment of all the participants to genuinely listen to each other’s points of view and work towards an effective compromise. It also meant carefully constructing questions with an open enough structure to ensure that all points of view could be accommodated, but which didn’t lose their conceptual clarity.

This kind of co-creation in a workshop setting places a high premium on good documentation, so that subsequent stages of proposal-writing can draw on the full discussion. Having enough participants to ensure that notes are taken from small and large groups, that flipcharts are written up quickly and accurately, and that documentation is shared with the proposal revising team, is essential.

Researchers and practitioners

Southern academics and Northern INGOs are not usually co-investigators in this kind of research partnership. Numbers of CSO partners in a research proposal co-creation workshop do not usually outweigh academic research partners. At the workshop, this unusual balance demanded really frequent reality checks that the proposal was for a research programme, not a development project.

But it also offered exciting possibilities for impact. Embedding new research in existing development and advocacy work on the same theme means that impact pathways are not created from scratch, but based on a strong foundation of networks, relationships and policy analysis.

Realistic principles of partnership

I ran a session based on eight principles for fair and equitable research partnerships, developed by the Rethinking Research Collaborative. Participants adapted and ranked the principles, and reflected on which were most relevant to the different stages of the proposed four-year programme.

After this session, the principles that had been discussed and considered repeatedly emerged in other sessions. Participants came back to them repeatedly as a touchstone of whether what was being proposed reflected an equitable approach to partnership.

Crucially, the group concluded that the aspiration of equitable partnership did not balance with the realities of either the proposed programme structure or the contexts where they live and work. Their adjusted aspiration – to pursue the most equitable partnership possiblein the current context– reflected a realism and depth of analysis that went beyond ticking a box for the latest development buzzword.

Considering research impact at the beginning

I was struck by how many people in the partnership had never considered the dynamics of research impact. The inaccurate, linear equation of “do research + write a policy brief = policy change = impact” remains powerful. It needs constant questioning.

Of those who had considered research impact, several observed how useful it was to be doing it at this early stage. While some were confused to be asked to consider an impact pathway for a hypothetical piece of research, most agreed that thinking about how things might happen helps you understand what you want to happen.

One chapter in a long book

The proposal co-creation workshop was a successful event and constructed a strong foundation for future work and partnership. Nonetheless, it was a only a single space in a lengthy and complex process of proposal development, revision, submission, and – finally – presentation of the proposal at an interview panel. The other spaces in this process involved different configurations of actors, power dynamics and understandings of partnership.

To be effective for impact, the intent to build an equitable collaboration needs to be expressed in all these spaces, to be part of the story in every chapter of the book. Building it in at an early stage is a good start, but maintaining it may mean challenging conventional perceptions of research excellence.

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