Evidence and the politics of participation in academic-INGO research partnerships for international development

‘Evidence and the politics of participation in academic-INGO research partnerships for international development’ (short title: Rethinking Research Partnerships) was a seminar series funded by the ESRC which focused on ‘evidence and the politics of participation’ in research partnerships between universities and international NGOs within the UK’s international development sector. It was a collaborative initiative led by a number of UK-based universities (the Open University, UCL-Institute of Education, London School of Economics and Political Science and the Institute of Development Studies) and INGOs (Christian Aid, ActionAid International and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance) and incorporating a wide range of other institutions (universities, INGOs, partnership brokers, policy-makers and funding/donor organisations).

Recent years have witnessed a new drive towards research collaboration. Increasing demands are being made on NGOs to satisfy donors and supporters by providing ‘rigorous measures of success’ for their programmes and campaigns. At the same time, universities are under heightened pressure to justify the ‘impact’ of their research and to ‘engage’ the public and civil society in research processes as well as with outputs. In this context, partnerships have been seen as being mutually beneficial (though a number of studies have highlighted the challenges involved in developing and sustaining effective collaboration.)

This seminar series took as its starting point the role of ‘evidence’ in research partnerships. Where is evidence produced? Who controls it? How is it valued and accessed? Who defines what good evidence is? What are the implications for the types of methods used and skills valued in partnerships? And what are the implications for how different partners get to participate in different ways and at different stages of the research process? Finally, could different types of participation in research partnerships lead to the production of different types of evidence?

The seminar series drew on the expertise and experience of a diverse range of academics, practitioners, brokers, policy-makers and funders in the sector to address these questions.

Seminar 1 took the form of a context-setting seminar. Participants were invited to explore a range of perspectives/positions/ideas in order to develop a way of thinking through partnerships which guided the remainder of the series. Seminars 2-5 were structured around case studies of research partnerships (each co-presented by an academic and practitioner) and restricted to a smaller core group of participants in order to create a safe space to facilitate trust and enable critical reflection. Finally, in Seminar 6, the outcomes of the core seminars were be presented at a high-level conference which also incorporated insights and perspectives from a range international contributors and from UK delegates from other sectors.

By drawing together as co-researchers practitioners, academics and research students (who often occupy both roles simultaneously) the seminar series aimed to democratise the status of both academics and practitioners as researchers. The series result in the development of publications and resources to improve practice in research partnerships and inform a new research agenda.

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