Are centres of excellence or strong networks the key to capacity building?
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Most of us reading and writing (and in my case at least, indulging in some ‘thinking out loud’) on this blog are probably concerned with ‘capacity building’ in some form. How to do it better? How to make it sustainable? How to do it at the scale required? Capacity is too big an issue to address in a single post, of course, so this is just a take on one particular dimension — centres or networks?

When people are designing new initiatives, one of the questions that often emerges is whether support should be concentrated (e.g. in a particular institution) or dispersed (e.g. amongst a number of institutions across a country, or a region, or even across a whole continent).

So what are the pros and cons of the different approaches? Why might one model prove more effective than another? And what might the risks or trade-offs be in picking one approach over another? Here are a few initial thoughts…

You could invest huge amounts in a single centre, making it really strong and capable of great research — creating a ‘centre of excellence’. But if there aren’t other institutes working at the same level, it will be a struggle to find research partners in the region. There’s a risk that it will become more outward (e.g. ‘northern’) facing, and local research links won’t be built as a result. Or you could opt to spread resources more widely — making smaller investments in a greater number of places and perhaps with the ambition of linking these together into a network. But perhaps that would thin things out too much (unless the funding is really substantial, or unless it acts to leverage other support), so that you end up with lots of drops in a very big ocean.

On the other hand, where we aren’t talking of major donor investments but of the more limited funding that might be available locally, perhaps a network would be valuable. It could conceivably enable an ambitious group of institutions to overcome their local constraints, pool their resources (staff, funding, expertise) and to achieve more collectively than they could alone.

Imagine that a few departments across a country or a sub-region decide they have a common ambition, recognise that they would struggle to make meaningful progress on their own, and decide to get together. This might help to identify a shared research agenda, map out their expertise, share facilities and resources, host each other for visiting research trips or seminars, and collaborate to apply for larger research grants. This could (with modest funding) provide a basis for some really interesting work.

Or is this perhaps a little naïve? Do the systems and incentives within which we work — the limitations of funding and resources, the pressures on time, and the practical and political difficulties of drawing people around a shared agenda — make this a lot less likely in practice?

Of course in many ways ‘centres vs networks’ is a pretty artificial distinction to draw. Many centres are part of broader networks, and by extension many networks are composed of a set of centres . But I think the question is still worth posing, firstly because this discussion features a lot in the literature (and in plans for new programmes), but secondly because I think we also need to get our head around how to support research without depending entirely on huge injections of donor cash.

This has been, and continues to be, hugely valuable. But the challenge is too great and the money finite. Thinking about how and why things work or don’t, and teasing apart the various components (money, resources, people, organisational structures, political will, incentives etc.), and collecting together some good examples of what has worked, might offer some good learning.

I don’t claim any great expertise here, and the purpose of this post is really to get some feedback from those who have a lot more experience and knowledge to share on a set of questions I’ve been thinking about a bit recently. A lot of this has been stimulated by some really useful discussions with colleagues in the UKCDS research capacity strengthening group.

So here’s where I am so far. I  tried to capture some of this in a little more detail for a discussion paper for our recent Publishers for Development conference a few weeks ago. I’d welcome comments and feedback as I refine the paper, and particularly any examples of programmes large and small.

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About Jonathan Harle

Jonathan Harle is Senior Programme Manager, Research Access and Higher Education and Director of the Strengthening Research and Knowledge Systems programme
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