Sometimes it feels hard to keep afloat in the tide of thinking and debate about development – what to do, how to do it better – and difficult to find time to take the latest thinking and actually incorporate it into programme design. Harder still to incorprate the latest thinking into projects that are already in progress.
It’s a couple of years since David Booth and Diana Cammack published their book on governance in Africa (there’s a nice summary here). They argue that development is about solving collective action problems. But the key idea – that problems can only be tackled by ditching the supply/demand focus, and by bringing different groups together and finding a common ground – stuck, because it made so much sense and resonated with much of what we’ve learnt at INASP over the years. As they argue:
‘…governance challenges are not fundamentally about one set of people getting another set of people to behave better. They are about both sets of people finding ways of being able to act collectively in their own best interests. They are about collective problem-solving in fragmented societies hampered by low levels of trust.’
In Booth and Cammack’s book, these are questions being addressed to big public service delivery problems – like delivering maternal health services – but they’re worth asking of our work too.
There are many projects tackling research capacity – and the use of research for policy or practice – in different ways. Many initiatives take one aspect, or one group of actors, and provide support to enable them to solve their piece of the puzzle. But usually their ability to achieve some form of positive change is dependent on a number of other groups. Sometimes the focus is on the supply of research (producing new research, accessing research that others have produced), and sometimes the focus is on demand (encouraging those who have a use for research to seek it out). But even within a ‘supply-side’ initiative (say, accessing existing research and drawing on that to produce new research), there are ‘demand’ elements too.
Access to research
To take a problem that’s been core to INASP’s work for 20 years: Southern researchers don’t have access to the journals and books they need.
The problem is commonly tackled by working with those who provide this access: librarians. But their success is typically dependent, to a greater or lesser extent, on a whole range of others who are responsible for doing research, setting policy, providing funding, teaching and supervising students and junior researchers, and managing IT infrastructure. These include university management and leadership, heads of research, IT directors, research councils, higher education commissions and national IT infrastructure organizations.
If librarians provide access to journals, but there’s not sufficient attention to the demand (or need) by researchers and students, then they might supply the wrong journals, or the journals might not get used. Low use then makes it hard to justify future funding.
Or if the emphasis is on purchasing journals, but no attention is given to the IT infrastructure, poor internet connections and IT networks could make them hard to access and use in practice. Or if those who set budgets and agree staffing levels don’t appreciate all the ‘back office’ work to enable access (negotiating good licences, registering IP addresses, setting up search systems – it’s not just all on Google now!) they may not allocate sufficient funding or staff.
Access works, but use is low
We and our partners – and other initiatives working alongside us like EIFL and Research4Life – have made fantastic strides here. There are now thousands of the latest journals (and their back collections) available. But usage stats often suggest they aren’t used as much as we might expect.
One way to look at this is by checking the breaks in the chain – are internet connections and IT facilities sufficient? Do people know how to search effectively?
But there’s a bigger question too: is there much research taking place? And is the type of research (‘academic’ vs ‘consultancy’) likely to lead to journals being used? In short, what is the real demand?
Fixing these isn’t within the scope of a single person or department. And it isn’t even always because we don’t know how to solve the problem; it’s that the ‘right’ solutions don’t seem to work in practice.
It requires the cooperation of several different groups within and beyond universities and research institutes. And it’s not a simple case of one group (in this case, librarians) trying to get another group (say, IT staff) to ‘fix’ their bit of the chain, or telling another group (say, researchers) what is available. It’s about understanding what each group is trying to achieve, and how and where these aims align. It also means thinking about incentives and motivations.
Is there even a reason for one group to work with another in pursuit of a solution? Are staff motivated to tackle problems, or is morale low and even the right solutions won’t be pursued with any vigour?
So what does this suggest for INASP? Well, we have a great wealth of training materials for librarians, IT staff and researchers, and a lot is being achieved by developing skills. But we also need to go that step further and think about unlocking the potential of the collective to solve the problem. This is something we’re starting to do more of – so this is very much a first reflection, toe-in-the-water post to invite some comments and ideas.
Establishing access to research as a collective endeavour in Sierra Leone
We’ve blogged before about our work in Sierra Leone (and see here for a more detailed review). The starting point for this project was improving access to research information – beginning with making use of what was already available to researchers in Sierra Leone via Research4Life.
From the start we approached this as a collective action problem (although not consciously using that language). We started by convening key people from across the two principal universities (USL and Njala) to talk about their ambitions for developing research (logistical problems mean it ended up being two separate events). This helped not only to discuss the parameters of the project, but helped to establish it as a collective endeavour. It wasn’t just going to be the responsibility of librarians to ‘fix’ this, but also of deans of faculties, IT directors and the university’s senior leadership. It was evident that researchers wanted to get more of their work visible and published, and so any conversation about access would go further if we could help address this side too – greater skills to publish (and greater chance of getting published) would probably do more to stimulate use than lots of training in how to access journals.
Unsurprisingly, the Ebola outbreak stalled the project pretty quickly, but even then we were able to provide an e-learning course (downloaded, so it didn’t need a live internet connection) to researchers at Njala University on developing and communicating research.
Working together in Ghana
In Ghana, the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries (CARLIGH) felt that the research communication system wasn’t as effective as it could be. So we worked with them to develop a process where key stakeholders would come together to tackle this as a shared challenge. Step one was to understand the system in Ghana better, so CARLIGH and INASP produced a briefing document to inform the process. CARLIGH decided to begin by bringing together representatives of three of the leading research centres in the country – the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission and Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research – with IT and library leaders. We’ve got a bit more work to do to get the approach right, but the feedback was good, and those involved seemed to value the chance to get together and think through some shared problems. The plan is to develop this in other countries now – and, of course, to check back in with our Ghanaian partners and see what they’ve been able to achieve as a result.
Tackling some even bigger questions
INASP’s work goes far beyond access to research. The bigger questions are about how to strengthen the overall research and knowledge system in a country. Access is part of this, but for research to contribute to policy making, or to the more practical aspects of programme design and service delivery, we obviously need to bring users into this collective conversation too. We’re currently working with policy makers in Ghana and Zimbabwe, to stimulate greater demand for research evidence, and to enable them to appraise and deploy it more effectively. But we’re not yet bringing all of these groups into conversation together.
Convening conversations at this system level – bringing together all those with a stake in doing, communicating and using research – is something we’re actively thinking about. So if you’d be interested in working with us on this let us know, particularly if you work in a research or policy institution in Africa or Asia and think there would be potential in such an approach in your country.