This is a joint post written by:
Alex Ademokun (@AAlex_A), Senior Programme Manager, Evidence-Informed Policy Making Jonathan Harle (@jonharle), Senior Programme Manager, Research Access and Availability
There’s been a lot of thought-provoking discussion in the last year or so of how we can ‘do development’ better. Capacity building, systems thinking and complexity, power and politics, convening and brokering – all of these have become increasingly popular themes across the development sector, and in the smaller ‘research for development’ corner.
In the last 12 months we’ve also been doing some serious thinking at INASP about how we can better deliver on our mission to ‘put research at the heart of development’ and the themes above felt particularly relevant. We work in three broad areas: access to research literature, producing and communicating southern research, and supporting the use of research in policy making across 23 countries. But we’re a small NGO, working in a big field, so we do so with a good dose of humility.
We wanted to write this post to discuss our approach to capacity building in light of the ongoing conversations on systems, complexity and change. While we work with researchers (and while some of us used to be researchers), we aren’t a research organisation. Our perspective is that of an organisation trying to understand what some of these ideas actually mean in practice and how they fit with what we’re learning as we make some shifts in our own approach.
A few months ago ITAD offered the idea of ‘capacity development 2’ to describe the way some of these and other ideas were coming together. Some of their comments were familiar to us and it seems like a good opportunity to talk about how far we’ve got with our thinking and how it has affected our approach to capacity building.
A word on words
A lot of the debates we mention above, and our own thoughts, focus on how to build long term capacity in a manner that recognises the many ways that individuals – and the organisations to which they belong – interact. This can sometimes get lost when we talk too vaguely about the ‘research system or the ‘research environment’.
We probably don’t use language with immense precision; however we tend to talk about systems in two ways:
- Firstly, we take a national approach in our work, so this means supporting the formal national research system of universities, research institutes, funding agencies, science and education ministries, and the people and policies that run and govern them, including those that use their research. This involves supporting, to varying degrees, the ‘doing’ and ‘production’ of research – through access to the latest international literature, training in scientific writing and journal editing; to supporting the use of research in decision making through working with intermediary and policymaking organisations.
- But we also talk about systems in what you could call an ‘ecosystem’ sense (although this borrowing of biological language isn’t always popular), to talk about the myriad, and often informal ways in which institutions, people, and power connect to produce particular effects. You could call this the research environment.
While we take a national lens to our work, we’re very aware that science is global, and that researchers and institutions need to create links across national boundaries if they are to grow and sustain their research. The national level approach nevertheless allows us to identify and support some of the things that countries need if they are to play their part in this global system.
What’s led us towards a systems approach?
In his ‘Complexity 101’ blog post, Harry Jones offers three characteristics of complex problems – (1) that capacity is distributed; (2) that the interests of different people within the system are divergent (and thus conflicting); and (3) that paths towards change are uncertain. Much of our work exhibits one or all of these characteristics. In particular, we work on a daily basis with many different people within the research system who are working to different goals. For example, researchers may be driven more by personal career objectives, rather than institutional or national development needs, as they choose what to research and where to publish this; government may develop policies which protect particular interests, but which may be at odds with the best available evidence; and university leaders – as those across the world – may be influenced by international league tables, but chasing these rankings may be at odds with what’s needed to strengthen research and teaching in support of national development needs.
The decision to place a greater emphasis on national ‘systems’ and to try and tackle some of these issues emerged from reflections on our last programme, the Programme for the Enhancement of Research Information (PERii) and the external evaluation commissioned from ITAD. PERii achieved some notable successes, working in over 20 countries to strengthen research capacity, but as the review noted, we were often missing the links between different parts of the system at a national level, and this was limiting what we could achieve.
Going beyond individuals
Much of our work continues to focus on building the capacity of individuals; skills training and mentoring play an important part in this. We believe that training people is still really important but we know that this alone isn’t sufficient to achieve lasting results. We’ve been conscious for some time that if we and our partners are to genuinely build and strengthen capacity, we need to be thinking about how individuals are enabled – or not – by the broader environment for research, and how they work together, within and across departments and institutions. We’re thinking more about how to support organisational development as a result.
What does the research system look like?
We’re working within a system that is supposed to interact with other institutions and actors – funders, government policy, internal and external incentives but which is, of course, also prone to changes within. To even begin to contemplate a systems approach to our work we had to first have a basic understanding of what this system looked like at a national level. Most importantly we had to start by acknowledging that while a national level research system may have many of the components we’re familiar with from our own work and experiences in the UK (researchers, universities, government departments with various mandates to use research, academic publishers etc.), we could and should not expect them to interact in the ways we’re used; just because a system looks similar, it doesn’t mean it works in the same way.
We’ll follow this post in a week or so to talk about how we have started to map and understand the systems we work in and how that is enabling us to maximise our relatively small role within that context.