Four things we learned about supporting research and knowledge in ‘harder to reach’ places

Over the past few years we have tried to understand and support aspects of the research and knowledge systems in Sierra Leone and the Puntland region of Somalia. Here we share some of the lessons learnt

Conflict and instability, which affect people’s professional as well as personal lives and can lead to emigration, can be damaging to national research systems.

As part of INASP’s recently completed Strengthening Research and Knowledge Systems programme, we wanted to learn more about the real needs of researchers in countries that have been affected by conflict and instability, and how INASP’s different capacity development approaches could be best used in these situations. In 2013 we began a pilot project in Sierra Leone and started a subsequent pilot project in Somalia in 2015.

In Sierra Leone, our project provided support with access to literature, research communication and journal publishing, while in Somalia, the main focus was on gender equity in higher education. In both countries, we worked with local partners to bring together aspects of INASP’s work in a way that was appropriate to the country and context.

The pilot projects in the two countries developed in different ways and met different challenges. However, some common themes emerged for us to consider in future work:

  • Understanding context
    First, the projects highlighted the importance of understanding country context. At the start of both projects we did desk-based research and also spoke with potential partners within the countries and regions to get a sense of the challenges and needs.
  • Partnerships and local champions
    Following on from the initial contextual understanding, key to addressing the challenges were strong local partnerships and working with others that already have connections in a country, for example, the Rift Valley Institute in the case of Somalia. It was also important to share experiences and learning from other countries, for example the new library consortium set up in Sierra Leone during this pilot project had mentoring from longer-established consortia in the region. In terms of the individuals involved, in both cases returned diaspora, who have gained experience of working in other country contexts and have a commitment to addressing issues in their own countries, were very influential.
  • Adaptability and iterative approaches
    Both countries have faced significant challenges in their recent pasts (such as security concerns in Somalia, and the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014). As such, there were significant challenges for us to work in these countries. These challenges could have caused INASP projects in the two countries to stall. However, in fact they helped to shape the work, strengthening the reliance on local people on the ground and guiding us to take a flexible and adaptive approach.
  • The role of technology
    As universities in Sierra Leone closed and travel became impossible due to Ebola, together with our local partners we explored other options for supporting the research and knowledge system in the country. This led to AuthorAID online training materials being adapted for Sierra Leone, including addressing internet connectivity issues with our first use of Moodle’s offline mode of operation for our AuthorAID scientific research writing course. This has led to enthusiasm to build on, adapt and use Learning Management Systems.

Looking ahead

In Somalia it is anticipated that some of this work will continue within a new programme, Strong and Equitable Research and Knowledge Systems (SERKS), which we are just starting with initial funding from Sida. In Sierra Leone – and with many of the same partners – as part of a new DFID-funded stream of work on quality assurance of higher education, INASP is continuing to work and will be developing tools to support critical thinking in higher education which will make use of the Learning Management System mentioned above. We are interested to explore further options for further work in both of these countries and others where the lessons from these pilots can be shared.

For more information about these projects, what we did and further discussion about our learning, see our
Learning, Reflections and Innovation piece.

Anne Powell
Anne Powell is Programme Specialist, Convening at INASP.

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