Knowing your audience

Introduction to RiU at ASSAR

By 9 November 2017

The Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions consortium, or ASSAR, is an interdisciplinary research programme working in climate change ‘hotspots’ – environments highly sensitive to the impacts of climate change with a significant vulnerable human population  – in the semi-arid regions of Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Mali, and Namibia. While research sites are based in communities, ASSAR engages with policymakers and decision-makers at sub-national, national, and international levels to maximise opportunities for research uptake and impact at various levels.

Oxfam, Research-into-Use (RiU) consortium lead, works with the regional and country research partners to position ASSAR’s research processes and findings for research uptake. We want people – ideally influential people – to read, use, and – of course – cite the research. Uptake could inform policy development, review and planning in governments and funders, as well as development practice at diverse levels and feed back into academia.

Crucially, the conceptualisation of ASSAR’s RiU looks beyond conventional research uptake, as a measure of success by working to maximise opportunities for research impact – contributing to changes in people’s lives, including through understanding, language, relationships, intentions, and actions. The research processes themselves are just as if not more important than the findings and even, arguably, the uptake. These RiU processes are an influencing strategy in themselves, targeting communities, key decision-makers and policymakers, as well as practitioners and researchers.

One such example is ASSAR’s use of Transformative Scenario Planning, or TSP. This stakeholder engagement methodology developed by Reos Partners has been implemented in three of the four ASSAR regions to support the co-development of a vision (or scenarios) of the future of adaptation within a selected focus issue, including new insights for future research agendas. A successful TSP requires building trust, relationships, and capacity among all stakeholders involved through the TSP process. Uptake or not, this process aims to transform how people see the issues, so that they work collaboratively toward a more sustainable and integrated future. Stay tuned for a more on this in ASSAR’s guest editorial next week (16 November).

But what is ASSAR’s RiU strategy exactly?

Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, ASSAR’s RiU approach (and CARIAA’s) draws on DFID’s A guide for DFID-funded research programmes (updated April 2016). It includes the components of stakeholder engagement, communications, and capacity building, and recognises the importance of monitoring and learning (for adaptive management on various timescales that I won’t go into at this point). We believe (OK, sure, use ‘assume’ if you’re a cynic) that those components need to be integrated throughout research processes to ensure timely, relevant, and useful research findings.

However, ASSAR’s RiU expands (and experiments!) on these components. First, RiU is underpinned by stakeholder engagement based on stakeholder mapping and power analysis. Iterative engagement – early and often – is the foundation to ASSAR’s RiU strategy.

Second, recognising the importance of relationships (see Duncan Green’s blog on ASSAR for more on this…and more), RiU embraces working through strategic partnerships (both formal and informal). Partnerships are created between researchers and practitioners but also between practitioners themselves and those who we aim to influence with ASSAR’s findings.

Another difference, which I would argue supports the differentiation between uptake and impact, is the emphasis and role of communications, which is often applied in the context of evidence and results. To achieve uptake and impact, ASSAR aims to ensure that communications (written and oral, traditional and innovative) are part of the research processes themselves in conjunction with the iterative stakeholder engagement. The vision is very much about knowledge management and knowledge mobilisation, as well as communications (such as our newsletter ).

The capacity-building component refers to both external stakeholder capacity and internal capacity alike. Externally, the focus is on understanding the science: how to understand it and how to use it. Internally, it is about getting researchers and practitioners to do research differently. Or, in some cases, to realise that by thinking slightly more strategically we are dramatically increasing the opportunities for uptake and impact. This is also about researchers coming into the sphere of influencing and seeing themselves as influential actors in the adaptation and development space.

The last piece of the puzzle for research for impact (and uptake!) is setting out a clear Theory of Change from the start (here’s another blog from Duncan on Theory of Change for researchers (or funders!)). This is where we proactively set out goals beyond uptake by placing uptake clearly on the path to impact. ASSAR has an overall Theory of Change (watch the fun, 4-minute video here) that is grounded in country-level impact pathways. The impact pathways highlight the uptake and influencing changes we work toward. These impact pathways are used in planning with some having been turned into communication tools for specific activities, such as the Participatory Scenario Analysis in Ethiopia that focused on the management of Prosopis ‘to improve the management of rangelands, and ultimately achieve more sustainable and equitable access to rangeland for pastoralists’.

As we continue the RiU experiment we increasingly recognise the role of academic research in practice as a driver of change. Perhaps the elusive Knowledge to Policy (K2P) framework – or sub-framework – could highlight the role of research and evidence informing practice as well: K2P&P if you will. In the adaptation space this grounded focus of academic research processes through RiU provides a critical synergy to the research-to-policy enabling environment created by the IPCC that focuses primarily on technical solutions and science.

For more information on Oxfam’s work in the area of research in general check out Oxfam’s Research Guidelines (or a blog on guidelines).


ASSAR is part of the wider Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) initiative. As one of four consortia within CARIAA, ASSAR takes an open approach to sharing the lessons learned around generating research uptake and impact both within CARIAA and beyond.