Knowing your audience

An unlikely relationship? Duncan Green says researchers and NGO’s can achieve impact together

By 23 January 2014

Duncan Green proposed a novel idea whilst giving a talk promoting his latest book at the University of Edinburgh: NGOs can teach academics a lot about impact.

Green pointed to a few useful traits that NGOs can offer researchers to enhance their work. Firstly, NGOs can provide feet on the ground at the beginning of the process. Secondly, there is an opportunity for greater research dissemination at the conclusion of the process.

The perpetual problem of defining impact was briefly mentioned, with REF 2014 the main cause for concern. Green alluded to researchers’ inadequacy when thinking about the impact of their work. He argued that researchers point normally towards either consultancy work with government bodies or simply teaching to evidence the impact of their research. Neither of which are robust enough, in his opinion, to establish impact. Interestingly, Green’s experience of the matter comes from reviewing the Impact Statements of a UK University for the REF.

This collaboration embodies the innovative tactics used by universities to document meaningful impact, by seeking the guidance of advisory practitioners (like Green) attached to NGOs. The strategy makes sense, according to Green, because NGOs by their very nature are designed to deliver impact and workable solutions, whilst simultaneously reporting back to donors and demonstrating value for money.

Collaboration may be especially productive within the field of international development. Stroeble and Mentz argue that ‘research partnerships- both within the higher education sector and between the sector and society- have the potential to provide high impact platforms from which evidence-based solutions for critical challenges can be identified.’ Professor Stroeble heads the National Research Foundation in South Africa whilst Dr Mentz is a Research and Evaluation Specialist working in South Africa.

Stroeble and Mentz suggest that research partnerships have the potential to meet the challenges of a post-2015 agenda, using the example of the OECD Global Science Forum which offers wide scope for collaboration. Furthermore, they argue that collaboration may overcome the uneven spread of knowledge and resources between the north and south, utilising the example of the Association of Commonwealth Universities. Finally and perhaps most importantly, Stroeble and Mentz highlight the need for collaborative projects to share their experiences, enabling similar ventures to improve the likelihood of success in the future.

When quizzed as to what advice Green would give to researchers to ensure their work is more readily up-taken within the International Development arena, the answer was that joint research programmes are preferable. The reason being, that from the very start the objectives and applications of research are clearer and more easily identifiable.

A number of reasons why universities would want to collaborate are raised by Chris Roche, a Professor of International Development who formerly worked for Oxfam. Partnerships with NGOs are deemed important because they are driven by ‘real world concerns’ and are able to compare innovations across many different fields. Roche also helpfully offers conditions to ensure that the partnership is fruitful, including the need for a similar depth in understanding by both partners and crucially a similarity in the length of research timelines.

Collaboration between NGOs and universities is heralded by Roche as ‘highly strategic,’ because of the potential to change the world and not merely observe it. Or in other words, achieve meaningful impact.