Targeting policy actors

Social relationships are at the heart of knowledge for development

By 06/03/2017

In a so-called ‘post-truth’ world, where experts are viewed with increasing suspicion, how do academics, practitioners and donors work together to ensure evidence informs policies and practices that have a transformative impact on people’s lives and contribute to global efforts to reduce poverty?

These issues are discussed by leading social scientists, NGOs, donors and policymakers from around the globe in The Social Realities of Knowledge for Development, an edited collection of articles. The collection will be launched at an  event convened by the Institute of Development Studies, Overseas Development Institute and IIED.

Jointly funded by the ESRC- DFID- Impact Initiative for international development research and the Institute of Development Studies, the collection highlights the implicit social nature of evidence-informed decision making. It brings to the fore the importance of relationships and networks throughout the process of research impact, which can be scattered and intangible.

James Georgalakis co-editor of the collection and Director of the Impact Initiative said “While it has been easy to share significant successes of getting research into action through impact awards and case studies, it has proved much harder to institutionalise any learning from these. Put simply, the development sector has continued to struggle to repeat the trick of turning research into action”.

“This collection tries to fill the gap between highly prescriptive impact tool kits and conceptual frameworks and academic studies of the impact agenda. These case studies from those at the front line provide practical learning for anyone seeking to make better use of evidence whether in NGOs, development agencies or research organisations”.

In her review of the collection, Tamsyn Barton, the new Bond chief executive noted the different stances and expectations of researchers of policymakers to take on evidence; and vice versa,  of policymakers of researchers, who may not think about what happens to their research after it has happened.

Tamsyn said: “This fascinating collection of articles documents a range of experiences which show how research evidence can be picked up and used, but only if those who want this to happen pay enough attention to social and political relationships”.

The tension between ‘the technical’ and ‘the social’

In their introduction, the co-editors, James Georgalakis, Nasreen Jessani, Rose Oronje and Ben Ramalingam, emphasise a key-takeaway message from the collection – that while technical capacities matter, research to policy processes are fundamentally social.

There are a number of factors that underpin the social realities of knowledge for development, that include the:

  1. Capacity of individuals and organisations in terms of knowledge and skills to engage in policy processes
  2. Individual relationships that facilitate influence and knowledge brokerage
  3. Networked relationships and group dynamics that connect up the supply of knowledge with the demand for it
  4. Social and political context, culture and norms.

In her foreword to the collection Sarah Cook, Director, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre highlighted:

“This useful collection illustrates the varied and complex pathways through which research, knowledge or evidence may (or may not) be taken up by policymakers and practitioners. Drawing on examples of research into policy/practice relationships, from context-specific action research, to engaging with embedded, national policy institutions and global processes.”

The growth of evidence-informed development

The trend for, and debates around, evidence-informed development has expanded considerably over the past three decades. It emerged in the 1990s in health as an outcome of evidence-based medical practice. However, despite this history, and as many commentators suggest, the progress in how well evidence informs development policy and practice is at best uneven.

During the Lessons from a Decade’s Research on Poverty: Innovation, Engagement and Impact Conference in South Africa in 2016, learning was shared between ESRC-DFID research grant holders. It was clear at this event the lessons needed to be better understood by a wide constituency of research to policy actors. The collection includes two case studies from the ESRC DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation and a think piece from the ESRC’s Head of International Development Research, Craig Bardsley.

The Social Realities of Knowledge for Development is the latest offering from the Impact Initiative’s Impact Lab. The Lab has been assessing the key barriers to research impact, documenting case studies and publishing a series of Learning Guides on evidence informed policy and practice.

Social Realities of Knowledge for Development is free to download. To download the collection for free and access the Learning Lab’s other resources go to: