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Going the extra mile with African research in social sciences

July 11, 2018

Flaubert Mbiekop

Rishma Maini / Department for International Development

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Quick fixes and flashy solutions in international development seem to be the order of the day. It is satisfying, and often useful, to count the number of women, men, and youths who sign up for training, receive a vaccine, or plant a new type of seed. Infrastructure projects are concrete and visible. But in the context of growing impatience for development programs to demonstrate impact at scale and value for money, it is important to reflect on the role and positioning of research for development in the social sciences.

This type of research typically takes a longer route and its impact on people’s lives is generally more difficult  to demonstrate. How do you establish beyond any reasonable doubt the number of vulnerable women whose lives improved after research findings informed a new law, say on domestic violence? How do you prove that the new law was indeed informed by the specific research that you supported?

To complicate matters further, the impact of investments in social sciences depends on people’s capacity to uptake and implement the innovation or the evidence generated. Let’s be clear. This goes beyond communicating the results to policymakers and practitioners or ensuring that we engage with them throughout the life-cycle of a research project.

At a time when information pollution has become a daily reality, the capacity to discern flawed evidence from credible evidence backed by sound analytical work becomes essential. Arguably, there is no need for end-users to grasp sophisticated research methods or their technical nuances. However, acquainting themselves with the basics and the intuition of the most commonly used social science techniques can certainly help when it comes to deciding which evidence to trust and use.

Meeting global goals

Recent estimates by the World Bank Group suggest that under a business-as-usual scenario, two-thirds to three-quarters of the world’s extreme poor will live in Africa by 2030. For these people in particular, a significant number of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will not be met.

While several factors may be slowing progress towards the SDGs, many cite the limited use and implementation of research findings as an important piece of the puzzle. There is a general sense that research is continuously generating significant and relevant knowledge, but that this evidence isn’t used as much as it could be to design and implement better policies and interventions that would eventually improve living conditions.

Capacity to implement solutions advanced by research

Several recent programs have been taking a closer look at the uptake and implementation capacity in Africa to close the loop in the research cycle, going all the way from research design and implementation to generating the expected impact on the ground. These include the Hewlett Foundation’s call for proposals for African Policy Research Institutions to advance government use of evidence and the UK’s Department for International Development program Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (BCURE). The final evaluation of the BCURE program in January 2018 concludes that “evidence use is inherently political. It is often constrained in low and middle-income countries by authoritarian, politicized, and fragmented institutions, which are hobbled by financial constraints, low technical or policy experience among civil servants, and high levels of corruption.”

A key BCURE lesson from the pilot, which included Kenya, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, was that any attempt to build capacity for evidence use should promote formal adoption of new processes, tools, or practices and ensure that it is supported and resourced by senior managers for behaviour change to be sustainable.

A central issue for IDRC

Research uptake is at the core of our work at IDRC and we continually experiment with new ideas to improve people’s lives.

Through our network of grantee organizations under the Think Tank Initiative, we have supported the training of hundreds of parliamentarians, civil servant analysts, journalists, and representatives of civil society organizations. We have also contributed to the research impact debate by examining the influence of research on public policy and through the concept of scaling science. This model, which helps social innovators navigate the complex waters of achieving impact through research and innovation, explores the idea of inclusive coordination among “those that make scale possible and those affected by innovations.”

The ever-changing context and reality of developing countries ultimately calls for proactive and continuously innovative approaches to research for development in the social sciences. In the case of sub-Saharan Africa in particular, a systemic approach that accounts for the local political economy and absorption capacity of research evidence seems to hold some real promise.

Flaubert Mbiekop is a senior program specialist for the IDRC-managed Think Tank Initiative.