Strengthening national research is not necessarily the first priority that comes to mind when we think of Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency, the political crisis in Lebanon, or armed conflict in Ethiopia. And yet it should be.
In such politically turbulent contexts, researchers and their institutions are often well placed to foster trust within communities and democratic dialogue when disagreement runs high. At IDRC, 50 years of experience working with universities, think tanks, and civil society researchers highlight this lesson, although it bears repeating today.
Approximately one-third of international assistance is now directed toward fragile contexts — where 80% of the world’s extreme poor will live by 2030 — yet less than 1% of this assistance is directed towards research, according to OECD data. That is not nearly enough and the assistance that is given to researchers could more clearly target peace and democracy.
Knowledge, trust, and democratic governance
A key challenge in these contexts is democratic governance: the open, fair, and inclusive ways in which societies cope with challenges and competing interests. The evidence is overwhelming that democratic governance — including elections, methods to foster participation in shaping public policies, and ways of holding governments to account — is crucial for human and economic development. These functions are also essential for international aid to be effective, as evidence suggests.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated infodemic of phony cures and dangerous misinformation has provided a stark reminder of the important role that trustworthy and reliable knowledge brokers play in our societies. Investing in researchers, their organizations, and the policy environments they move in can incentivize a virtuous cycle of evidence, debate, planning, and evaluation that feeds democratic decision-making.
So how do we support stronger democratic governance in contexts of political fragility, where the state, governing systems, and communities lack capacity? How can challenges such as inequality, urbanization, forced migration, violence, natural resource distribution, and climate change be addressed in these settings? The international community uses many strategies. It provides aid to build state capacity, strengthen civil society organizations, develop political party structures, and increase civic education.
One avenue that requires greater emphasis, however, is the support for research.
At IDRC, we support efforts to strengthen the wider systems surrounding research, known as knowledge ecosystems, using these three strategies:
1.Build on existing research capacity
Strong knowledge ecosystems require strong research institutions. In fragile contexts, this can be achieved through investments in the existing research capacities of local universities and think tanks. This strengths-based approach to capacity development starts by exploring where quality and relevant knowledge is already being produced and then builds upon it. Some examples are strengthening the capabilities of research organizations to engage with lawmakers, seeking the public’s input, understanding gender issues, and involving marginalized groups in research activities.
The IDRC-supported Think Tank Initiative, for example, worked to strengthen the capacity of independent policy research institutions in 20 countries. When a new civilian government replaced military rule in Myanmar, IDRC and Global Affairs Canada jointly invested in an initiative that is enabling civil society institutions to generate and use research and data in support of inclusion and gender equality.
2.Identify local demand for knowledge
A robust knowledge ecosystem defines priority issues, sets a national agenda, and then gathers evidence and inclusive perspectives to formulate tailored solutions. To help define priorities in Venezuela, IDRC is supporting a wide consultation to identify demand and opportunities for research that can inform the response to the humanitarian and political crisis there. To inform a policy of reparations in post-conflict Guatemala, an IDRC-supported project intentionally sought the input of female victims of sexual violence.
3.Catalyze action and trust
A strong knowledge ecosystem fosters the trust required for public debate and coordinated action to address social problems. But trust is a rare commodity these days, and it is especially precious in politically fragile contexts. In Nairobi, an IDRC-supported partner called Akiba Mashinani Trust won a major victory to freeze property development in an informal settlement pending an integrated development plan. The victory owed much to the organization’s efforts to build a consortium of forty organizations and cultivate strong bonds with residents of the informal settlement. Researchers in this case were the honest brokers who helped stakeholders overcome divisions and mistrust.
Effective support for knowledge ecosystems in fragile contexts
Supporting knowledge for peace and democracy
While support for knowledge ecosystems can help build resilience, it is vital to recognize that research in conflict-affected and politically unstable environments has its own set of difficulties. Research organizations in these environments often have low capacity or are critically under-resourced and yet confront some of the most complex ethical and methodological challenges imaginable: distrust, fear, security threats, oppressive states, misinformation, and bias.
Fortunately, the international community is waking up to the long-neglected task of supporting localized knowledge in fragile settings. From the failures of top-down state-building efforts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the international community is pivoting toward a longer-term agenda, one focused on building accountable and legitimate institutions and on the social contract between citizens and the state.
The locally informed experiences of IDRC and other research donors point to great possibilities ahead. By supporting researchers, we can support peace and democracy.