EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Some steps for decolonising international research-for-development partnerships

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Some steps for decolonising international research-for-development partnerships

While partnerships between researchers and practitioners from the Global North and Global South can be and often are intellectually and socially impactful, they remain highly unequal. Coloniality pervades these partnerships, ...

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | How social accountability initiatives are helping pursue social justice aims

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | How social accountability initiatives are helping pursue social justice aims

Achieving social justice in service delivery in the health, social welfare, and humanitarian sectors is still a formidable challenge in most developing countries. Poor and marginalised people generally lack the ...

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Development researchers as advocates: eight tips for more engaged scholarship

Research impact has become a strategic priority for many research institutes around the world, with an increasing focus on “bridging the gap” between research and society and positioning research in a way that ensures the knowledge it produces can contribute to bringing about change. But do and should researchers make sure that their research contributes to these objectives? And how can they go about it? This article shares some key insights from a roundtable forming part of the recent EADI ISS #Solidarity2021 conference.

Development researchers often find themselves straddling two worlds: the academic sector on the one hand, and the development sector on the other. But is there a moral imperative for development researchers to bridge these two realms by acting as advocates in ‘the real world’? If so, how can they best share knowledge in ways that contribute to solidarity, peace, and social justice? During a roundtable at the EADI ISS #Solidarity2021 conference, a unique lineup of speakers shared their insights from a number of different perspectives. The session ‘Is there a moral imperative for development researchers to act as advocates?’ took place on 7 July 2021 and was moderated by Prof. Arjun Bedi (Deputy Rector Research Affairs at ISS).

Eight tips for more engaged scholarship

We briefly summarised the main points of the discussion – here are eight key takeaways:

  1. Engage early on

Development research can help NGOs, policy-makers and other actors gain a contextualised and multi-faceted understanding of the dynamics of development. If researchers want their work to better inform programs and policies, they should interact with non-academic actors early on and allow them to help shape design objectives, recommends Adriano Nuvunga (Executive Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, Mozambique). This will generate interest in the research that can improve research uptake later. It can also help to move away from extractive research models to approaches grounded in dialogue with local actors in which researchers spend more time with communities and talking to others.

  1. Make it political

Research generally does not inform policy-making unless it’s politicised. If researchers want policy-makers to engage with and use their research, they need to be willing to make it political and engage in political debates, says Dirk-Jan Koch (Chief Science Officer at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Professor by Special Appointment International Trade & Development Cooperation at Radboud University). Researchers need to understand what is going on in the minds of policy-makers. Make time available to regularly use (social) media by writing blogs or op-eds on research relevant to policy-makers, and make sure to reach the right people. Despite the political sensitivity, Dirk-Jan for example wrote an op-ed about the unintended side-effects of development cooperation that focused on how Dutch aid given to Syrian rebels was passed on to Islamist militias in Syria.

  1. Take a stand & be purposely passionate and provocative

Researchers seek to be objective and neutral when conducting research, but could embrace a bit more boldness and engage in activism when it comes to sharing their research and advocating for change in policy and practice. Sometimes simply sharing information is not enough. Researchers should find ways to appeal to hearts and minds, for example through storytelling that makes known the societal relevance of the research. By being “purposely passionate and provocative”, research can get noticed by policy-makers and the general public more widely, notes Kristen Cheney (Associate Professor in Children and Youth Studies at ISS).

  1. Spread the message far and wide & together with others

Researchers are generally expected to continually search for and share something new through their research. As a result, they tend to publish in academic journals and elsewhere and quickly move on to the next project. Yet advocacy and transformative change requires the opposite – namely long-term engagement – as such change takes time. If you want your research to contribute to change, you likely need to repeat the message again and again and to different audiences. Find networks of like-minded people, as this can help reach a critical mass of people who support a particular cause and can create enough momentum to sway politicians to act.

  1. Beware of the politics of knowledge production

Development as we know it today is inextricably linked with European colonisation, leaving us with a system of dominant ways of knowing and the monopoly of ‘useful knowledge’ and ‘expertise’ by institutions in the ‘Global North’. Lata Narayanaswamy (Associate Professor in the Politics of Global Development, University of Leeds) warns that we must not presume that there is a tangible thing called knowledge that is by definition valuable to share and to acknowledge that there are implied power hierarchies in how knowledge is produced and shared.

Careful consideration must be given to the why, what, and how of knowledge sharing. For example, practically speaking, what does the hegemonic position of the English language and the widespread use of digital technology mean in terms of inclusion and exclusion? Not only should knowledge sharing be coupled to clear action objectives, we must also think about how to engage research participants as co-creators, co-curators, and co-producers of knowledge.

  1. Move beyond a single identity

Traditional siloed research approaches in which one person conducts research, another communicates about the knowledge produced, and yet another is expected to do something with it are outdated. Science-society collaboration can be strengthened if researchers start wearing different hats and assume multiple roles, for example by combining a position at a ministry and a university (as Dirk-Jan does), communicating about their research throughout the research process, or engaging in digital academic citizenship.

  1. Become a digital academic citizen

Digital academic citizenship expands on the traditional perspective outlined above and is a way to engage in modern-day advocacy, comments Tobias Denskus (Associate Professor in Development Studies at Malmo University). Examples can be found on Twitter – which serves as a connector of ideas, communities, and platforms – where researchers are actively seeking and making themselves heard in certain debates: Dan Hicks (Professor of Contemporary Archeology at Oxford) for instance is often seen in the cancel culture debate in the UK, while Laura Hammond (Professor of Development Studies at the University of London)  tweets about the impact of budget cuts on research and her relationship with partners in the Global South. Importantly, Twitter isn’t used by them only to advocate their own research or organisations – they also use it to shed light on challenges and constraints faced by researchers, and on who they are and how they work toward overcoming societal injustices.

  1. Collaborate for greater impact

Maximising the impact of research knowledge and insights requires a different, perhaps new modus operandi than many researchers are used to. Thinking of advocacy and impact as a linear process with inputs and outputs doesn’t align with the complex reality of today’s world and its ‘wicked’ problems. We need to acknowledge this complexity and not oversimplify or underestimate what is needed.

Researchers can, but don’t need to go it alone. Oftentimes, colleagues working on research communication, uptake, and impact are ready to brainstorm and co-develop fitting strategies and plans to make sure knowledge is heard and applied. Don’t think or work in silos. Seek to collaborate, both within your organisation and beyond.

Looking forward

Going back to where we started, one critical question remaining unanswered in this blog is whether there is a moral imperative for development researchers to act as advocates. That is, after all, what the roundtable was all about. The truth is, we don’t have the answer (yet). Panelists and attendants touched on it, exchanging insights on the sequencing of research and advocacy and, more fundamentally, the objectivity and neutrality of the social sciences altogether. It became clear that the roundtable would not provide enough time and space to answer this provocative question. To really do justice to this critical debate, further in-depth discussions need to take place. But rest assured, the EADI Working Group on Research Communication is working on this, so stay tuned for more information!

About the EADI Working Group on Research Communications

This working group – comprising primarily communication professionals and a few academics – focuses on research communication as a vital part of ensuring that research in development reaches and engages other societal actors such as policymakers and practitioners so that recommendations and findings can contribute to change.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Adinda Ceelen is Knowledge Broker & Research Communications Advisor at the International Institute of Social Studies, part of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is also co-convenor of the EADI Working Group on Research Communications.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Risk dumping in field research: some researchers are safer than others

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Risk dumping in field research: some researchers are safer than others

Researchers who conduct their fieldwork in unfamiliar or hazardous settings are routinely exposed to risks that can bring them harm if these are not anticipated and circumvented. Often, junior PhDs ...

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Questioning development: What lies ahead?

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Questioning development: What lies ahead?

Development Studies requires “an epistemological and ontological change”, write Elisabetta Basile and Isa Baud in the introduction to the recent EADI volume ‘Building Development Studies for a New Millennium’. The ...

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | For the redistribution of water, framing matters!

In the face of increasing pressure on global water resources, a degree of inventiveness in finding just and sustainable ways to ensure access to water is required. The redistribution of water is one possible way in which this could be done. But ongoing research on elite responses to a recent water scarcity crisis in South Africa shows that the redistribution of water resources will not go uncontested by water elites and that existing narratives on the sharing of water are not creating the extent of solidarity needed. We need to frame this action differently, writes Lize Swartz.

Water is intricately linked to development, both to ensure or improve people’s quality of life, as well as to help secure livelihoods such as subsistence farming. But increasing pressure on water resources due to a changing climate, as well as an increased demand for water, amongst others, is making it difficult to even sustain current access to water, let alone provide new access to populations that are not yet connected to formal water networks.

Millions of people around the world are still waiting for the moment they can turn on a tap and watch water gushing from it, to be able to flush a toilet, or to bathe under running water. In light of the need to keep an expanding access to water and sanitation facilities, but also with the realisation that less and less water is available per capita, new ways of thinking about ensuring access to water are needed.

‘Sharing is scaring’

During a recent panel session on inclusive development and water governance linked to the 2021 EADI ISS Conference, the likelihood of having to share water came up toward the end of the discussion. Emanuele Fantini[1] suggested that it’s not as straightforward as ‘sharing is caring’ when it comes to water, pointing to the many complexities that would affect the governance of water redistribution by using the term ‘sharing is scaring’. Joyeeta Gupta[2], one of the panel convenors, observed that it is likely that “there will be no win-win situation; it will be a win-lose situation” when it comes to sharing water. As one of the main challenges, she recognised the need to convince water elites of the necessity of sharing water.

My ongoing research on elite responses to water scarcity shows exactly how difficult it will be to get ‘buy-in’ from those who are able to share water: I  investigate the way in which elite water users navigated the collapse of three urban water supply systems in South Africa in 2016. With ‘buy-in’ I mean that those who have sufficient water agree to share it, provided that they still have enough water to meet their own basic water needs. ‘Elite water users’ in the context of South Africa can be considered those who either have water and sanitation connections within their own homes, or who have access to non-municipal water resources such as groundwater (through boreholes) that can replace or supplement municipal water.

Some of the preliminary conclusions of my research are that:

  • Basic water needs are different for different socio-economic groups in South Africa. For example, irrigating private gardens to ensure that lawns remain green and plants continue to grow may be considered a basic need by those owning gardens, but not by those without gardens. This may be linked to the pride that is taken in being able to maintain ‘life’ by tending to an urban nature.
  • The way in which water is used is closely linked to the socio-economic and cultural identity and status of water users; water is much more than a product linked to hygiene, for example – having abundant water is a reminder of a high standard of living and prosperity. Swimming pools, fountains, and running water in general is considered part and parcel of a ‘good life’.
  • Water is closely linked to emotional and mental health; having sufficient water creates a sense of peace and safety among water users, which turns into anxiety when the threat of water scarcity or shortages looms. My research found that retaining a sense of water security seems to trump other considerations that may inform how water is used and whether and how it is shared.

Allegations of mismanagement stand in the way of viewing water scarcity as collective problem  

In addition to the symbolic importance of water that moves beyond the idea of water needs as largely material, political factors may also affect the willingness of water elites to share water. My research found, for example, that specific interpretations of the collapse of urban water supply systems as being caused by municipal mismanagement and water losses through leakages in general may prevent water users from seeing water scarcity as a collective problem and responding to it in a similar way. Those who hold such views are unlikely to cooperate with local governments to ensure that those without water are helped out of own accord. My research also shows that water is hoarded by households out of fear of not being able to access it in the future and is mostly shared with those elites’ own social networks.

Also, in the communities studied, distrust stretches beyond the local level and is rooted in perceptions regarding the legitimacy and accountability of the national government. A certain level of mistrust is based on its perceived disability to govern in the interests of water elites, who in South Africa for the most part are also socio-economic elites. This also affects the extent to which water scarcity is considered a collective problem requiring collective action, similar to the above observation.

Capping the water use of elites?

Thus, ensuring elite buy-in of the need to redistribute water will not be a simple task. The sharing of water may involve the limiting of water use for elites by imposing a maximum daily or monthly limit (‘holding back’ water) and making greater amounts of water available for other water users who have used less water. Another example is the redistribution of groundwater by pumping it into municipal water tanks that are accessible to all. But limiting the water use of some households and not others is likely to cause dissatisfaction and perhaps even resistance.

What complicates matters further is that the amount of water used in informal urban areas is generally far lower than that of the amount used in formal urban areas – while the redistribution of water is likely to reduce the amount of water used by water elites, water use may not increase in areas where there are different water needs and priorities and where the majority of residents still share taps and toilets. This may thus not create the impression that water has been distributed more equitably so that everyone gets ‘more or less the same’.

The overall reduction of water on the other hand may be beneficial in countries like South Africa where the water supply is under severe stress. But convincing water users that it is possible – and desirable – to use less water will be a challenge.

In light of this difficulty, the redistribution narrative – and indeed a narrative of ‘sharing is caring’ – will need to be reconsidered. A reduction in the amount of water used by water elites that frees up water for a municipal ‘reserve’ may be achieved more easily if it is framed in light of the need for a water reserve to prevent the water scarcity and corresponding water use restrictions – the idea of ‘using less water now so that there will be water in the future’. This de facto would free up water that is needed elsewhere in urban areas. Elite water users may have to be convinced that limiting their water use will benefit them in the future, and that this sacrifice is worth making.

[1] Senior Lecturer in Water Politics and Communication at IHE Delft

[2] Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research of the University of Amsterdam and IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in Delft

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Lize Swartz

Lize Swartz is the editor-in-chief of ISS Blog Bliss and a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she researches political dynamics of socio-hydrological systems. She is part of the newly formed Transformative Methodologies Working Group situated in the Civic Innovation Research Group

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.