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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.

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17th Development Dialogue| Communicating research differently: how a comic strip is bringing the everyday struggles of Somaliland’s Uffo to life

Researchers and non-researchers alike can learn much about and draw inspiration from the everyday struggles of ordinary people in difficult contexts. Yet such stories that we hear when working with communities engaged in the pursuit of social justice or emancipation often go untold or are overlooked. A comic strip about acts of civil resistance in Somaliland shows just how powerful such visual imagery can be in communicating lived experiences of struggles, writes Ebba Tellander.

Illustration: Pat Masioni, PositiveNegatives

In the early 1980s, the people of Hargeisa, Somaliland suffered greatly. The negligence of the Siad Barre regime and the 1977/78 war with Ethiopia meant that the city’s residents did not have adequate access to basic services such as electricity, sanitation, and health care. At the same time, political oppression dominated life in northwest Somalia. Despite the possible consequences of blatantly opposing the government, a group of young professionals, including teachers, engineers, and doctors, set out to change the state of things by volunteering to help the people of Somaliland. They started in 1981 by cleaning and refurbishing the Hargeisa Group Hospital – at their own expense and in their own time. They saw it both as a form of humanitarian assistance responding to the acute suffering of patients due to the lack of a properly functioning hospital, and as a way of resisting the oppressive policies of the regime. Through their humanitarian action they were illuminating the negligence of the government in the health sector, mobilising people in the community to take care of themselves when the government wouldn’t, and showing them that they could act independently from the government.

To create more awareness about the oppressive polices, two of the professionals also wrote a newsletter called ‘Uffo’, which means ‘the sweet-smelling wind before the rain’. The meaning seemed to have foreshadowed what happened next. When the professionals were arrested a few months later and faced the risk of execution, this became the spark that ignited and inspired others, especially secondary school students and women, to oppose the regime openly on the streets. Today, the protests that took place are remembered as the Dhagax Tuur, which means ‘stone throwing’, and are regarded as the beginning of the resistance movement that continued for years afterward and eventually led to downfall of the authoritarian regime.

Despite the Uffo story’s historical importance, it is not widely known; instead, narratives of crisis, conflict, and violence dominate reports on the situation in the Horn of Africa, where Somaliland lies. These narratives are perpetuated by journalists, NGO personnel, and researchers alike. Reports on the Somali region in particular are typically focused on themes such as piracy, terrorism, war, and state failure. One consequence of such a limited focus is that ordinary people are portrayed either as perpetrators or as passive victims. This gives a flawed picture that downplays essential parts of the human experience, including those that provide a glimmer of hope, such as the courage and creativity of those who struggle, as well as their care for others. For my doctoral research I therefore chose to focus on the case of Uffo to highlight the tales and self-awareness of those people who act collectively to counter violence and oppression. I found a story that should not go unheard. And so I sought a way to make sure that it would be heard.

To communicate this story to new and larger audiences, I have been part of a production team of producers, storytellers, artists, and researchers who over the past years have created a comic in five parts. The comic is available in both English and Somali (read it here). I am part of a larger research team at Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) that is committed to exploring the power of visual storytelling in research through a collaboration with the organisation PositiveNegatives that produces educational comics to raise awareness about social and humanitarian issues across the globe.

Comics and animations are particularly suitable for communicating lived experiences and sensitive themes, including topics such as love, torture, and mental health. It is easier for a larger group of people to recognise themselves in animated characters when compared to other visual formats such as photographs and films. In addition, comics can easily be translated into many different languages and spread on social media. Thus, they can reach people who normally do not read academic texts or policy reports.

How did we create this comic strip?

These comics were created in a collaborative manner that allowed the professionals and other research participants to tell their stories. The production team met the Uffo professionals in Hargeisa to discuss the comic before it was developed into a first draft. They were then given the opportunity to provide feedback during several crucial steps in the production process. The Uffo professionals have been very enthusiastic about the project throughout the process.

The artwork was created by established Congolese artist Pat Masioni who was personally inspired by the story. His 1980s comic style was a perfect fit with the Uffo story. To stay true to the story, Pat Masioni used historical photographs and pictures that I had taken during my fieldwork to create the artwork.

The process of creating a comic based on research and in such a collaborative manner is time-consuming, but the whole team stayed committed to the importance of communicating this story in a nuanced way that resonated with the stories of the professionals.[1]

What’s the comic about?

The comic strip powerfully illustrates the role of agency in challenging circumstances. Those who read all five chapters will know how Uffo invented astonishing ways to survive and stay sane during their harsh prison sentences (note: Tolstoy’s fans will be pleasantly surprised). There are many such smaller parts of the story that capture the professionals’ care for each other as well as their capacity to create light in the dark, which is a common thread throughout the whole series. These stories can be transformative in themselves, as they have the power to inspire and show us what is possible in otherwise bleak situations.

When the comics were launched, Dr Tani from the Uffo group was interviewed by BBC Africa. Several of the Uffo professionals were later granted political asylum in countries such as the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, and the US. I therefore wish for the comic to be read by people living in those countries, as it will give us a better understanding of the lives of fellow citizens with refugee backgrounds.

I also wish for the comics to be read by youth in Somaliland and by diaspora. While I was conducting the research in Somaliland, I got involved in the process of creating a 13-episode TV program about Uffo in Hargeisa in 2018 together with Star TV. I followed journalists to universities and other public spaces where they were asking people on the street whether they had heard of Uffo. Very few had. One contributing reason is the country’s cautious approach to bringing up painful memories from the past, which could contribute to division. However, the story of Uffo is not only a painful one, but also carries messages of hope and strength, which I noticed inspired the young women and men I worked with in Hargeisa, most of whom had not heard the Uffo story before.[2]

All in all, this exercise has shown that engaged researchers not only can contribute to social change through the findings and insights generated by their research, but also through the ripple effects of the research process itself and from the stories that are being illuminated. It’s up to researchers to find out how to do this and to actively seek to create waves through their research.

[1] The production of the comic was informed by rigorous research, including in-depth interviews with the Uffo professionals and people who participated in the protests, many of them women. As part of the research process, the interview data has been triangulated with archival data such as human rights reports, political poetry and the trial protocol from 1982.

[2] Thanks go to Nasra Daahir Raage, Shukri Sagal Ali, Yasmin Gedi, Abdifatah Omar, Wahiba Ismail, Mohamud Ismail, Nasra Sagal, Hadiya Sayid Ali and Hassan Sayid Ali Daoud for their excellent research assistance.

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

About the author:

Ebba Tellander is a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo and International Institute of Social Studies within the TRANSFORM project. She researches people’s motivations and actions when initiating collective action and civil resistance in repressive settings, focusing on the case of Uffo. For her research, she also took part in the production of a 13-episode TV series about the Uffo.


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Positioning Academia | Let’s talk about it: embedding research communication in transformative research

Discussions on the transformative potential of research have focused little on how research is communicated once it has been conducted and, indeed, while it is conducted. Instead, the focus hitherto has been primarily on data generation processes, with topics such as inclusion, research ethics, and agency frequently discussed. Fundamental questions such as who the knowledge produced through research reaches, at what time, and with which purpose require greater scrutiny, write Dorothea Hilhorst, Lize Swartz, and Adinda Ceelen.

"Books of Knowledge." by Tessss is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

There is a large collection of terms that label efforts to make academic work relevant to and heard and seen by society – research uptake, valorization, knowledge utilization, societal relevance, impact, and so on. Yet, for research to be truly transformative, the way in which knowledge is communicated needs to change. Too often still, the use of abovementioned concepts reveal a way of thinking where research outcomes are seen as a package that needs to be ‘transferred’ to ‘society’ at the end of the process. We argue that research can be more transformative if research uptake is integrated into the objectives and process of the research and if we further unpack the following question: is knowledge produced in the name of social justice, inclusion and the eradication of poverty reaching those that need it most?

This is a tricky question because it requires thinking about how knowledge can be communicated directly with – or indeed by – research participants, and with other actors that can work towards tackling the fundamental societal challenges that are now more pervasive than ever. Knowledge is powerful, and those who can avail of the knowledge can make the difference for, or ideally with, the people whose lives may be directly affected. Transformative research communication seeks to address the issue of the failure of knowledge to trickle down to the ground, so to speak, by asking how research is communicated at different stages of the research process, to whom and where, and with which intent.

The existence of a plethora of definitions of research communication has led to ambiguity on what it means and how to go about it. Unfortunately, research communication is often still seen as an activity done separately from the actual research and often after the research has been completed. Many view it as a step in the research process – between outputs and outcomes – where complex research outputs and findings are translated into a language, format and context that non-experts can understand. Notwithstanding the importance of this type of communication, research communication should be seen to go beyond such translations. Our call is to develop research communication and uptake activities that are in line with – and embedded into – transformative research methodologies.

The above questions form part of a process of rethinking research methodologies by changing the approach we as researchers take to our own role as researchers. By seeing researched communities as knowledge actors rather than populations we need to obtain data about, we work with research participants to bring about change through the research process. Participatory Action Research (PAR) is one way in which this is being done. We see research communication and uptake as an integral part of these research processes, rather than an add-on.

There is room to move beyond conducting research to communicating it not only after knowledge has been produced, but also in the process. Academic blogging for example has emerged as a promising avenue that allows researchers and research participants to make Internet users across the world aware of issues and communicate in a timely way about work done by researchers and societal actors to address these. Increased communication that amplifies the voices of marginalized communities or reports about collective action and social mobilization may for instance inspire solidarity networks in other places to adopt some of the innovative strategies discussed in blog articles, or current research on specific topics may encourage researchers to focus on similar issues in their own contexts or follow up on related research questions and corresponding studies that emerge after reading such articles.

Tackling today’s most pressing global challenges is a highly complex process that is anything but linear. Research communication geared towards durable uptake must therefore be multi-dimensional and multi-scalar, and the messages and targeted audiences will necessarily differ. There is no one size fits all. Thus, knowledge outcomes intended to reach audiences in society at large is communicated differently from knowledge that can inform change within researched communities.

This means that research uptake can take many forms. Yet, it remains important to always choose those forms that align with the long-term objectives, epistemology and processes of research. Here are some directions in which research uptake can be made consistent with transformational, participatory research for global development and social justice:

  1. Make research uptake integral to the process of participatory research. As much as possible, have research participants reach out with their stories or social actions to policy actors or wider audiences. An example concerns research on adolescent perceptions of healthy relationships, where youth were trained as youth peer researchers and subsequently trained to engage in advocacy in their communities.
  2. Favour durable research uptake that has a long-lasting effect. Together with research participants, opportunities can be found to bring about durable change through research. An example is (MOOC) as part of the ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ project of ISS. This MOOC was developed on the basis of the research findings, together with the Global Network of Disaster Reduction, which is a network of 1500 civil society organizations. In the first year of the MOOC, it had 2,500 participants worldwide.
  3. Engage research participants and partners early on and develop a knowledge-sharing and uptake plan with fit-for-purpose outputs and activities. Animations for example can explain the research in simple terms, while timely produced research/policy briefs may appeal to policy makers and practitioners. An example is the publication of a policy brief, soon after the onset of the COVID-19 global health crisis, containing recommendations to improve access to healthcare for undocumented people in the Netherlands. Moreover, make sure that not only your research, but also your communication is participatory. Get input from participants and partners to find out how you can share your research findings in a way that serves their interests and needs. For research participants, this might mean developing non-academic outputs in the participants’ local language(s).
  4. Stay in touch with research participants and continue to engage after the project has ended. The extraction of research from research sites – and our subsequent self-extraction from these settings – without returning and engaging with research participants shows indifference and a lack of concern. Durable research uptake would thus require durable relations between researchers and research participants – a relationship lasting much longer than a research project. Examples are long-lasting international research collaborations and scholar-activism that is embodied in working with research participants to challenge structural problems.

The challenges researchers face in making research transformative are formidable. Conceptualizing transformative research communication and concentrating on research uptake in the design and process of the research is an important strategy to make research part of profound change we wish to see – if only we are willing to engage. So let’s talk about it.

About the authors:

Dorothea Hilhorst

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

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.

Adinda Ceelen is Knowledge Broker & Research Communications Advisor at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), where she works together with researchers on strengthening links between research and society. She holds an LL.M degree from Utrecht University and a BA degree from University College Utrecht, and furthermore completed the Advanced Master in International Development (AMID) at Radboud University.

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.