Research for Impact: A Conversation (and podcast) with Researchers in the Himalayas

Another day, another conversation on research for impact, this time with ICIMOD, a network of thinktanks working to protect people, environment and culture across 8 countries of the Himalayan region. They asked me to record the conversation, thereby producing an accidental podcast. Here’s a partial, tidied-up transcript for those who prefer the written word. I’ve focussed on things that add something to this week’s earlier post on a conversation with Save the Kids on the same subject

Q: Going to Scale: We are quite successful in implementing small pilots across our region. In our next strategy we want to consolidate that and try and work/influence larger programmes and policies, based on innovation and proof of concept. How can we position ourselves for that scaling effort?

A: What I’ve seen work in Oxfam is involving the targets – for example local or national government officials – in the governance of the pilots. It’s no good doing the pilots and then trying to convince the decision-makers afterwards. Interview the targets, ask them to be on a steering group, or review drafts – involve them from the beginning.

In terms of scale, everyone is talking about it, and no-one has the answer. But if your pilot relies on huge investment of time by highly skilled people, then you have a problem. When it tries to go to scale, less brilliant or committed people try and do it, and the projects don’t work! It may be worth looking at alternatives such as social franchising (project in a box).

Q: The Importance of Intel. A lot of our work involves partnerships with thinktanks in our 8 member countries. We need intel about what is happening in the member countries, how policy is changing and identifying windows of opportunity. But how much should we invest in that, what is efficient? Should we be thinking about a dedicated team?

A: I’m always a bit sceptical about dedicated teams, because the first thing that happens is that everyone else says ‘we can leave it to them now’, so it can actually be counter-productive. One thing is to work out who gathers the intelligence anyway, because of their day job or their natural interest. Some people are just well connected and getting that intel anyway – going with the grain of staff and people really helps. That’s much better than trying to force introverts to go out and network! I think it has to be a continual function, because you never know when an opportunity will arise – a crisis or a shock.

Credit: ICIMOD

Q: Building Trust: How do we build trust with decision makers, beyond generating solid evidence?

A: People will trust you if they know you, or they like you (which is something we never talk about, but is really important). They will trust you if you have played by the rules and not rushed off to the newspaper straight after the interview and told them everything the decision-maker just said. They will trust you if you help them when they need help, not just when it suits your timetable. They will trust you if you disagree with them respectfully – politicians can spot a yes-man, rather than someone they can trust to tell them difficult things. Assertiveness is important but it’s really difficult, especially if you’re shy. I’m hopeless at it – my voice gets wobbly and I sound a bit crazy. You need to practice! 

Q: Influencing over the long term: What do you think is the best publication and advocacy strategy for a natural scientist to reach out to donors and governments? Especially when nature-based projects only have impacts after 10 or 15 years? And often have to be done at scale to work?

A: I think natural science gives you a big asset, when talking to policy makers, because they’re scared of you! Not least economists, who often have ‘physics envy’ – they wish economics was more like physics, where your model predicts something that can then be tested, and then the model can be refined. So you can use that authority as a natural scientist. Some donors really trust in natural science – find out if they have a Chief Scientific Adviser, which is a good sign.

In terms of the long term, that’s a real problem. Politicians and donors have short time horizons; the planet has long time horizons. Find those donors, or the people within donors who ‘get it’ and work with them to build up examples like the Young Lives programme, which has been running for 20 years now; if you can find natural experiments that started before your research programme, that can help. But then think about design. A 15 year change process can be broken down into 3 x 5 years. If you can design it so the donor can see something after 5 years, and accepts that there will be changes of direction for the broader project, that is better than saying ‘just trust me’. 

Q: Strategy Design: What’s your overall advice to us developing our long term strategy?

A: Well, I wrote a blog on this – things INGOs always get wrong on strategy! In my experience strategies are most useful to the people who are in the room, drawing them up. But once they’ve been published, new people come in to the organization and find them pretty useless – they stay on the shelf. I’m a fan of the Strategy Testing approach, developed by The Asia Foundation. They accept that all strategies are provisional, and have a process for updating them periodically. That allows people to express their doubts and, crucially, gives donors comfort that you know what you are doing. There’s lots going on in other parts of the aid sector, especially in governance and institutional reform – things like adaptive management and thinking and working politically – there may be some lessons there for the natural world sector.

Credit: ICIMOD

Q: How do you ensure effective implementation across the organization on gender and youth?

A: There’s always a tension between mainstreaming and specialist units. Set up a specialist unit and everyone says ‘great, we can leave it to them’; if you mainstream, you can end up with a tokenistic ‘and it’s worse for women/youth’ at the end of every paragraph. My experience is that it works best when you have organized women/youth either within the organization or through partners, with a real voice in the organization. So they have the power to come up with suggestions, and access decision makers within the organization. And the battle is never won – prepare for the long haul. There’s also an instrumentalist argument here – if you can show that involving women and youth gives better results, some of the obstacles may fall away. Covid is a shock that has empowered young people because so many organizations have gone digital, and young people are the ones who understand digital technologies!

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