What are the obstacles to collaboration between NGOs and Academics?

I wrote a chapter on the NGO-Academia Interface for the recent IDS publication, The Social Realities of Knowledge for Development, summarized here by James Georgalakis. It’s too long for a blog, but pulls together where I’ve got to on this thorny topic, so over the next few days, I will divvy it up into some bite-sized chunks for FP2P readers.

First, why collaboration between NGOs and academics ought to be easy, but in practice is really difficult:

The case for partnership between International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) and academia to advance development knowledge is strong. NGOs on the groundINGOs bring presence on the ground – through their own operations or long-term local partnerships – and communication and advocacy skills (which are not always academics’ strong point). Academia contributes research skills and credibility, and a long-term reflective perspective that the more frenetic forms of operational work and activism often lack.

In practice, however, such partnerships have proven remarkably difficult, partly because, if anything, INGOs and academia are too complementary – there is so little overlap between their respective worlds that it is often difficult to find ways to work together.

Obstacles to Collaboration

Impact v Publication: While funding incentives push academics towards collaboration with INGOs and other actors able to deliver the elusive ‘impact’, other disciplinary and career pressures appear to push in the opposite direction. The rather closed nature of academia’s epistemic communities, buttressed by shared and often exclusive language and common assumptions, deters would-be collaborators, while the pressure to publish in peer-reviewed journals and acquire a reputation within a given discipline shift incentives away from collaboration with ‘outsiders’.

Urgency v Wait and See: INGOs’ focus is urgent, immediate and often in response to events. They prefer moving quickly and loudly – reaching as many people as possible, and influencing them – without necessarily having time for slower forms of academic engagement. Academics work to a different rhythm, both in terms of the issues, and the way they respond to them. When Oxfam won some research funding with IDS to explore food price volatility, it was top of our advocacy agenda, but food prices calmed down, the campaigns spotlight moved on, and the resulting research, though interesting, struggled to stay connected to Oxfam’s evolving agenda.

For small NGOs, whether national or international, research support is absent when it is most needed – during the design and implementation of projects. Instead, researchers often only show up when the organisation has developed some ‘good practice’ and then only to document the outcomes.

Social Realities of Knowledge for Development_GraphicStatus Quo v Originality: INGOs do need good research to tell them what is going well, or badly, what they need to do more of, less of etc. But also (and increasingly) they need targeted research to help prove to donors that they are value for money. This often means validating the status quo. Researchers on the other hand may be looking to find a new angle, move a debate on and (perhaps too cynical?) make a name for themselves amongst their peers. These agendas can occasionally be complementary, but in practice often lead to tension, with INGOs experiencing researchers as unhealthily preoccupied with ‘taking down’ success stories and attacking aid agencies’ performance and legitimacy, often on the flimsiest of evidence.

Thinking v Talking: Research is very underfunded in INGOs and is distributed across organizations. In Oxfam GB, the policy research team behind its high profile research papers on inequality for Davos, and other impressive work, has just 8 staff. By contrast, the Oxfam head of research, Irene Guijt, has calculated that countries belonging to the OECD have 5.5 million full time academics.  There are lots of smart researchers working elsewhere within Oxfam – on programme monitoring, evaluation, learning, or doing research as part of their advocacy roles, but even then, by one calculation, across the whole of Oxfam International, research staff come to just 7% of communications staff (a cynic might say we prize talking 14 times more than thinking…..). Hardly surprising then that it is really hard to engage with academics, even if it’s just to make meetings to explore options .

Tomorrow: What to do about it?

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4 Responses to “What are the obstacles to collaboration between NGOs and Academics?”
  1. Thanks a lot for bringing this up. I have a degree in disaster management; and was much surprised to discover the huge gap between professionals and academia, in that sector. With a previous background from veterinary medicine, I am used to new scientific findings quickly turn into guidelines and recommendations. Not so in the aid sector. A major concern, and impediment for learning, is the lack of an acknowledged and shared terminology. I have attended more than one work-shop where experienced professionals believe they are discussing the same issue, when in fact they are not. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s “what to do about it” post.

  2. Peter

    Academic credibility, which is a vital resource, as you say, is often dependent on academics not being too partisan, yet the advocacy positions that are often front and center for NGOs can be absolutely opposite to academics maintaining their credibility. The four reasons you give seem less visceral than this.
    Most of the 5.5 million academics you mention spend more of their time on teaching and institutional management than they spend on research. Remind you of NGOs, much?

  3. Matt

    Where is the power in these systems? The “industrial complex” analysis is surely relevant. If we look through the window of an Academic Industrial Complex and a Non-profit Industrial Complex, it’s likely that left-leaning academia (usually conceived as university-sited) and NGOs are often set up as competitors for scarce resources rather than collaborators. On the right, collaboration between “academia” and NGOs is much less problematic, partly because the NGO is established to support the movement rather than vice-versa. .

  4. Hi Duncan,

    Thanks for this post. I don’t have much experience working with NGOs yet, but one of the things that I see in my work in academia is that it is *much* easier for social-science academics to ‘take something down’ than think through new approaches and ideas that might actually help. Reviewers may also be used to critique and view social change as something that results from endless critique. If we try to publish something that seeks to think through how we might do things differently, it can easily be torn down in a few moments by a critical reviewer, and then potentially not published. Scientific work (veterinary included) has the opposite issue — things that show positive results are more likely to be published, and there has been recent work on how valuable failed experiments are not published.

    On the other hand, I often see NGO projects that try to connect with donors by using language and approaches that are subtly (or not-so-subtly) eurocentric, ‘Othering’, patronising, and more. I regularly get given a calendar from an NGO that I can’t hang it in my home, because it is so Africa-shaming, white-saviour-complex that when my Nigerian scientist friend comes around with her kids, I feel embarrassed! In my work around WASH projects, I see NGOs rolling out programmes based on evidence from elsewhere, but not taking the time to engage with local culture and place-based practices of hygiene that might actually make sense. For example, handwashing projects in high-altitude nomadic communities causing cold-damage to women’s hands. Some of these things do need to be critiqued, but I think we should make a point of always offering something else. And of course, that’s really hard.

    You are right about the time-scales though. Academia moves *so* slowly, partly because of all the other commitments like Peter says above, but also the writing and review process. There is something to be said for ‘slow scholarship’ though, I believe.