Why is it so hard for academics and NGOs to work together?

I attended the annual awayday of the LSE’s International Development Department last week (I’m on its books for a day a week as a ‘Professor in Practice’). It was actually surprisingly interesting (am I allowed to say things like that?).

I was asked to talk about how academia can do better in forging partnerships with INGOs. Its an oldie-but-goodie, and I’ve written about it before on the blog (more than oncepeer-review-placard-300x223), but I think the discussion got a bit further this time.

First, the partnerships don’t happen nearly enough. Looking out the windows from our Thames-side meeting room, I could see that DFID, Christian Aid, CAFOD, Save the Children and the ODI were all within a mile or two, constituting a London cluster on aid and development that is both productive and resilient (and a lot of fun). Yet the awayday stayed firmly within the academic comfort zone of teaching and research, and even its discussion of partnerships largely concerned itself with other academic departments (mostly within the sprawling LSE landscape).

Yet the case for partnership with INGOs is actually very strong. INGOs bring presence on the ground (either through being operational, or having long term local partners), they bring communications skills (not always academics’ strong point). Academia contributes research smarts and credibility, and a long term, reflective lens that frenetic activism often lacks. I blogged recently on a good Interaction report on ‘How can academics and the third sector work together to influence policy and practice’ – an increasingly important demand from government when funding research.

But what dawned on me during the discussion is that if anything, INGOs and academia are too complementary – there is so little overlap between them that it is often difficult to team up. Some examples:

Timescale: INGOs’ focus is urgent, immediate and often in response to events. Academics work to a different rhythm, both in terms of the issues, and the way they respond to them. When we got 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 really interesting, struggled to connect with the rest of Oxfam.

So Whats: INGOs are seldom interested in knowledge for its own sake. It’s a vehicle to change the world. So research that sheds light but generates little heat is not greatly valued. Even words like ‘research’ been different things to NGOs and academics (what NGOs do is often more like evidence-based narrative than primary research). Two handed academics (on the one hand; on the other) get frustrated with one handed (finger wagging) activists and vice versa. That easily tips over into mutual disrespect.

research-with-impactResearch is very underfunded in INGOs and is distributed across organizations. In Oxfam GB, the policy research team led by the wonderful Irene Guijt is behind all that high impact stuff on inequality for Davos, and a pile of other impressive work, but has just 8 staff. 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 – there are just so many of them (200,000 in UK universities alone, according to InterAction), and so few of us!

What to do?

Talk to each other early on. Avoid the opposite – academics who wait til they’ve written the paper before looking for an NGO to help with their dissemination, or NGOs (or donors) who decide their policy line, then commission some academic to do policy-based evidence making.

Create research ideas together – I really like the InterAction report’s call for funding of ‘knowledge brokers’ and ‘embedded gateways’ capable of (mixed metaphor alert) bridging the divide between scholars and activists. But donors could also help by encouraging collaboration through 50/50 funding, half for action and half for research – at the moment they seem to fund one or the other, which misses the chance to foster links.

Try and reconcile the timescale problem so that, for example, PhD students can build their work around the needs academics-against-the-arms-fairand activities of a given NGO. We had a useful experience with this when Tom Goodfellow (now at Sheffield University) helped us think through our work on urbanization while doing his PhD on the same topic, but we are seldom approached at this level.

At the moment, contact and conversations are ad hoc and rather superficial. What would it look like to have a mutual capacity building strategy, where INGOs strengthen academics and vice versa? Ideas could include:

Reflection spaces in academia where practitioners can undergo decompression for a few weeks or months, and be helped to reflect and write up their experiences

More exchange of personnel, like my Professor in Practice role at LSE – that could go both ways. What about some Oxfam fellows, who could help guide our thinking in return for access to our work?

Unless we expand the area of overlap in the Venn Diagram between academia and INGOs, I fear the relationship will remain frustrating and unproductive.

Oh, and please note, academics, just looking at NGOs as a convenient place to dump your students doesn’t work!


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15 Responses to “Why is it so hard for academics and NGOs to work together?”
  1. Chris Roche

    Hi Duncan you may be interested in this reflection on the same topic from someone who has worked both sides of the fence. https://beyond2015.acu.ac.uk/submissions/view?id=47.

    Some of the lessons for me include:

    a) It helps if both parties have funds. This can reduce the tension and challenges that can occur if one party is dependent on the other for funding.

    b) It really assists if the NGO is clear about what it wants from the collaboration. It can be the case that NGO requests for support from academics are unclear, or the demand or ideas for research are overly determined by academics. In both cases this can result in collaboration being ‘diverted’ by academic interests and agendas, which tends to undermine relationships.

    c) Informal and small scale collaboration which creates trust and good working relationships is often necessary before launching into bigger initiatives. Make haste slowly seems to work.

    d) It helps if NGO staff are somewhat familiar with academic work on the topic in question, and on the research methods deployed. Similarly if academic staff know, or have worked for NGOs, this can be beneficial.

    e) Staff from both institutions having ‘similar enough’ normative frames to avoid any major differences of opinion about the ultimate purpose of the exercise. Having similar understandings as to the depth of data gathering that are possible within the timelines envisaged can also help.

    f) Awareness from academic & NGO staff that there needs to be some flexibility and mutual understanding about the nature of the outputs produced, i.e. that outputs and processes other than academic articles and book chapters are required, but this is also important for academic careers. Awareness from NGO staff that academics will need to use the data gathered over the course of research for academic articles, and do – and should – follow clear ethics processes. Similarly there is a need to mutually understand and synchronise the ‘academic year’ and the ‘NGO year’ and priorities.

    Partnerships with development agencies and activists may not be the most lucrative option for universities. However if universities see themselves as contributing to changing the world and not just understanding it, and in the process transforming themselves, then collaboration in this sphere can be highly strategic. for them too.

  2. Here in the Philippines, The Asia Foundation and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) have benefited from a long-standing arrangement with LSE’s John Sidel to examine the activities we undertake in partnership. For the last 5 years he has visited the country periodically to look into particular programs that have been undertaken, processes of development cooperation, or particular issues that are of importance to the portfolios of the Foundation (an INGO) and DFAT (a bilateral donor).

    This kind of exercise requires an openness by the two institutions to having their activities reviewed by an academic, a slow building of trust that helps to reinforce the openness at different levels of the organization, and a willingness on the part of the academic to engage in activities that may not always redound to academic career advancement.

    The last point I would make is that sustained involvement does help mitigate the timescale issue that Duncan alluded to. Sometimes we can request reportage that helps in particular decision-making, and sometimes we can take a longer view.

    But, to reiterate Chris Roche’s first point (a) — it helps if all sides have resources!

  3. Agree with most if not all of this, and I think (a) in the first comment opens the can of worms that has often been the roadblock when trying to do these kinds of collaboration in my experience – funding.

    And by this I don’t just mean that there is a lack of funding which explicitly seeks to bring together academics and practitioners (although there is), or that there is a lack of funding which explicitly seeks to answer research questions while actually doing some real, tangible work on the ground (although again, there is).

    What I mean is that it appears that the incentives created by the typical research funders and NGO funders are so mis-aligned that it is incredibly difficult to find constructive ways to work together, even if and when all the other factors outlined in your post are taken care of.

    While typical NGO funding rewards hard-outcomes and typical research-funding follows pondering academic cycles, it is hard to bring these two together.

    Having said that, I did work with researchers from IDS, Cambridge and LSE on some research for the World Bank, that included practical evaluation (not quite delivery, but still firmly within the NGO sphere). This was long-term funding that explicitly targeted M&E and research outcomes and I think is the exception not the norm.

    There were definitely some challenges with the different timescales and approaches of people working in different sectors, but I think this added to the richness of the end-result.

    Maybe we need to find ways to pressure the funders and donors to understand the effects of the incentives they create – deliberately or otherwsie, and start to encourage NGO funders to nudge their calls for proposals to include answering key research questions and working with academics, and encourage researh funders to nudge their funding towards including more tangible results and partnering with NGOs…

    Maybe we should just all do action research… Job done… 😉

  4. Duncan, hi. I delivered a presentation on this issue at the recent ECPR conference in Bonn. Based on my team’s recent experienxe working with Mona Lena Krook on our #NotTheCost initiativw to stop violence against politically active women. Agree with points raised by all in this thread. Would finesse a couple by adding: its an advantage if both partners bring equal weight of experience or knowledge to the collaboration; and a focus on creating something new is also helpful. We’re definitely interested in doing it again. Sandra

  5. Amy Jo Dowd

    We have been working to help graduate students build their work into the education/child development needs of Save the Children teams around the world for over a decade http://www.savethechildren.org/site/c.8rKLIXMGIpI4E/b.6196513/k.D0DD/Research.htm.

    We’ve found it takes time and funding on both sides of the partnership – as well as in the county(s) of interest. Interestingly, it has generated greater interest in evidence use within our country teams and broken down the stigma/fear around data collection/evaluation. The more empowered to shape the questions practitioners are, the more useful the answers/findings are for improving program and policy.

  6. Emily Hayter

    Hi Duncan and other commenters–thanks for raising these very important issues and sharing some interesting lessons learned. I note that most people are referring to large NGOs, and also that by ‘researchers’ many people seem to mean Northern researchers. What about the vibrant and growing research communities in the global South? I think they also have an important role to play in this space.

    I am a trustee of Canon Collins Trust http://www.canoncollins.org.uk/ which is a great example of meaningful, long-lasting dialogue between civil society groups and academics in southern Africa. The Trust has been around for over 30 years, supports both researchers and civil society organisations across the region, and plays an important brokering and convening role to bring them together through its annual conferences held in South Africa.

  7. Abdoulaye Hamidou

    I think we should look at the above questions
    1) what we mean by “working together”?
    2) What is the content of “working together”?
    3) Are we sure we want really to “work together”?

    It should have an agreed content before starting any kind of relationship in order to avoid contradiction and help getting engagement of each party.

    I saw two ways of engaging with academics:

    1) working together for complementarity, or
    2) working really together, on the same way. In this case, we don’t just say we want to work with academia without making sure that they are motivated to do so and are able to do the same work as us.

    And I agree with Chris a) in line with what Matt says because funding is critical in this relationship.

  8. Sharon Bell

    Observations on my current experience of research with/for/on/about an INGO may form a cathartic chunk of my methodology chapter. I started full of hope about the collaborative ‘action research’ I was doing with the INGO. Experience as a development practitioner; strong relational networks; scoping discussions and visit to shape research questions; enthusiastic programme managers keen to reflect on their praxis; go ahead from senior leadership; a signed research memorandum of understanding I’d drawn up based on the work of Stevens, Hayman, & Mdee (2013). It has since fizzled into a standard piece of qualitative research ABOUT the INGO. I’m still framing my thinking around their disengagement but I now think the ‘agility’ of smaller INGOs is often outweighed by a simple lack of capacity (sorry for buzzword) to engage in this type of research, despite them not needing to fund it in my case. They don’t see the point and I’m left kicking myself for my naïve idealism 😉 .

  9. Finn Heinrich

    Hi Duncan,

    Agree with the points raised in your blog. Maybe just to add one or two based on our experience here at Transparency International.

    * long-term but loose networks maintained over time: We have invested (fairly limited) resources in maintain long-term networks with key researchers in the field of anti-corruption whom we consult on thorny research issues and who reach out to us (not often enough, though) when seeking to get “real life” feedback on their evolving research. Having these weak ties established seems to pay off, as they can be activated quite easily and used, for example, as brokers when we are looking for specific research expertise. And, going forward, the research team here at TI is specifically tasked to expand these networks to new areas of strategic interest. So, making “academic engagement” an explicit part of what researchers/knowledge brokers in NGOs do is a worthwhile investment.

    * Go beyond the academic big shots: We have also a programme called “Campus for Transparency” where we match-make a TI Chapter or staff member who has a specific research need with a university MA programme or a M.A. student who would then deliver this specific research product as part of their study requirement. Obviously, this match-making is not always easy: our needs are often bigger and more demanding than what a group of M.A. students can deliver in a short timeframe without any resources other than their brains. However, over time, we are getting better in aligning expectations with the existing capacities and TI clients indicate that they benefit not only from the written research output but also from the process of engaging with students who are asking the difficult and critical questions we as busy NGO people don’t have the time (or don’t dare?) to ask.

  10. Olmo Forni

    I think one of the first steps for NGOs to build relationships with academia would be to make available part of their knowledge base: they do collect so many data during projects, yet only part of them are made available to the public. In my field of work (waste management in emergencies) I know that the times critical information about waste composition and infrastructure countries like Somalia and South Sudan was collected and shared, it was mainly due to researchers publishing their findings, even though it was NGOs who allowed that research to take place.
    This is quite disheartening, and probably contributes to making the relationships between non-profit and academia difficult to manage.

  11. Here we have adopted a thematic approach across a sector and incentivised a number of organizations to participate in providing the necessary data by (a) answering interesting questions that both the funder, the NGO and the end client/beneficiary will find of value, (b) placing the burden of collection on the research organization rather than the NGO; and, (c) providing the right level of funding (made possible by it being a shared set of questions of interest to the sector). We have, also, as it happens, outsourced the dissemination of findings to a third body (that is representative of the sector as a whole). Thus was GALI (The Global Accelerator Learning Initiative) born that looks at if (and how) acceleration programs for social enterprises/small businesses work. (There are over 100+ of these in the global South and absorb up to $600 million annually). The results will be of practical use to all three constituencies, the funding is shared between three private and one public institution and, as a side benefit, we are creating the world’s largest data base on small businesses that can be mined for a whole range of other questions. So far the greatest difficulty has been the procurement procedures of USAID!

  12. Duncan Wigan

    Look at EU H2020 ENLIGHTEN, EU H2020 COFFERS.. look at the ‘Finance Curse’ British Journal of Politics and International Relations, simply incorrect that NGOs and academia are not collaborating substantively… in my experience, the divide is paper thin. TI is a case in point, despite political foibles on the NGO side….

  13. Hi, Nice article
    Thanks for raising these very important issues and sharing some interesting lessons learned. If you are getting help for poor children we are finding and helping more and more such schools is what we are looking forward to. We are planning to launch find a home mission for kids who are orphans and are dependent on relatives or other means for financing their education as well as livelihood. You can Visit NGO for CSR activities