By Rachel Hayman.

The UK’s economic outlook might be a little gloomy in the context of real uncertainty about the country’s economic and political direction of travel. However, the government has maintained its commitment to devoting 0.7% of Gross National Income to international development. Contributing to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development remains at the heart of the UK’s aid strategy.

While INTRAC continues to digest the impact of DFID’s recent Civil Society Partnership Review on international NGOs and civil society, opportunities are also emerging due to a major funding boost from the UK government for research into international development issues. The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) is a £1.5 billion pot that aims to promote interdisciplinary, collaborative research on key issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) over the next 5 years. All the research funded under this scheme will have to contribute to development in countries in receipt of overseas development aid (ODA). Moreover, partnership will be a prerequisite – partnership between academics and researchers based in the global South, civil society organisations (CSOs), governments and the private sector.

On 23-24 November 2016, my colleague Sarah and I helped to facilitate a two-day conference at the University of Leeds (UK). The organisers – the Centre for Global Development and the Leeds Social Sciences Institute – brought together partners from universities, research institutes, CSOs, and government from other parts of the world. We focused on four themes running through the SDGs: urban public health, urban security and justice, migration, and inequalities. The objective was to share experiences of impact-oriented research and to foster new partnerships across academic disciplines and practice to take advantage of GCRF funding.

The atmosphere was great. The prospect of a big funding pot probably helped. INTRAC has long promoted academic-practitioner collaboration, but discussions are often dampened by limited resources and the battle of overcoming institutional obstacles on all sides. Not that these challenges have gone away; indeed, they may be exacerbated by requirements for complex research consortia involving multiple countries, institutions and types of actor with different institutional cultures and agendas.

However, perhaps we are better prepared to overcome some of these challenges. The GCRF offers the potential to bring collaboration out of the fringes and into the mainstream. UK-based academics will need partners in ODA-recipient countries, so CSOs based in these countries should seize this moment to think about how collaborative research could advance their policy and programming agendas. They could shape research questions and methods, subject good ideas to scrutiny in order to scale up their impact, promote learning and exchange of best practice, and make evidence and knowledge accessible.

The Leeds conference showcased some impressive research partnerships that have brought together researchers, policy-makers and NGOs from different countries; initiatives that have achieved changes in policy and programming. We explored research methods and processes that can give voice to people and children within the research, and that can build capacity of local researchers. We reflected on the joys and pains of participating in and managing research consortia. If best practice can be drawn from these examples, and other projects involving NGO-academic collaboration, then there is reasonable hope that new research initiatives could deliver good results.

The bulk of our attention was focused on new research ideas and potential partnerships going forward. Academics, like government ministries, often work in silos. It was striking to watch the group recognising the synergies across their areas of work, the value of exploring the interconnections between security, inequalities, migration and habitat.

I personally found new synergies between research agendas and things that INTRAC is working on: new food for thought on sustainability of research impact after the research funding has ended; on building capacity of practitioners to contribute high quality evidence; on feedback loops in the research process; and on the M&E of research impact.

I particularly valued discussions about researching inequality and marginalisation in contexts where government can be hostile to civil society. This hostility often extends to academics and researchers, who can be seen as fomenting political trouble. Research collaboration can offer a valuable avenue for exploring tricky questions about inequalities and insecurities. But it also throws up questions about the space for research when it is very hard to get the necessary permissions for locals and internationals, to gain trust of people to contribute to the research, and to reach those with power who we want to influence with the results. It also throws up questions about the security of the local people, communities, and researchers that are involved.

If the research community is to contribute to tackling the trickiest aspects of the 2030 Agenda it will need to address these questions. Collaboration with civil society will be vital.

So here’s what INTRAC would put onto the research agenda:

  • Relationships between sustainability of CSOs, their capacity to ‘leave no-one behind’, and the enabling environment for civil society
  • Roles and resilience of local organisations in conflict and fragile contexts
  • Using feedback mechanisms to enhance the voice of hard-to-reach populations in development interventions and to improve accountability between citizens, state, donors and the private sector
  • M&E of the impact of research on the SDGs

INTRAC has considerable expertise to add value to collaborative research projects, and we look forward to working in new partnerships with academics to find solutions to the big problems posed in the 2030 Agenda.