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Mobilising knowledge with care and intent

Andrea Ordóñez Llanos
Executive Director of Southern Voice
James Georgalakis
Director of Impact and Communications | Institute of Development Studies

As the world faces increasingly frequent and interconnected deadly crisis, the urgency to identify effective responses has never been felt more acutely. Locally driven responses to the recent Covid-19 crisis may hold the key.

Institutional readiness

The paradox of research during the Covid-19 pandemic is that it both vastly increased operational challenges and empowered local and national research organisations. As researchers and institutions based in the global North found themselves grounded, and the urgent need for local knowledge and highly contextualised learning grew rapidly, many Southern research organisations found themselves in a prime position to respond.

A new issue of the IDS Bulletin published this week, provides unique insights from a diverse group of research organisations belonging to the IDRC supported, Covid Response for Equity programme (CORE). These Southern think tanks rapidly mobilised in response to the pandemic. They explore how their institutional readiness to do so was dependent on their local credibility, the strength of their networks, access to key decision makers, or affected communities, and their ability to mobilise quickly.

Knowledge in Times of Crisis: Transforming Research-to-Policy Approaches

Read the new issue of the IDS Bulletin now!

Local credibility and networks

At the onset of the pandemic, researchers relied heavily on their perceived credibility to get a foot in the door, whether with policymakers, the media, or affected communities. Public health crises demand fast responses, and political and civil society actors seek known partners for assistance. Therefore, research institutions’ credibility rested on their responsiveness, expertise and most crucially, their knowledge of the context.

Insiders and outsiders

While institutional readiness may be linked closely to networked relationships, there are political and structural dimensions to this in which both visible and hidden power shapes whose knowledge counts. Across the case studies, we see great flexibility and a spectrum of evidence and policy interactions. This includes deeply government-embedded models, such as PEPs co-modelling with Zimbabwean state actors of the impact of public health measures.

In contrast, the ability of the Arab Reform Initiative to influence thinking and policy around the inadequacies of MENA’s social protection systems largely depended on outsider lobbying and partnerships with academia and activists. This was in an environment in which broader politico-economic and governance factors are driving Arab states away from assuming responsibility for nationwide social assistance.

Some organisations were well positioned to pursue multi-level strategies of leveraging awareness of evidence and promoting its use. The Group for the Analysis of Development (Grupo de Análisis para el Desarrollo, GRADE) in Peru tells the story of how community‑based initiatives such as soup kitchens worked in parallel to the state’s response to the food insecurity experienced during the pandemic.

Knowledge positioned for use

In general, the examples highlight the key characteristics of knowledge that is fit for purpose as being a combination of how well it is positioned for use, and inclusivity. Positioned for use or relevance entails that it is directly applicable to a practical problem or question. Research sometimes also plays a critical role in framing the problem, not just its solutions. Furthermore, knowledge needs to be accessible. It should be available in a format that matches the needs of diverse stakeholders so that individuals who need the knowledge can find it and use it effectively. Knowledge that is positioned for use must be actionable, providing insights or solutions that can be implemented in real-world situations to solve problems or make decisions. However, this is about more than just research relevance, which largely exists in the eyes of the beholders, who may include powerful actors.

Hyper-local knowledge and inclusivity

There is a also common thread among the case studies that highlights the value of what could be described as hyper-local knowledge, and its use to inform policy and practices. This is knowledge that focuses on an in‑depth understanding of ground-level issues instead of more universally applicable findings. For example, for the BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, Bangladesh, it was essential to understand the service delivery at refugee camps from the recipient’s point of view and to integrate community perspectives.

A key component seems to be not only engaging others but doing so with intent and care. WIEGO’s case study stresses the importance of an approach that is non-extractive with participants of research and which is sensitive to the difficult experiences of individuals during the pandemic. The author summarises: ‘By engaging with care, researchers were able to transmit the notion that the research was not only on workers, but with and for them’.

Knowledge mobilisation as a process not an event

While knowledge mobilisation, planning, and monitoring tends to focus on outputs and specific activities that target particular stakeholders, the CORE case studies focus on the entire knowledge process: The research methodologies, the networking, the relationship building, and approaches to engagement. In some cases, impact is possible when a balance can be struck between responding to demand for evidence and influencing that demand. For example, PEP in Zimbabwe experienced a ‘coincidence of wants’ and successfully negotiated a form of collaborative economic modelling in which the research team were able to influence what was being modelled.

The superiority of locally led research responses

This all highlights just how essential locally led research is for pandemic response and for development more broadly. It is unlikely that anyone can put this genie back in the bottle, even if they wanted to. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that local and national research organisations, with the right international flow of resources and support, are eminently well placed to deliver impactful research. Their hyper-local knowledge, flexibility, and unswerving focus on the real-world influence and wellbeing of affected communities has not just established their utility in times of crisis but suggests their superiority over international responses. We must harness this energy and expertise as we face multiple global crises that will require unique blends of local and global research collaboration and innovation.

This blog is adapted from: Ordonez Llanos, A and Georgalakis, J. Introduction: Lessons for Locally Driven Research Responses to Emergencies. IDS Bulletin, Vol. 54 No. 2, October 2023.