Research, poverty and impact

During the week commencing 3 December I was in Delhi attending the conference Power of Partnership: Research to Alleviate Poverty. The conference was celebrating the impacts of over 10 years of funding for research to tackle poverty in some of the world's poorest countries This type of research and the way it aims to change government policies, promote sustainable development and improve lives, which is of relevance to many colleagues in ACU partner universities, especially those of us involved in developing community university partnerships. Also present was Rajesh Tandon my colleague from the ACU Engage Steering Committee. Delegates included people from over 20 commonwealth countries and ACU members with staff present included the Universities of Ghana, Mzumbe, Delhi, Makerere, Cape Town, Mzuzu and Dhaka.

The event was supported by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the government Department for International Development (DFID) and the ESRC Impact Initiative. The conference director was Dr Vicky Johnson. I would recommend looking at the conference website and some of the inspiring research projects from all around the world listed in the brochure that can be found here

The majority of the conference participants were from Universities but the event was different to many I attend in that a third of the participants were from research funders, development donors, INGOs and NGOs. This varied audience resulted in stimulating and provocative discussions over how university research can contribute to tackling poverty. As a member of the ACU's Engage Steering Committee this provided me with many insights into how community-university partnerships can challenge and change government policies and make a difference to communities affected by poverty, conflict and environmental degradation.

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Many of the colleagues from ACU Universities were accompanied by their research partners from NGOs and deprived urban and rural communities. These non-academic partners challenged the academics to ensure that partner views and priorities are always reflected in all stages of the research lifecycle. Sujeeta Mahatma from Action Aid, the community development charity in Nepal, made an impassioned plea to academics to remember that the "co-construction of knowledge and research is non-negotiable". Sujeeta described an inspiring research project where women from poor rural communities in western Nepal had been mobilised as a collective to determine the aims, methods and outputs of a UK funded research project. The outcomes of the project were central to a successful campaign to persuade the Nepal government to provide a child care centre in every village which will transform the lives of poor women, freeing them from undervalued caring responsibilities.

The most contentious discussion that ran through the conference was about 'impact hierarchies' and what constitutes the 'best' form of research impact. DFID suggested that the 'gold standard' can be defined by instrumental impacts that change policy. However, many academics and NGOs, including myself, challenged this, arguing that other forms of impact are just as valuable – including those arising from community-university co-produced research, which is helping to change the lives of poor people in local communities. Professor Melese Getu from the University of Addis Ababa went further, arguing that in Ethiopia the dramatic emergence of a democratic government means that all policies are being revised and that research must not just have impacts on policy, but must also have a broader impact on societal change by supporting the maintenance of an emergent and inspirational democracy. As impact becomes a global research agenda, the conference showed we need to continually problematise impacts and not just accept hierarchies of what is best.

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The conference also discussed barriers to partnership development and this included one of the long standing challenges we have faced globally in developing community-university partnerships which is to find ways of funding the time and inputs of community partners which are often not supported by research grant funding systems. Also Rajesh Tandon, when chairing a panel, argued that we have to be bold in developing our partnerships and should "seek to partner with those who are dissimilar from us" as this will lead to innovation.

Raejsh and I will address some of these key issues in the separate papers we are both writing for one of the main outputs from the conference which is an Institute of Development Studies bulletin shown here, due out in spring 2019. At the conference I spent my time presenting, facilitating and learning from inspiring academics and practitioners from the global south.

Professor Andrew Church is a Steering Committee member for the ACU Engage Community and Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) at the University of Brighton, UK.

Last modified on 24/01/2019
Tags: research, impact