Demand-driven, stakeholder-oriented etc. etc. research

As I explored in an earlier post, my last trip to Ghana was aimed at (amongst other things) getting a better understanding of the integration of research and governance: “How can we increase the impact of policy oriented research through improved collaborations on the ground?”

One thing that my 3 years in Ghana have taught me is the following: “Most of the times, I don’t even get the question right!” And the biggest problem with my questions (and most outsider’s questions for that matter) is that they are full of assumptions about the nature of the problem and give a rather narrow set of answer options for the other person to pick from. Look at my question above, I basically assume that research will be needed to solve “the” problem and that the bottleneck is the quality of collaboration on the ground.

Now let’s zoom in to the real world: At our workshop I facilitated a discussion amongst government staff, NGOs and farmers about the challenges of improving sanitation and environmental health. And while the participants were highly engaged in describing what they know, what they do and where they struggle, something started nagging me. Luckily we have build a strong enough working relationship over the years that we can be rather frank to each other, so I finally asked them: “Maybe it’s time for me to go home?” Because they have the knowledge they need for action (about spreading and effects of water borne diseases and possible counter-measures). They claim that the rules and regulations they would need for action are appropriate and lack of external funding didn’t once come up as a major concern (though individual poverty did). However, the solutions are not implemented, adopted or enforced. “We are just not doing it”, they say.

While this could lead to another series of blogs about incentives for action, corruption etc., today I want to tell you what this taught me about our demand-driven (or whatever the buzz-word of the day is) research for development.

We are like a hammer producing company that goes to people with all different kinds of problems (marriage trouble, broken down car, picture to hang on the wall) and ask: “What kind of hammer do you need to solve your problem?” In some cases (picture) a hammer will be the perfect tool, in some (car) it might be used in an unintended way and sort off help patch up a problem clumsily, that would have been solved more easily, cheaper and better with another tool, in others (marriage) we just hope that the end-user will not even think of using our tool to solve his or her problem.

So, how can we get the question right and what can we do about finding an answer? It’s a number of questions actually:
“So, what is / what are the problem/s?”
“Where do you see the bottlenecks to solving these problems? Is it lack of knowledge, funds, political will, incentive structure etc.? What can we as researchers contribute to the debate about bottlenecks?”
“Who needs to do what to overcome these bottlenecks?”
And the answer to the last question might or might not be: We need researchers to do more research on this and that. Which leads us from “demand driven etc. research” to “demand-driven problem definition and problem solving”. Let me think a bit more about how that could work in my next post.

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