Why is changing donor-driven research agendas so hard?

Funding is one of the pillars of our research agenda, because it is a hassle both for the recipients as for the givers since matching the interests of both is not always an easy task. There is a growing interest in organizations that develop research and ideas for policy, mostly in the development community but also in local philanthropic communities, hence the question: how should they be funded?

After having first-hand experience working with researchers at a national think tank, I lived through the issue of a donor-driven research agenda. By this I mean working on topics that satisfy primarily the interests of donors. Changing this approach to one’s research agenda, however, is not an easy one to tackle, mostly because it involves substantially shifting business-as-usual among all those stakeholders involved in planning, funding, implementing and communicating research.

Just a few days back I read Lant Pritchett’s blog ‘Why Are Development Agencies Giving up on Development?’. Although it is not on research per se, it brings into light the issue of the differences between what is perceived as relevant externally and internally (within the country). He briefly summarizes an opinion by an Indian policymaker that comments on the focus on development of the World Bank like this:

“You guys from the World Bank say you want to help the government of India with our development agenda but then all you want to talk about is poverty, poverty, poverty. Let me point out two things. First, India is a democracy and hence to be the government at all we have to have 51 percent of the votes and we don’t have that many poor voters. Second, once we are the government of India we are the government of all Indians, not just the poor ones, so our agenda has to reflect the aspirations of all Indians. So either you are really helping us with our development agenda or you are just pushing yours.”

Although here the discussion is on direct aid for development, the same applies to research. Research institutions whose research is primarily funded by international donors may have a difficulty matching the needs from their donors and the needs from their national policy audience. This is not a new concept, but it has not been totally explored (Read this paper on research excellence that John Harle shared with us). The Scientific Council for Government Policy (from the Netherlands) in their book, Less Pretension, more ambition, notes on the issue of knowledge for development, clarifying that donors should also invest on the knowledge infrastructure and just briefly analyzes it:

“A donor can simply finance knowledge institutions and networks in the South, but it is also possible to do more to promote cooperation. For example, the Netherlands has sanpad, an innovative cooperation project with South Africa, in which African academics study problems that are relevant for development in South Africa, together with counterparts at Dutch universities, and follow an extensive training programme.”

The report also emphasizes the need for each country to do some self-discovery of what and how things will work in their particular context. The issue is that while donors are encouraged to get more involved with the knowledge infrastructure of the countries in the development south, little is said on how to do this approach, and most importantly, how to balance support with self-discovery. This report and others do not tackle this concern.

Here are some of the challenges of tackling this issue.

The mindset must change in donors, but mostly in recipients. From debates I’ve been in, it seems as if the donor driven research agenda is an issue of donors. It must be the name. The truth of the matter is, it is as entrenched in the donors as in the recipients. Recipients that are focused primarily in the donor’s agenda might miss the local agenda. If recipients’ mindset does not change, no action taken by the donors will influence the outcome. Schemes that give more flexibility, such as the Think Tank Initiative might face the challenge of institutions that still work with an old mindset and that are not taking full advantage of the flexibility.

– Recipients’ mindsets are hard to change, because few donors have changed. Experiencing working in an organization with a research agenda that is financed both by flexible donors, and more traditional donors, I know the perils of this mix. Research projects financed with flexibility might have a tendency to lose focus and become too flexible, while gaining apathy from researchers working with more strict financing schemes. In this setting, it is difficult for an entire organization to take a different perspective on financing as well as on their research priorities.

It won’t be easy for researchers to link to the policy priorities. Researchers working in this ambivalent situation have developed the best skills possible to try and link the international and national agendas, trying to maintain funding and relevance at the same time. This is a difficult task, but it does not guarantee that researchers are focusing on the most pressing issues.  In the recent research in the Ecuadorian Context we published, for instance, we encounter major legislation debates where the only available research was that promoted by the government. In this case, it is not only about the flexibility of funding but the capacity of organizations to connect to local contexts, and to creatively frame meaningful research questions.

– Relating to universities might help. In what we have previously called the ‘knowledge infrastructure’ of a country, universities play a very important role. I have not traditionally been optimistic about the role universities can play, as their interests and incentives are even harder to align to those of policymakers and the general public. However, the publication of a recent book, financed by a university in Chile gives hope. Universidad Diego Portales has just financed a very interesting research on one key debate in many Latin American countries: legalizing abortion. With a very thought-provoking and locally rooted approach to the issue the authors give insight on a highly contentious topic in the public arena.

There are probably many of us that want to see research being carried out on topics that are relevant to the policy and also the politics of national contexts. Changing the donor-driven approach, however, is not easy, which is why it is still a key topic of our research agenda.