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Bringing analysis, evidence and new ideas on social development to the UN system: an interview with Jenifer Freedman, Head of Communications at UNRISD

In the Palais des Nations, the United Nations office in Geneva, there is room for UNRISD, a research institute focused on social development that aims to bring cutting-edge ideas “to the highest levels” of the multilateral diplomatic system. This is the first of two posts based on a conversation with Jenifer Freedman, who leads UNRISD’s Communications & Outreach team.

Jenifer FreedmanUNRISD has a small secretariat of around 20 staff and consultants and works closely with a network (currently about 350 people around the world) to carry out its research, outreach and policy influencing activities. Half of those are located in the Global South. Although based in the Palais des Nations, UNRISD does not receive funding from the UN General Budget. Instead, it is funded voluntarily, with Sweden, Switzerland and Finland currently providing institutional support, and a larger group of project funders.

This first part covers issues related to defining a research agenda, understanding who your audiences are, defining impact and developing partnerships with institutions and/or individuals.

Tomás Garzón: What does it mean for you to be a research organisation within the UN system?

Jenifer Freedman: We are the only institution within the UN system with a mandate exclusively to carry out research and policy analysis on social development. As a research institute within the UN, we aim to promote the relevant issues, and to frame and shape the debates around them. Our mandate and the values that are embedded in the UN charter establish our normative grounding.

It’s absolutely essential that we be responsive to the concerns and priorities of the UN system and member states. Currently, the post-2015 development agenda is an important driver of our work. We are engaging in a wide range of UN processes to ensure that the social pillar is included very strongly in discussions of the Sustainable Development Goals. Since 2011 this has been a strong feature of our research agenda: we saw this opening in the run-up to Rio+20 when “green economy” was the buzzword and questions around economic and environmental sustainability were dominating people’s attention.

Historically, we think and have been told in evaluations, we have played quite a ground-breaking role in a number of areas, in terms of addressing topics that weren’t necessarily on the development agenda at the time. In retrospect we can see this for example in UNRISD’s work in the early 1990s on ethnic conflict, and in the mid-1990s on social policy in developing countries. It is important to us to anticipate future agendas, because this ensures that we have the analysis and evidence when we need it to inform and influence tomorrow’s policy decisions.

TG: How do you become acquainted with today’s most important policy topics?

JF: There’s constant exchange and flow of ideas, knowledge and information that helps us to be aware of the current priorities of member states and the UN Secretariat. Our researchers participate in numerous UN expert groups, task forces, intergovernmental processes and advisory bodies, which are essential forums for such exchange. They also help us identify gaps: what is nobody talking about? Our close ties with academia and civil society also keep us aware of the latest grassroots concerns and scholarly debates in different countries and disciplines. Ffrequent interaction with our network (research, policy, donor and advocacy sectors) and our advisory board (10 members plus a Chair nominated by the Commission for Social Development and approved by ECOSOC) also help identify policy-relevant issues for research.

TG: How would you define your main audiences?

JF: Obviously we could discuss whether to use the word audience, constituency or something else. But basically, UNRISD’ audience in very broad terms is the international development community. And then, we can break it down in three groups.

Firstly, academics and researchers are clearly an important audience for us. They are co-producers of the research and knowledge that we do, but they are also obviously very important users and disseminators of it.

Secondly, and very clearly, the UN system. The secretariat, other UN agencies and member-states, are all very important. We group them together when talking in general terms, although for communications and engagement they have distinct expectations and the ways we interact with different segments are also different. Member state representatives to the UN, as well as our network of researchers, are also our main channel to inform national policy audiences’ debates and discussions.

Civil society and NGOs, policy advocates and activists, are the third important audience for us.

In sum, we have this broad international community but we use different opportunities and entry points for engagement with each, both institutionally and for individual projects. In other words we don’t interact with all those audiences at the same time or in the same way for each project. We don’t have blueprints in that way, partly because of our small size and resource constraints. But also because we try to be very strategic and look at each project’s objectives, identify the stakeholders at the international and national level which we need to engage with to achieve those objectives, and the channels and ways to do this.

TG: How do you define impact at UNRISD? What kinds of impacts do you seek to create?

JF: Because it is our mandate to conduct policy-relevant research, we tend to talk more about “influencing” and “informing” policy debates (rather than “policy impact”). But we also look for other kinds of results or impact, and we engage in a variety of activities to achieve this. The first kind of impact is on the framing, language and content of debates and discussions around social development issues. The second one is direct impacts at the multilateral stage, such as contributing and providing inputs to UN intergovernmental processes, reports of the Secretary-General and other official documents, for example by bringing research-based evidence into these forums and publications. Finally, there are indirect capacity-building impacts achieved through working with the researchers in our network— strengthening the voices of Southern researchers in different policy processes, and co-producing high-quality research with them.

TG: Do you think that when you succeed at pushing forward an agenda, that feeds back into the organisation’s legitimacy for the future?

JF: Yes. I think we always need to be quite strategic about identifying the topics where can we have the most significant impact, the entry points to do so, and focus on building the necessary relationships. For example, UNRISD has historical legitimacy to build on with regard to sustainable development issues. We had a track record and reputation for our work on these topics in the 90s, which then took a back seat when the focus shifted to social policy the 2000s. But now clearly sustainable development is very much back on the agenda and we have that legacy. In the run-up to the Rio+20 conference, we took that forward with a high-profile project and a range of outputs related to green economy and its social dimension. These cautioned that reducing the sustainable development idea to green economy—a focus on environment and economy—missed out the essential social pillar. UNRISD I think helped to put that back on the table.

TG: How do researchers in your network perceive collaboration with UNRISD? What are their expectations?

JF: I think they see collaboration in an UNRISD project as a way to elevate their voices and their research to the highest levels of the international system. That’s what we promise and that’s in general what we do. They also tell us that the UNRISD connection can help them gain greater legitimacy for their work at the national level. The capacity-building aspect I mentioned earlier is also important: researchers’ engagement in our cross-country multidisciplinary networks is a way to enhance their capacity.

What UNRISD can’t do is pay the kinds of fees for a research paper as many (Northern) think tanks and other international organisations. Yet a whole range of researchers are keen to engage in our work, from very high level, experienced, senior researchers, to young PhD students, from around the world.

TG: How do your partnerships with researchers and institutions work? Do they develop over time?

JF: Traditionally, our network has been built on a per-project basis and at the individual level. We recognise that there are advantages and disadvantages to that model. One advantage is the flexibility to identify the best individuals researching a particular topic in a particular country, and to engage with them. That being said, the current trend (as well as preference among many donors) is to build institutional (not just individual) capacity in the South through institutional partnerships. We have established a few institutional partnerships, and it’s important to us that these have true substance through concrete joint work, not just “partnership on paper”. An example of this is our project on Migration and Health in China, which has a very explicit capacity-building element for a university-based research centre in China.

Institutional partnerships are something that we would like to do more of, and we do more now than 10 years ago, but there is the question of how these can best fit with how UNRISD actually builds teams to carry out projects—the “individual” model I just described. What does it mean to have an institutional partnership with a think tank in, for example, Tanzania. Let’s say this year we have a research project in Tanzania and our partner plays a significant role. But next year we have a project in Argentina. What happens then to the institutional partnership with the Tanzanian think tank? How can it continue to be a productive, substantive relationship? For UNRISD, this question remains a lively topic of discussion.

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