[Editor’s note: The Collaboration for Research on Democracy (CORD) is a network of universities, think tanks, NGOs, independent researchers and practitioners mostly from the global south. Their mission is to contribute to inclusive citizenship and democratic governance through collaborative and applied research on questions of citizenship in democratic governance.]
How did the idea of CORD born?
By 2000 we begun working in a network supported by DFID: a large international comparative project on issues of citizenship, participation and accountability, with an approach that was very novel by those days. There were people from Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Bangladesh. The work spirit was very participative, there were no top-down research agendas, they were built with contributions and interests of each researcher.
When the project ended, we felt that the network had grown (with colleagues from Angola, Mozambique, Kenya, Canada, among others) and wanted to keep it. So the idea of CORD came up three years ago.
When the network was consolidated, we start working in smaller research groups centered in different issues: Knowledge, Technology and Democracy; Activists, Institutions and Change; Economic and Political Citizenship; Marginalization and Social Service Provision; and Urban Peace Building.
What does CORD understand by citizen-centric strategies for development?
Dominant institutional approaches suggest that the capacity of states to promote democracy and development is mainly dependent on the quality of state’s policies, institutions and bureaucracies, but there is still little study about the role of civil society in the public policy process. We believe that civil society in its various forms plays a key role in the evolution of policies and thus in the improvement of lives conditions for all and particularly of vulnerable groups. A commitment to democracy and development implies the inclusion of all in addressing social challenges, and citizens are often overlooked as key actors in policy solutions. Furthermore, a citizen focus marks us as distinct from many other groups working on aspects of democracy and development.
CORD gathers many researchers from Southern countries. How does it influence your research approach?
A main characteristic of the network is developing thinking from the South and exploring possibilities of sharing it with both the South and the North. One typical example of the possibilities in this area is the case of the participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, which begun in Brazil. The case was practically and theoretically inspiring and was exported to a number of other countries. We believe we can learn through knowledge sharing from our diverse contexts on the similar research and policy issues in a globalising age; we can generate relevant ideas locally and globally through critical feedback, comparison and iteration; and working together on key issues enhances our ability to speak to important policy debates. We can then disseminate knowledge in an open way.
How do you use research to influence practice?
We say that our research is applied because our mixed methodologies combines more traditional quantitative and qualitative methods with participatory research and practice, and we are committed to moving beyond research for greater understanding towards forms of engagement with citizens, our colleagues, students, practitioners and policy-makers to press for effective change. This extends to using innovative methods that clearly link research and engagement goals; and, communicate and disseminate our ideas such as shared teaching modules, policy briefs, social networks and on-line platforms.
Which are the main challenges for research to influence practices in your work field?
It is always necessary that the other demonstrates an interest in your work. We must find common concerns. The politician is concerned about his reelection, the bureaucrat about fulfilling his tasks, the civil society activist about getting more benefits for communities. We must find focal points where actors can converge.
How is the experience of networking with colleagues from around the world?
We call ourselves a “network” rather than an organisation because we want to work in flexible and relatively low-cost ways that reduce barriers to entry and enhance our sustainability. It allows opportunities for sub-groups to form and operate largely autonomously, but also for the group as a whole to meet periodically to enhance critical reflection on our shared interests, incubate new ideas and inspire new action. We recognize the importance of global connections in gaining a more vivid understanding of our complex societies.
But this work modality has its challenges. When we started 15 years ago everyone had their “local” research agenda. One of the biggest challenges was to articulate those research agendas. Moreover, while in the beginning we had secured funding for activities, now each research group needs to take care of mobilizing resources. Another challenge is to permanently seek for people to not concentrate only on their own work and continue to take care of the network mission.
[Editor’s note: Networking has its own challenges: transactional costs, distances, timing, leadership. However, there are some institutions and colleagues out there that share the willingness to work together and believe in the need and value of co-producing knowledge. Moreover, this co-production of knowledge intends to be specifically relevant to the contexts of those who work in them and their needs. Sharing these initiatives, analyzing its opportunities and challenges, building bridges with them, all of this is part of the spirit of Politics & Ideas. So if you are part of similar projects, you are very welcome to use our space to tell your story.]