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Bridging worlds: navigating the challenges of research-NGO collaboration

Updated: May 27

On 24 May 2024, Paeradigms attended an insightful workshop titled "What does research offer to development NGOs and vice versa?" hosted by the International Centre for Sustainable Development (IZNE) of the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences (H-BRS) in Germany. Organised by Katja Bender and Sebastian Heinen from IZNE, this event was part of an online workshop series organised by the Swiss Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries (KFPE) of the Swiss Academy of Sciences Switzerland (SCNAT). The workshop also formed part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI). The workshop underscored the potential for mutually beneficial collaborations between research institutions and NGOs. When successful, these partnerships can combine methodological rigour with practical insights, enhancing the effectiveness of development interventions. Researchers contribute analytical skills and data-driven approaches, while NGOs offer valuable local knowledge and connections within communities. However, realising this potential is far from straightforward. The workshop highlighted several key challenges that must be addressed to bridge the gap between these two sectors.  

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Communication, cultural barriers, and differing incentive structures

Effective collaboration requires clear communication and a mutual understanding of each sector's unique context. Researchers and NGO practitioners often operate in different professional cultures, with distinct languages and terminologies. Academic language can be dense and abstract, making it challenging for NGO practitioners to translate research findings into actionable strategies. Moreover, the hierarchical and formal structure of academia can clash with the more informal and flexible nature of many NGOs. This cultural mismatch can hinder the development of trust and mutual respect, which are essential for successful collaboration. These cultural and communication barriers are compounded by differing institutional logics.


Institutional logics refer to the underlying principles and practices that guide the actions of organisations within a sector. In academia, the incentive structure is often driven by the need to publish in high-impact journals and secure grants. This "publish or perish" culture emphasises methodological rigour and theoretical contributions, sometimes at the expense of practical relevance. Conversely, NGOs are driven by the need to demonstrate immediate, tangible impacts to their donors and stakeholders. Their focus is on practical outcomes and evidence-based programming that can address pressing community needs.


This divergence in priorities and institutional logics can make it difficult to align the goals and timelines of collaborative projects. Researchers may prioritise long-term studies and theoretical insights, while NGOs need actionable data and quick results to address urgent issues and satisfy donor requirements. Understanding and navigating these different logics is crucial for fostering effective collaboration.

 

Funding constraints

Funding is a critical challenge for research-NGO collaborations. There are limited funding options specifically designed to support joint projects between researchers and NGOs. Most funding opportunities are either geared towards academic research or practical development work, but rarely both. This lack of targeted funding can make it difficult for NGOs and researchers to secure the resources needed for collaborative projects. Furthermore, the administrative requirements and reporting structures of traditional funding mechanisms may not be conducive to the flexible and iterative nature of many development initiatives.

 

Power dynamics and equity

Power dynamics between researchers and NGOs can also pose significant challenges. Often, research projects are initiated and led by academic institutions, with NGOs playing a secondary role in data collection and community engagement. This can lead to an imbalance where researchers are seen as the primary owners of the knowledge produced, while NGOs are relegated to the role of facilitators. To address this, there is a need for more equitable partnerships where both researchers and NGOs are involved in all stages of the project, from conceptualisation to dissemination. This requires a shift towards recognising the expertise and contributions of NGO practitioners as equal partners in the research process.

 

The strengths of each actor

Understanding the unique strengths that each actor brings to the table is crucial for fostering effective collaboration:

 

Researchers:

  1. Analytical skills: Researchers excel in rigorous data analysis, providing robust evidence that can underpin development interventions.

  2. Methodological expertise: Their training in research design and methodology ensures that studies are systematically conducted, enhancing the reliability of findings.

  3. Access to academic resources: Researchers have access to extensive libraries, journals, and academic networks, which can enrich the knowledge base of development projects.

NGOs:

  1. Local knowledge: NGOs possess deep insights into the communities they serve, understanding local contexts, needs, and dynamics.

  2. Trust and relationships: They have established trust with community members, which is essential for successful project implementation and data collection.

  3. Practical experience: NGOs bring hands-on experience in executing development projects, offering practical solutions and real-world insights.

 

However, at Paeradigms, we believe that effective solutions to complex global challenges require a broader approach that includes not only researchers and NGOs but also industry and policymakers. Adopting a "quintuple helix" model of innovation (Carayannis & Campbell, 2010), which integrates academia, industry, government, civil society, and the natural environment, can provide a more comprehensive framework for addressing "wicked problems" (Termeer et al., 2019; Termeer & Dewulf, 2019) – those multifaceted issues that are difficult to define and even harder to solve. Each of these spheres brings its own agenda and institutional logic to the table. Understanding and navigating these different logics is crucial for fostering meaningful collaboration. To facilitate this, we need individuals with ambidexterity – the ability to understand and integrate diverse perspectives and act as mediators among the different spheres.

 

Potential solutions and moving forward

Despite these challenges, the workshop participants were optimistic about the future of research-NGO collaborations. Several potential solutions were discussed to address these barriers:

·      Creating dedicated spaces for interaction: Establishing platforms such as conferences, matching events, and joint workshops can provide opportunities for researchers, NGO practitioners, industry professionals, and policymakers to meet, exchange ideas, and develop joint projects.

·      Developing targeted funding mechanisms: Funders should consider creating grant programmes specifically designed to support collaborative projects across multiple sectors. These programmes should recognise and accommodate the unique needs and constraints of each sector involved.

·      Aligning incentive systems: Academic institutions and funding bodies should revise their evaluation criteria to value applied research and community engagement. Recognising the impact of research on development outcomes can help align the goals of researchers, NGOs, and other stakeholders.

·      Promoting equity in partnerships: Collaborative projects should involve all partners in all stages, ensuring that their insights and expertise are valued. This requires a shift towards more inclusive and participatory research practices.

·      Enhancing communication and capacity building: Providing training and resources to improve communication between researchers, NGO practitioners, industry professionals, and policymakers can help bridge the cultural and language gaps. Additionally, empowering community mobilisers with analytical skills can enhance their role in research processes.


By addressing these challenges and implementing these solutions, research-NGO collaborations can become more effective and impactful. The workshop highlighted that, while obstacles remain, the potential benefits of such partnerships are immense. Through concerted efforts to overcome these barriers and by adopting a broader, more inclusive approach, researchers, NGOs, industry, and policymakers can work together to tackle global development challenges more effectively, ultimately contributing to a more equitable and sustainable world.


Dr Nina Volles, Paeradigms

 

References

Carayannis, E. G., & Campbell, D. F. J. (2010). Triple helix, Quadruple helix and Quintuple helix and how do Knowledge, Innovation and the Environment relate to Each other? A proposed framework for a trans-disciplinary analysis of sustainable development and social ecology. International Journal of Social Ecology and Sustainable Development, 1(1), 41–69. https://doi.org/10.4018/jsesd.2010010105

Termeer, C. J. A. M., & Dewulf, A. (2019). A small wins framework to overcome the evaluation paradox of governing wicked problems. Policy and Society, 38(2), 298–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/14494035.2018.1497933

Termeer, C. J. A. M., Dewulf, A., & Biesbroek, R. (2019). A critical assessment of the wicked problem concept: Relevance and usefulness for policy science and practice. Policy and Society, 38(2), 167–179. https://doi.org/10.1080/14494035.2019.1617971

 


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