Saturday, July 30, 2005

The key to helping developing countries help themselves.

Establishing sources of ideas (think tank; the fractal brain) and instituting translational infrastructure (regional networks). Unless one changes how people think, but through the terms of their context, one will never change how they behave.


Journal of International Development
J. Int. Dev. 17, 727–734 (2005)
Published online in Wiley InterScience ( DOI: 10.1002/jid.1235



Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London, UK

Abstract: Better utilization of research and evidence in development policy and practice can
help save lives, reduce poverty and improve the quality of life. However, there is limited
systematic understanding of the links between research and policy in international develop-
ment. The paper reviews existing literature and proposes an analytical framework with four
key arenas: external influences, political context, evidence and links. Based on the findings of
stakeholder workshops in developing countries around the world, the paper identifies four key
issues that characterize many developing countries. These are: (i) troubled political contexts;
(ii) problems of research supply; (iii) external interference; and (iv) the emergence of civil
society as a key player. Despite these challenges, two institutional models seem to be
particularly effective: (i) think tanks and (ii) regional networks. Copyright # 2005 John
Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


Often it seems that researchers, practitioners and policymakers live in parallel universes.
Researchers cannot understand why there is resistance to policy change despite clear and
convincing evidence. Policy-makers bemoan the inability of many researchers to make
their findings accessible and digestible in time for policy decisions. Practitioners often just
get on with things.

Yet better utilization of research and evidence in development policy and practice can
help save lives, reduce poverty and improve the quality of life. For example, the results of
household disease surveys in rural Tanzania informed a process of health service reforms
which contributed to over 40 per cent reductions in infant mortality between 2000 and
2003 in two districts.1

Indeed, the impact of research and evidence on development policy is not only
beneficial —it is crucial. The HIV/AIDS crisis has deepened in some countries because
of the reluctance of governments to implement effective control programmes despite clear
evidence of what causes the disease and how to prevent it spreading (Court, 2005).

Despite the importance of —and interest in —the topic, very little work has focused on
the international development sector. With a few notable exceptions (Garret and Islam,
1998; Keeley and Scoones, 2003; Ryan, 1999, 2002; Lindquist, 2001 and the strategic
evaluation by International Development Research Centre (IDRC)2) most work has
focused on organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.


ODI has been looking at research-policy linkages in international development for over
five years. We have completed extensive literature reviews —drawing on various streams
of literature such as economics, political science, management, anthropology, social
psychology, marketing communication, and media studies (de Vibe et al., 2002; Crewe
and Young, 2002). We have also collected and analysed a large number of case studies on
the topic of Bridging Research and Policy (Court and Young, 2003; Court et al., 2004), and
more recently have been involved in advisory work and workshops, seminars and training
courses for researchers and policy makers in the UK and developing countries.

We define both research and policy very broadly. By research we do not just mean
classical scientific research. It includes any systematic learning process —from theory
building and data collection to evaluation action research. Similarly, policy is not just
narrowly defined as a set of policy documents or legislation; it is about setting a deliberate
course of action and then implementing it. It includes the setting of policy agendas, official
policy documents, legislation, changes in patterns of government spending to implement
policies, and the whole process of implementation. It is also about what happens on the
ground: a policy is worth nothing unless it results in actual change.

Policy-making used to be thought of as a linear and logical process, in which policy-
makers identified a problem, commissioned research, took note of the results and made
sensible policies which were then implemented. Clearly that is not the case. Policy-
making is a dynamic, complex, chaotic process, especially in developing countries. Clay
and Schaffer’s book Room for Manoeuvre in 1984 about Agricultural Policy in Africa
described ‘the whole life of policy is a chaos of purposes and accidents. It is not at all a
matter of the rational implementation of decisions through selected strategies’. That is
increasingly recognized as a more realistic description of the policy process than the linear
rational model —though the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Furthermore, as
Steve Omamo (2003) pointed out in a recent report on policy research on African
agriculture: ‘Most policy research on African agriculture is irrelevant to agricultural
and overall economic policy in Africa’. It is not really surprising that the link between
research and policy is tenuous and difficult to understand if policy processes are complex
and chaotic and much research is not very policy relevant.

ODI’s Context Evidence and Links Framework is an attempt to simplify the complexity
of how evidence contributes to the policy process so that policy makers and researchers
can make decisions about how they do their work to maximise the chance that policies
are evidence-based, and that research does have a positive impact on policy and practice.

It identifies four broad groups of factors. We call the first external influences. These are the
factors outside a particular country which affect policy makers and policy processes within
the country. Even in big countries such as India, international economic, trade and even
cultural issues matter a great deal. In smaller, heavily indebted countries, World Bank and
Bilateral Donor policies and practices can be very influential. At national level the factors
fall into three main areas. The political context includes the people, institutions and
processes involved in policy making. The evidence arena is about the type and quality of
research and how it is communicated. The third arena links is about the mechanisms
affecting how evidence gets into the policy process or not.

An interesting thing about the framework is how well it maps onto real-life activities.
The political context sphere maps onto politics and policy making, evidence onto the
processes of research, learning and thinking and links onto networking, the media and
advocacy. Even the overlapping areas map onto recognizable activities. The intersection of
the political context and evidence represents the process of policy analysis —the study of
how to implement and the likely impact of specific policies. The overlap between evidence
and links is the process of academic discourse through publications and conferences, and
the area between links and political context is the world of campaigning and lobbying.
Evidence from the case studies suggests that the area in the middle —the bulls-eye —
where convincing evidence providing a practical solution to a current policy problem, that
is supported by and brought to the attention of policymakers by actors in all three areas, is
where there is likely to be the most immediate link between evidence and policy.


Over the last few years, ODI has run a number of workshops with researchers, policy
makers and advocates to learn from their own experiences, gather case studies, help them
to understand these issues and to provide guidance for those in developing countries who
would like to increase the policy impact of their work.3 These have included:

* UK —on bridging research and policy with development researchers, practitioners and
policy makers
* Botswana —on civil society organizations (CSOs), Evidence and Pro-poor Policy at the
CIVICUS World Assembly 2003
* Morocco —with the Economic Research Forum for a range of research-policy
stakeholders in the Middle East
* India —with the Indian Institute of Technology and involving a range of research-
policy stakeholders on water policy in India
* Indonesia —on Bridging Research and Policy with researchers belonging to the East
Asia Development Network
* Moldova —on Policy Entrepreneurship for staff from think tanks in Central and Eastern
Europe and the former Soviet Union (organized with the Open Society Institute)
* Kenya —with various stakeholders on CSOs, Evidence and Policy Influence
* Egypt —to help researchers and policy makers promote evidence-based policy making
in the Small and Medium Enterprise Sector in Egypt
* Southern Africa (Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique), Eastern Africa (Tanzania and
Uganda) and West Africa (Ghana and Nigeria) —for staff from research institutes,
national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and networks along with a wide
spectrum of stakeholders interested in how CSOs can contribute more effectively to
evidence-based policymaking.

These have led us to identify four practical issues complicating evidence-based
policymaking in developing countries, and two approaches which seem to help.


4.1 Political Context: Politics and Institutions

Research-policy links are dramatically shaped by the political context. The policy process
and the production of research are in themselves political processes from start to finish.
Key influencing factors include:
* issues of political culture
* the extent of civil and political freedoms in a country
* political contestation, institutional pressures and vested interests
* the capacity of government to respond
* the attitudes and incentives among officials, their room for manoeuvre, local history,
and power relations

In most of the workshops, participants agreed that the prevailing political culture can be
one of the biggest challenges for research uptake. Instability and high turnover of key
positions, authoritarianism as a virtue, clientelism, empirical policy-making and lack of
transparency, among other characteristics of the policy context, were described as crucial
hurdles to the process of informing policy with evidence-based research. In Kenya, for
example, participants considered that overlaps between minister’s responsibilities effec-
tively created vacuums in the system, making it almost impossible for civil society
organizations to engage with the policy processes.

Understanding the degree of political contestation and the attitudes and incentives of
officials is important to explain some important public policies. For instance, in
Ethiopia, the government’s energy policies focus on large-scale hydro, oil and gas
investments despite the fact that the majori ty of the population, in particular the poor,
use biomass as both a source of energy and subsistence. This focus on large scale
investments illustrates the importance of the elite’s agenda in public policy. At a
workshop on CSOs, Evidence and Pro-poor Policy in Botswana, participants consid-
ered that before pursuing pro-poor policies, governments needed to stop anti-poor

4.2 Problems of Research Supply and Communication

Participants in many workshops described the lack of high quality credible research on
current policy issues as a major constraint. Lack of investment in higher education in
developing countries over the last two decades has dramatically eroded academic capacity
(Commission for Africa, 2005). Participants at the Morocco workshop complained of poor
institutional capacity for research among academic institutions throughout Africa and the
Middle East. In particular inadequate financial resources, the absence of peer review
systems and limited access to research methods and tools such as data management
software. More recently, consultancy firms have been poaching the best researchers from
think tanks and universities,4 which undermines the capacity of academic institutions to
secure the resources necessary to train new generations of researchers and policymakers.
Participants of ODI workshops have been unanimous on the need to package research in
an attractive and useful manner, and the lack of skills to do this. The type of research has
also been highlighted. Policymakers, it seams, prefer action research —or evidence of
actions or events taking place in real life. Theoretical or hypothetical arguments are not as
effective as pilots, case studies or comparative studies. In Moldova, for instance, it was
made clear that comparative studies can have more impact. In other workshops, for
instance with Save the Children UK’s Young Lives programme, ODI has found that there
are some country examples that are valued by policymakers of some countries above
others. Vietnam and Ethiopia, it was suggested, would consider Chinese success stories as
relevant to their context.

4.3 Donors have an Exaggerated Influence

Donors can have a dramatic influence on research-policy interactions in developing
countries by influencing both the research that is undertaken and policy processes. Poverty
Reduction Strategy Processes were frequently cited at the African workshops as increasing
investment in local research, though much of this is still done by Northern organizations
and external consultants and has raised concerns of relevance and beneficiaries’ access to
the findings.

The role that donors play can be seen as both supportive and pervasive. While external
support can provide research and research institutions with leverage and independence, it
can also impose a research agenda of little relevance to the country’s policy context and
culture. In Egypt, for instance, it was argued that international consultants, who play an
important role in shaping the country’s policies, were not aware of the Egyptian context.

4.4 The Changing Role of Civil Society

CSOs have played a vital role in development for decades, as innovators, service providers
and advocates with and for the poor. They are increasingly involved in policy processes,
but often with limited success. While their legitimacy and credibility with the local
communities they support is widely recognized, national governments remain wary of
their greater involvement in policy.

The Africa workshops demonstrated a high demand from CSOs for enhanced capacity
and greater opportunity to engage more effectively with national and international
development policy, and provided some good examples of where they have been
successful. The Malawi Economic Justice Network in Malawi, Cruzeiro do Sul in
Mozambique and Forest Watch in Ghana have all successfully influenced policies through
campaigns on debt reduction, fair trade and sustainable forest management, respectively,
often through forming partnerships and coalitions, giving them greater credibility and
legitimacy with policymakers.

In Botswana, participants described how CSOs help the government to develop policy
by working as facilitators, intermediaries, amplifiers and filters, and also help to
implement, monitor and evaluate the impact of policies. Good communication is essential
if they are to play these roles. This is frequently a problem. Participants at the workshop in
Morocco described severe communication challenges existed between both groups ‘as if
they lived in different worlds and spoke different languages’.


Two approaches seem to feature frequently in cases where research-based evidence has
influenced policy in developing countries:

5.1 The Think Tank Approach

Think Tanks are a well developed organizational model, and play an important role in
policy processes in developed countries. While there are relatively few Think Tanks in
developing countries, the Think Tank Approach —delivering academically credible
research-based evidence and advice to policy makers in the right format at the right
time —is a frequent feature of successful cases.

Two examples from the Africa workshops illustrate different methods to develop the
necessary credibility and influence with policy makers. Upon taking up his post, the
new Executive Director of the Kampala based Economic Policy Research Centre’s
(EPRC) concentrated the Centre’s research programme on poverty issues in Uganda.
EPRC was then able to establish a reputation for expertise in poverty issues that gave it
the credibility to play a key role in the povert y reduction strategy paper (PRSP) process
in Uganda. Its success in poverty analysis allowed it to extend its research across a
wider range of policy issues, including nutrition, food security, agriculture, micro-
economic policies, tourism, competitiveness and trade and strengthening financial
institutions. The Centre de Recherches Economiques Applique ́ s (CREA) in Senegal, on
the other hand, was more opportunistic, seeking to identify and quickly gather evidence
to help policy makers respond to emerging issues. Policy makers now frequently come
to them for advice.

Think Tanks need both the capacity to do credible research, communicate effectively,
collaborate closely with policy makers, and the organizational capacity to survive and
thrive in a highly competitive environment. Participants at the Kenya workshop wanted
help to establish local networks and coalitions. CSOs in Malawi were interested in
learning more about how to do credible research. organizations in Eastern Europe needed
advice on fundraising and organizational development.

5.2 Networks

National regional and global networks are playing an increasing role in development
policy (Stone and Maxwell, 2005), and many national and regional networks were cited as
influential during the workshops. These included the Southern Africa Forum for Disability
and Development (SAFOD), Malawi Economic Justice Network (Malawi) Rural Media
Network and Association of African Universities (Ghana), Community Development
Resource Network (Uganda) and Nature Conservation Foundation (Nigeria), among

A number of the case studies involved networks. For example donors applied pressure
through Southern Africa networks to promote national civil society’s participation in the
Malawi PRSP. In Indonesia, participants considered that the regional economic crisis
stimulated the development of networks and partnerships between previously non-
collaborative actors including the private and public sectors. Not all stories were so
positive though. In India, it was the participants’ opinion that the complex webs of
networks in the Water Sector undermined specialist knowledge and made it more difficult
to develop credible evidence on particular subjects.

Participants in many of the workshops described how regional networks and suprana-
tional bodies can enhance the policy leverage of national and local CSOs. The Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for instance, is seen as a credible organization that
draws from various constituencies interested in a common integration vision. CSOs
working within this context can take advantage of ASEAN’s position and regional role to
bridge the gap between research and policy.


The Tanzania example in the introduction provides good evidence that better use of
research-based evidence in development policy and practice can help save lives, reduce
poverty and improve the quality of life. There is considerable understanding about how
research-based evidence contributes to policy in OECD countries, and much expertise
among policy research institutes and think tanks in the developed world about how to
make it happen. But our understanding remains shallow in the developing world,
especially in countries where political processes themselves are often poorly understood.
There is however much interest among donors, researchers, CSOs and policy makers in
doing it better.

There is a wide range of factors involved, and each context will have its own unique
mix. A more systematic understanding of the external context, the political context, the
evidence and the links between them will help researchers, policy makers, practitioners
and CSOs decide how they can best promote more evidence-based policy. Particular
attention needs to be given in developing countries to:
* the political context —the factors which shape local policy and political processes;
* the problem of research supply —is there the capacity to generate and use research-
based evidence effectively?
* the role of external actors —how do donors influence research and policy processes; and
* the role of Civil Society —how can civil society be empowered to promote evidence-
based policymaking.

Think Tanks have developed a range of approaches which are particularly effective at
promoting evidence-based policy in developed countries, and similar approaches seem to
be effective in developing countries, although the Think Tank itself might not be the most
play an important role and are highly valued by local organizations. There remains much
more to learn and ODI’s RAPID Programme5 is working on many of these issues.

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Further information can be found at[Accessed 29 June 2005].

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Int. Dev. 17, 727–734 (2005)


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