ASSAR–R2A Climate Month: Time’s Up

5 Dec 2017 - 12:15

Time’s up for doing things a little bit differently. We need to get real about what is needed in order to respond to the uneven impacts of climate change on people in the developing world. This is a development issue. This is an environmental issue. This is a social justice issue. And we need to learn to hold all dimensions of the challenge before us, and still move forward.

Knowledge generated through scientific research has an important role to play. But it is not everything. We also need new approaches to understanding what the questions are that researchers should be tackling in the first place. We also need deep alliances between researchers and NGOs capable of pushing forward narratives that show pathways forward and that give hope.

I am not saying that we know how to do any of this. But time’s also up for worrying about that.

At the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) we fund research in developing countries to promote growth, reduce poverty, and to drive large-scale positive change. We do not claim to know how to do that – we support our partners to experiment, innovate, and try new things.

It was in this facilitating role that we decided to support the ASSAR project. ASSAR’s partnership was novel – three very strong research institutions partnering with two international NGOs, one of which (Oxfam) was placed in charge of Research into Use. What could possibly go wrong? Luckily, we were more interested in what could go right.

The rich mix of partners in ASSAR: NGOs, researchers, and local practitioners plotting a way forward together in Ethiopia in 2016. (Photo credit: Nick Reay/UCT-ASSAR)

Watching ASSAR evolve in terms of its own understanding of itself over the past couple of years has been an important learning experience for all of us (donor, researchers, NGOs). From the incredibly careful planning and thought that Oxfam have put into their approach (witness Jesse De Maria-Kinney’s description of this in an earlier piece in this series), to the practical implementation of new ways of seeking out adaptation pathways described by Mary Thompson-Hall, to the big questions they’ve been asking in global fora, as evidenced in Daniel Morchain’s piece last week.

Perhaps the most interesting debate playing out in ASSAR right now, and indeed across the whole of CARIAA, is about how much evidence is needed before influencing and impact can be pursued. Several times, people leading on Research into Use have felt ready to move on communications work about particular issues, and academic partners have told them to slow down because the research is not yet complete. Then the position of Research into Use leaders has tended to be: but we do know enough to act, even if you aren’t completely finished the research yet. This is a caricature, of course, since in ASSAR we also witness impressive fluidity in identities, with some researchers behaving more like activists and some activists behaving more like researchers. Nevertheless, these disagreements occur often and raise challenging questions about the role of research and evidence in the pursuit of change.

These questions have not been resolved, and play out behind the scenes even as I write this. But at least the conversation is happening, because time’s up for pretending that the conflict in agendas, roles, and understanding of ‘knowledge’ is a minor one. When we have conversations about ‘Research into Action’, we should also consider how we are able to get ‘Action into Research’ – all these questions, and all the possible combinations of different partners and approaches are important. It’s important that we consider all these things with our goal in mind: a more just world, with more resilient communities able to confront the challenges ahead. Research matters for this. So does action. So does the courage to try new things.

Article first appeared on Research to Action