Sue Moore explains the use of Research-into-Use and explores what this means for researchers, practitioners and ultimately, those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
'We want water, not research!' exclaimed a woman attending a stakeholder engagement workshop in Southern Afar, Ethiopia in February 2016. Why indeed focus on research, when the immediate needs of much of the population remain unmet during drought? ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions) is a consortium of research and practitioner institutions working in four regions across Africa and Asia. It aims to improve the understanding of the barriers, enablers and limits to effective, sustained and widespread adaptation to help the most vulnerable and marginalised contributing to effect a longer term change.
Central to ASSAR's ethos is Research-into-Use (RiU) which differs from conventional research uptake approaches. RiU can be seen as a strategy and process which contributes to change by making information usable, understandable and relevant. It is designed to reach and benefit the people most affected by climate change. Despite the value of purely academic research, it has the potential to be filed away or to remain theoretical. Through RiU, ASSAR aims to bridge the gap between research and practice.
The challenges of practitioner/researcher engagement
ASSAR is more than the sum of its parts, it is a powerful partnership of diverse personnel. However, as Mark Tebboth, Postdoctoral Researcher from UEA, pointed out, clarity and definition are essential to maximising collective endeavours; for example language used within the RiU sphere by practitioners is often apparently similar to that of researchers but with a different meaning.
For example, co-production, in a social science context, is a very specific process, whereby research participants are involved in defining; the problem, questions, method, approach as well as producing and analysing data and identifying solutions. Within RiU, co-production can mean more broadly 'producing something together'. Likewise, participatory research, from an academic perspective is similar to co-production in a social science context; challenging power dynamics to talk about what communities want to discuss rather than introducing a theme pre-agreed amongst consortium members. In theory, community members benefit more from discussions and workshop participation, because issues they care about are being addressed.
The stakeholder workshops that took place in Addis Ababa and the Afar region, employed a RiU-focussed form of participatory research, which could have been seen as an extractive process. Crucial to countering this potential perception and ensuring the benefits of the research are realised, is sharing our learning outcomes.
Influencing a policy or practice process can be unfamiliar to researchers, whose concern is to provide an unbiased view. The natural working styles (of researchers and practitioners) differ widely and there is a delicate balance to be struck in the quest for applied research with continuous interaction which is vital to the success of the project.
One option for ASSAR is to consider using the slightly freer role, held by campaigning organizations such as Oxfam, to advocate for change with the insights generated through their research process. This way, even in the case of 'inconvenient facts' coming to light, that the government is reluctant to hear, researchers are able to continue operating on the ground while pressure to change policy and practice can be exerted.
Long term applied research over aid
The results of ASSAR's work are intended as a sustainable, future facing response. Interactive approaches with local communities, such as peer-to-peer learning, exploratory games and participatory scenario analysis processes, may help to achieve this.
An example through which these more interactive and participatory approaches will be applied in the East African region, is a focus on Prosopis juliflora, an invasive species. While the plant brings some benefits it uses significant amounts of water and makes crop cultivation and pastoralism difficult. Another such issue is pasture scarcity, which is increasingly detrimental to the lives and livelihoods of pastoralists in East Africa and beyond. Through its research on the human impacts of these issues, ASSAR will be able to provide a critical understanding of their impacts on communities; enabling the identification of a range of possible approaches that could be employed to bring benefits for some of the most marginalised communities in the region.
Fostering a common understanding
We asked ourselves, is a common understanding between researchers and practitioners the key to ensuring local community members benefit from ASSAR's work? A united approach is certainly an important contributing factor in support of people-led participatory change. It is my deepest hope that affected communities can look forward to a brighter future as a result.