Taking the impact of ASSAR to heart

24 Aug 2017 - 14:00

Reflections from the 4th annual meeting

By Julia Davies

One of ASSAR’s markers of success is a place where “vulnerable populations in semi-arid regions benefit from effective, widespread and sustained adaptation to climate change.”

With ASSAR researchers having already published six journal articles, and more academic outputs to be completed within the next year, it could be argued that we are already striding along this path to success. However, it is not just the milestones that you reach as a consortium that are important, but also the value of the time and energy spent reaching these points, which is measured partly by the impact of collaborative efforts and the degree to which these are sustained beyond the project’s lifetime.

I realise that this might seem overly naïve or idealistic, especially since academic achievement is largely measured by the number of scientific papers produced and cited, and when donor organisations usually require more quantitative progress reports. However, a comment made by Oxfam’s Duncan Green in his recent blogpost, reassures me: “Impact is about relationships more than paper,” he writes. “Decision makers want to be able to pick up the phone and ask the advice of experts who they have learned to trust, not be told to read the latest impenetrable academic papers.”

During sub-meetings with the Southern Africa team in Ghana, we talked quite a bit about the need to avoid purely extractive research and to ‘give something back’ to the communities among which we have been working. From a purely academic perspective, this would be entirely unnecessary, but it would undoubtedly build trust between stakeholders and researchers and, through these relationships, allow us to have a potentially greater impact on the lives of vulnerable communities. If you feel sceptical about this vision or overwhelmed at the thought of having to go beyond what is required, why not consider the following:   

“If ASSAR was a tree, would we be a key species or niche, or would we be an invasive?” – Chris Gordon, University of Ghana

My argument is that, in order to avoid being an invasive (extractive) group of researchers, we may need to edit – perhaps ruthlessly – some of our more academic commitments in order to deepen our impact. This is particularly important if one considers the vast number of items that ASSAR is currently trying to juggle (as described in Lucia’s latest blogpost), as well as in light of the research into use (RiU) imperative of the project.

The annual meeting provided a great platform for a multitude of high-level and cross-regional research topics1 to be synthesised, altered and refined. In doing so, an emphasis was placed by the facilitators on the importance of being realistic about the commitments made. In some cases, researchers felt that it was better to call something off, rather than pledging to take on projects where a meaningful contribution would be unlikely, at least within the temporal boundaries of the project.

Such scaling back of commitments should not be perceived as an indication of failure, but rather as a step toward deepening, rather than extending, the scope of our research. In carrying out this difficult ‘editing’ process, we should take to heart some key learnings, which were relayed to us by Chris Gordon on the last day of the meeting:

1. ASSAR is transformative. Whilst our hope is to transform the lives of vulnerable communities through effective and sustained adaptation, we should not fail to acknowledge the internal transformations that occur within the ASSAR consortium.

2. ASSAR operates under CARIAA2 – the key word here is collaborative, and through collaboration we have gained more knowledge of our own internal barriers and enablers.

3. ASSAR does not operate in a vacuum. There are many other initiatives happening, we should try to seek synergies with these.

4. ASSAR is a means to an end, not the end itself.

In relation to this last point, I recall a few meeting participants asking “when is ASSAR II happening?” Although met with laughter (and in some cases, a sense of dread), I think it’s an important question to consider.

“ASSAR II” may look completely different, but that there was talk of ‘doing something’ beyond 2018 gives hope and energy to the work currently being done, in the sense that it may pave the way for a longer-term impact.

Underlying these important conversations is a growing web of networks and relationships, which are ultimately the ‘cement’ that holds the various paving stones (the academic outputs, stakeholder engagements, comms products, etc.), together. If you don’t believe me then just ask Mark New, who earlier this year stated that:

“the success of ASSAR depends on the success of the relationships between its members.”

It is now up to ASSAR’s researchers to decide on the depth of the relationships that we will continue to have with one another. Whilst some may need to be edited (at least for now), others might need to be deepened through greater communication, commitment and collaboration.

Doing so will allow us to make the most of the final year of ASSAR, and ensure that we have the maximum possible impact, despite the challenges that we are likely to encounter along the way.

1The various research themes discussed included: changing households; land use and land cover change (LULC); knowledge systems; social differentiation (including gender); gender and ecosystem services; TSP evaluation; invasives; migration; transformation; consortium learning; effective adaptation; barriers and enablers and governance (including water governance).

2CARIAA – Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia