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Published on 1 March 2019

This blog was first posted on the Christian Aid Intranet, 19/03/2018


As part of REL's role in enhancing the research and evidencing capacity and capability within Christian Aid, last year we worked with colleagues to develop the UK Aid Connect bids. We led on development of the overall research approach, and brokered relationships with external researchers. Here we share insights into academics and their approach to work, and offer some key considerations for integrating research into programme design and establishing partnerships with external researchers.

Typical traits of academics

Academics can help us focus our research question to ensure that it is original and situated within the existing knowledge landscape; they can challenge us and bring rigour to our methodological approach; and they can enable us to reach new and different audiences with our experience and knowledge.

But it's worth bearing in mind that academics are incentivised differently from NGO staff.

  • Academics tend to pursue their own (individual) research agenda and interests.
  • Whilst academics come together in research teams and consortium collaborations, their primary motivation is (usually) on making an original contribution to global knowledge in a particular research field.
  • Typically academics have more loyalty to their research area than their institution. Their research interest may be quite narrow, eg a specific theme, in specific country context/s.
  • Academics are incentivised to publish in peer-reviewed journals, often behind pay barriers (unless they can find funds to pay for open access publications).
  • Some research institutes impose funding targets on individual academics or research teams.
  • Universities have their own bureaucracy and sign-off processes when it comes to formalising research/ funding collaborations, and time needs to be factored in for this.

Key considerations for Christian Aid

These traits have implications for the way INGOs partner with researchers:

  • For multi-country programmes, it's important to select the countries quickly, so that the thematic/ geographical focus is clear, and country teams can be involved in programme design at an early stage. The more concrete the proposal concept, the easier it is to identify appropriate researchers(s) whose interests and track record align with the proposed programming. In this respect, partnering with an academic institution can be much more like partnering with an individual.
  • It's important to consider key themes in order to generate at least one over-arching research question for the programme – this can be thematic, methodological, or geographic in its focus. In a multi-country programme, the overall research question (e.g. "What is the role of faith in our programming?") has to resonate across all the countries involved, whilst sub-questions (e.g. on the role of faith leaders, faith and humanitarian, faith and early marriage) may be adopted by individual country programmes according to interest and relevance. 
  • REL's approach is to encourage decentralisation of research wherever possible, with research partnerships established/ strengthened in-country, and space for mutual learning between diverse stakeholders – especially south-south. Many country programmes already have an awareness of the key research actors in their context, and will lead on this aspect – so again, the less abstract the concept, the easier this is.
  • Other considerations include an awareness of any research-related regulations or protocols that exist in-country, such as a national-level ethics committee (eg Kenya), or government legislation dictating restrictions on how much NGO money can be directed towards research activities (eg Ethiopia).

Concluding thoughts

Researchers come in many shapes and forms, and may be located in institutional contexts other than universities (think tanks, research institutes, consultancies). Many of the considerations for integrating research are relevant to these partnerships also.

Whilst this blog post focuses on research design, in REL we are also interested in the dynamics of partnership throughout the research process – drawing on experience across Christian Aid and the wider sector. Check out REL's toolkit for more ideas on negotiating roles in establishing partnerships.