research, policy and change

I have been thinking a lot—since I work in a pro-development research organization—about how change happens.

What brought this on? One thing was a rather unfortunate paper I read on gender and agricultural biodiversity. The author seemed convinced that the recent data (FAO 2011) suggesting that eliminating the gender gap would result in a huge decrease in food insecurity was enough to effect change. The approach suggested was to go to communities and tell them about the data and they would change their ways.

The second thing was another document I have seen with a kind of theory of change or impact pathway showing how a particular body of research would end up having an impact for good for the poor in the rural south and for their biodiversity resources too. It consisted mainly of arrows thus:

research->evidence->knowledge products->dissemination->change

The arrows are fascinating. What is going on there? Is that it then, with the right, good, well-conducted research, we can produce evidence to be packaged up as products, disseminated and acted upon?

Unfortunately, I really don’t think it is that easy and one article I have just been reading suggests part of the reason why (Fisher & Holland 2003). It frames research as a sphere of policy influence and talks about how hard it is to build capacity for ‘policy-relevant’ knowledge. So that is one thing – knowledge has to be policy-relevant and for it to be policy-relevant, policy people and researching people have to know where each other are and what each other’s interests and needs are. They need to find their ‘common knowledge’: the shared thing that matters to them both (Edwards 2012).

In this view, research is a policy instrument  and forms the “basis of  ‘evidence’ upon which policy can be formed” (p913). I am intrigued by the authors’ use of quote marks round ‘evidence’. It speaks to the very contested and partial nature of ‘evidence’: who commissions it, who does it, where and how?

Another concept from the Fisher and Holland paper that I found thought-provoking was the “commoditization of social knowledge” where local intellectuals (in Bolivia and Tanzania) have good capacity to carry out research and thus earn a living as consultants. “…individual researchers and their way of life is probably one of the main obstacles to the democratisation of knowledge and to the generation of policy linkages…” (p918). That is surely an unplanned outcome that noone could have foreseen.

It all needs more thought. But I have broken my blogging writer’s block.


Edwards, A., 2012. The role of common knowledge in achieving collaboration across practices. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 1(1), pp.22–32.

FAO, 2011. The State of Food and Agriculture. Women in Agriculture: Closing the gender gap for development, Rome, Italy: FAO.

Fisher, E. & Holland, J., 2003. Social development as knowledge building: research as a sphere of policy influence. Journal of International Development, 15(7), pp.911–924.

One comment

  1. […] Finally I understand why capacity development and knowledge management are housed in the same unit at my workplace! This makes much more sense to me than the arrows I was complaining about it my last post. […]

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