In part two of this four-part series, we describe the initial steps we (a US-based international development research lab) have taken to identify new working partners in the Global South, and a brief overview of our work so far in building meaningful, equitable and long-term partnerships.
How wide to cast the net?
We prioritised research-driven organisations in East and West Africa. For ease of relationship-building and administration, we selected countries where English is the working language. We favoured environments where there is some independent research infrastructure, activity and talent. Where the geo-political and civil society environment is stable, open, and the prospects are that it will remain so, to allow potentially long-term relationships to flourish. And where policymakers have indicated at least some interest in using data and evidence in their decisions.
In 2019, we began our journey by forming a six-person internal Africa Task Force (ATF). The ATF regularly reported to AidData’s leadership team and provided informational updates to the broader university executive. There were several planned phases to our work:
- Building a list of potential partners. With the mantra ‘leave no stone unturned’, we canvassed our networks for details of potential partners in East or West Africa. We were comprehensive in this effort, so as not to miss out on any hidden gems. David de Ferranti, head of 3ie’s DC office and founder, past-president, and current chair of R4D, was kind enough to share with us a database of some 250 African policy-focused civil society organisations.ATF members also conducted extensive online searches for possible partners – including think-tanks, local open data and research organisations, university research labs, government agencies, for-profit development research companies based in Africa. Once complete, we had some 215 potential partners from 17 sub-Saharan African countries in our database.
- Desk research. The ATF developed a diagnostic form to help the teams gather consistent and comprehensive information for partnership vetting purposes. The form contained nearly 100 questions and covered three areas: institutional structure; administrative capacity; and technical capacity. The forms were used to green/red light potential partners to move on to the next stage of the vetting process, with two ATF members required to agree on every green/red light.Separately, the ATF developed additional documents to assist in determining most promising partners and country contexts. These included (a) a 16-indicator country-level analysis for West and East African nations that drew upon publicly available measures, such as regime type, degree of freedom, gender equality, ease of doing business, crime and corruption, and other factors that could enable or constrain our work; and (b) research on anticipated levels of market demand for a potential partnership.
- Phone/Skype/WhatsApp calls. The ATF then conducted phone/Skype/WhatsApp interviews with 50 potential partner organisations. For these, a phone call questionnaire was developed. Each call lasted 30 to 60 minutes, with two AidData staff on every call. From the calls, the shortlist of potential partners was further refined.
- In-person visits. In the autumn of 2019, three teams of ATF members travelled to eight countries to hold in-depth consultations with potential partners. Ahead of these meetings, the ATF prepared customised marketing material and leave-behinds that outlined AidData’s offerings, credentials, partnership benefits, and areas of expertise.The teams also met with other stakeholders who might be able to provide guidance on the broad research and operating environment and the country context. In total, the ATF had over 50 meetings. With this information, the ATF reduced the list of potential partners to 11 organisations.
- Pilot activities. Next, the ATF and AidData’s senior leadership team brainstormed with partners potential pilot projects that could be completed in a relatively short period of time. This list was then whittled down based on feasibility considerations and demonstrated levels of interest from the shortlisted organisations.
In 2020 we chose our first partners: the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana), a think tank influencing government policy from the outside, and the Ghana Statistical Service (GSS), which helps shape decisions from inside government.
The current practice areas and research priorities of both align well with our own, and AidData has worked in Ghana previously. Partnership-building is ongoing.
From bilateral relationships to a networked ecosystem
There are several areas of AidData’s work that we think resonate with our partners, including: expertise in using satellite imagery to measure a variety of development outcomes over geographic space and time; giving statisticians in Africa access to satellites and artificial intelligence; leveraging machine learning in order to generate causal and predictive results from big data sources; evaluating how governments can extend their reach via social networks; and new studies on social diffusion and networks.
With CDD-Ghana, AidData will develop new ways of measuring development outcomes within households, including women’s empowerment and girls’ schooling experiences. CDD-Ghana and AidData will also work together to evaluate how government institutions can more effectively disseminate information – about things like health and safety precautions and farming techniques – to the people who they are trying to reach. Meanwhile, AidData will help GSS assess its readiness to integrate machine learning and satellite imagery into its ongoing efforts to measure poverty over geographic space and time.
Initially, we are working bilaterally with each organisation, in AidData–CDD-Ghana and AidData–GSS dyads. But crucial to our strategy is building relationships across a networked ecosystem where we jointly encourage transparency, sharing, replication and enhancement and adaptability.
The parts of this research ecosystem include think tanks, university research labs, government agencies, advocacy and transparency organisations, with outputs shared across civil society, including with the media. Key to this will be a concerted effort at joint communications and outreach.
Further down the road, AidData hopes to take its learnings from the Ghana partnerships to engage with a broader set of organisations on the continent, perhaps initially in two–three countries.
In the next article we share some of our key findings and challenges surrounding North–South partnerships, informed by our own journey along this path.