Demand driven research: the new comfort zone

15 February 2012

Herryman Moono has written a post for the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog that advocates for demand-driven research, the new comfort zone for many researchers and programmes. He refers to that old phrase that development workers like to repeat to themselves and anyone willing to listen: we are working ourselves out of our job. I’ve never quite liked it. To begin with, we all know, deep down, that the world will not rid itself of poverty certainly not in our lifetime: our jobs are safe. But most importantly, for researchers, this is a ridiculous statement. Research is valuable for its own sake. A society that thinks is a better society than one that does not. Even if all the research undertaken is irrelevant to policymaking this would be better than having no research at all.

Herryman Moono writes that once the policy we are trying to affect changes, our research will no longer be relevant. That is a sign of success. He assumes then than policymaking is linear -that there are no chances that policies will be reviewed and challenged, for instance, and that old research may be useful (which contradicts his own reference to the Kenyes story, below). He also assumes that policy processes begin and end, just like projects -forgetting that in policymaking one thing leads to another to another to another…

But there is another more worrying discourse in this post: demand driven research.

Moono refers to a meeting with Dr. Guy Scott, Zambia’s Vice-President, in which he asks the researchers of the International Growth Centre why they haven’t been looking at employment policies in Zambia:

After our brief of our growth research work in Zambia, the vice president wondered why we have not ventured into research looking at employment creation. Jokingly he stated that even Keynes’s classic work was on the general theory of employment, so why were we not helping the government create more jobs for the people given on country constraints by researching in that area? Valid question indeed!

Moono reflects that research is indeed not often relevant to policymakers’ needs and adds that most research on the problems faced by developing countries has been written already. I again disagree as this statement assumes that problems are static and unchanging -that no no crisis will come in the future, that no unexpected event will shock food prices, that no new superpower will emerge, etc. He continues:

However, we cannot move into implementation and operational guidance if our works are not aligned to the thinking of policy makers.

But if we only study what policymakers want us to study and provide answers to their questions who will come up with the next questions? Questions inevitable come from research, analysis and reflection (from gaps in our knowledge, from the testing of hypothesis, from comparisons, etc.). This means that researchers need to be involved in thinking about these questions. But if they are busy with what the government wants today, who then will come up with the questions tomorrow?

Most interestingly, this entire post reflects the very comfortable consulting and legitimising mode of work that many ‘international development’ researchers have got used to. This approach, to align themselves with policymakers is even encouraged by their funders’ demand that research be demand driven and responsive to policymakers interests and questions.

This, if you ask me, is not the best way forward.