North-South Collaboration: Eight tips for working with local think tanks

14 March 2016

The UK government is spending increasing amounts on aid (£11.7 billion in 2014). In 2015, it passed a bill that enshrined in law its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of its gross national income (GNI) on aid every year.

But a renewed commitment to deliver aid in the national interest, a limited appetite for risk and pressure to deliver results (with a perception that local organisations have limited capacity to do so on their own), along with a need to reduce transaction costs, may have led to what some suggest is an increasing proportion of the aid budget delivered through British consultancies, researchers and technical advisors.

When putting together funding proposals, these actors need to convince the UK Department for International Development (DFID) that they are serious about promoting ‘local’ ownership through the participation of local actors in the design and delivery of programmes. So, on many occasions, the only way for organisations based in countries like Nepal to access UK aid is to be asked by British researchers and consultancies to ‘partner’ with them in the development of a funding bid or be contracted to provide ‘services’ once the funding has been secured.

The cycle of dependence

While consultancies may control much of the money, in some cases they also have significant influence over the knowledge generated and used to guide policy and practice in ‘recipient’ countries. Take, for example, a country like Nepal, where local think tanks (often operating as small consultancy firms) are contracted to produce research and undertake evaluations. Typically their role is limited to collecting data, interpreting and translating for foreign researchers and organising logistics; the really interesting parts of the process, such as thinking about the questions and analytical frameworks as well as the analysis of the data and report writing, is often done by the consultancy or researcher in the UK.

So what’s wrong with this?

If the production and use of locally derived or home grown knowledge is a key component in facilitating ‘development’ sustainably, entrusting external actors to produce a large proportion of the knowledge used to guide policy and practice reinforces dependence on them. This isn’t to say that UK consultancies and researchers have nothing to offer. They certainly do – in terms of ideas, frameworks, tools and technologies from experiences gained working across a range of different contexts. But they could do more to enable local think tanks to play a fuller role in research or evaluation processes. This would help improve the capacity of these organisations to contribute to the development of their own societies and break the cycle of dependence on external actors.

The benefits of better partnerships

There are other reasons to better embrace ‘partnership’. + Local perspectives are more likely to be considered in the delivery of policy, while UK researchers and consultancies who have worked more closely with local organisations will have more legitimacy when they seek to influence developing country governments. Working together means each can play to its strengths. And, from a values standpoint, working together on an equal footing is a ‘good’ thing in itself.

There are many organisations, consultancies and researchers out there who do very well in collaborating with local organisations on a more equal footing. So what can we learn from them in how they work with local organisations in the production of research and evaluations?

  1. Make collaboration an objective. Be genuinely interested in taking a more collaborative approach. Successful ‘partnerships’ in the production (and use) of knowledge have usually come about because of the relationships developed between, and personalities of, key individuals, as much as because of content, structure and process of the collaboration. If the person in charge of commissioning a study is simply not interested in addressing the longer term challenges of developing local capacity and sustainable partnerships, then things are likely to remain ‘business as usual’.
  2. Get to know your partners. Face-to-face. Instead of limiting their interaction with local organisations to emails and video-call conversations, consultancies and researchers who are serious about working with them invest time and resources in making a visit, to get to know them, their staff as well as their work, as a way of building up mutual trust and confidence in each other’s ability to produce their side of the bargain (whether it’s results or support).
  3. Be transparent about your intentions. Consultancies and researchers with successful partnerships make clear from the start what type of collaboration they’re looking to have with a local organisation. And there are various forms: if consultancies merely want a data collection function, the local organisation may well baulk at the prospect, given a desire to have more involvement. In many cases, the local organisation will accept this in order to pay salaries and cover overheads. At the other end of the spectrum, the external actor may contract the entire process to the local organisation – but micro-management and ‘interference’ might then be an issue. Between these two extremes there are various possibilities, where the two organisations have varying levels of control/involvement.
  4. Collaborate every step of the way. There is often a fair bit of anxiety among British researchers and consultancies when it comes to, for example, sharing proposals, survey questions or analytical frameworks with others, especially in draft format. There’s a tendency to ask for comments only once the outputs have neared completion. Under pressure to ‘say something’, collaborators are forced into suggesting changes around the margins. Consultancies and researchers who are serious about collaborating involve the local organisation, or at least provide opportunities for them to participate at stages where the collaborators can provide substantive feedback.
  5. Don’t conflate English-language skills with expertise on content. In looking for collaborators, British consultancies and researchers sometimes assume that an ability to speak English properly is equivalent to being intellectually sound. This isn’t necessarily the case. In our experience, well-spoken collaborators have, on occasion been, out of their depth, while talented and bright individuals with limited English-language skills have been derided. Instead, when stumbling across people who are knowledgeable and skilled but lacking language skills, those consultancies and researchers who really commit to collaboration have worked through an interpreter and/or a translator. They also make the most of in-house staff who are proficient in the language(s) of the country(s) in question. This may well require additional resources but this often proves worthwhile.
  6. Consider what’s relevant to your collaborator. On the occasion that global South collaborators are asked to write up the data into reports, they are usually sent back to the external consultancy or researcher to comment and provide feedback. Comments made are often numerous and sometimes make little sense to the local organisation. This makes it difficult for them to respond. Why is this the case? Those providing the feedback may have little understanding of the context in which the data was collected and some of the constraints the local research team were under. And so, they review with an eye to the policy research community to which they belong (in London, New York, etc.). Consultancies and researchers who take collaboration seriously spend time with the local organisation during the data collection phase (or at least visit some of the contexts where data will be collected, before the research/evaluation to get an appreciation of some of the opportunities and constraints the local research team will face).
  7. Communicate locally – not just globally. During a recent conversation with a leader of an international NGO we were told that Nepal was a ‘black hole’ for research and evaluation. The country and its aid projects were subject to countless reviews by donors and INGOs as well as research projects by foreign academic institutions. But very little of the research results found its way back to Nepal and the communities where the data was collected. Where possible the external consultancy or researcher and local organisations should develop (and deliver) a plan together for communicating the findings and implications to local audiences such as policy-makers, academics and practitioners.
  8. Collaborate with the organisation not just with project teams. Collaborations usually revolve around projects which come and go. The external consultancy/researcher could look into developing a cost structure which provides opportunities for some collaborative work when there are no externally funded projects.

Collaborating on a more equal footing doesn’t come without costs for British consultancies and researchers. But there are significant benefits too. Local organisations can add substantially to the quality of the design and delivery of the final outputs: their staff can speak the local language, have an understanding of professional, formal and informal networks, have legitimacy and recognition among peers, knowledge of national institutions, familiarity with the work environment, and a rapport with national decision-makers.

Surely the paradigm we operate it in today suggests we shouldn’t be doing development for people in places such as Nepal, but to work with them and support them to do it themselves?