Reimagining knowledge translation in the Global South: implications for practitioners and funders

28 July 2023
SERIES Knowledge translation in the Global South: reflections on the future 10 items

We must expand our understanding of knowledge translation (KT) beyond its traditional boundaries. This would open up possibilities for more innovative, comprehensive and effective approaches to transferring knowledge. Ultimately, this could lead to better-informed decisions and to policies that better serve the needs of communities, especially in the Global South.

OTT recently published a report on KT in the Global South. We worked with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) (our partner); the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) (the project’s funder); and the members of a learning journey, who were drawn from across the field.

We initially defined KT as: “intentional interventions involving dialogue between a range of relevant actors to encourage or support the use of research-based evidence to inform behaviours.” +

We chose this working definition carefully, considering the impact and meaning of each word, to convey that KT isn’t linear or unidirectional. We also wanted to convey the centrality of the behaviour of people and organisations in offering the support and encouragement needed to get things done.

We then used this definition to identify experts and practitioners in the field, cases for us to study in great depth, and examples of KT translation taking place in multiple contexts. Our study revealed the necessity of rethinking how we understand and practice KT, particularly in relation to the Global South.

Research findings

Our investigation found no universally accepted definition of KT among field experts and practitioners. Many equated it with other concepts, like research uptake or evidence-informed policy. 

In hindsight, I think this was one of our most important findings. It may be useful to create multiple categories to describe things and to decide what to fund and how to run projects, but, in practice, these categories don’t always make sense. 

For those on the front line, what matters is the purpose of their work. And their immediate purpose is to ensure that decisions on matters of public interest are well-informed. 

Call it whatever you want – translation, uptake, brokering, use, etc. – I take this as a direct challenge to how we organise ourselves and our work. Paraphrasing what the late Peter Da Costa once told me: Are we doing what works for us, or are we doing what’s really necessary? 

This leads me to the first of four key takeaways:

1. We need to seriously rethink the way we’re building the field, asking ourselves, is it useful?

This links to another key finding from our research, the recognition that no single group can be solely responsible for effective KT. 

The practitioners we engaged with and the cases we gathered suggest that KT is not confined to a specific role or profession, such as communication practitioners. A clear example of this is the role of African academic researchers. They helped to incorporate unpublished research from Africa into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCCC’s) report by publishing academic research based on it. 

This example showcases that KT does not only involve translating from researchers to policymakers. It can also involve translation among researchers, thereby breaking the conventional mould of what we view as KT.

2. We need to view KT not as a separate process but as an intrinsic part of everything we do in the broad field of evidence-informed decision making: from setting research agendas to disseminating our results and using evidence. 

In our globalised world, access to KT tools and competencies isn’t exclusive to any one region. Our study showed that there isn’t a skills divide between the Global North and South. Proficient analysis, competent writing, innovative design and effective use of evidence are possible everywhere. 

It’s not always useful, therefore, to divide the world along this already vague line. Good KT practice can be found everywhere and it can be adapted and copied in a global marketplace. Further efforts to study and support the field should not divide the world; instead, they should seek to be inclusive of multiple expertise and experiences. 

However, the context within which this takes place and the critical mass of analysts, writers and designers, etc., may differ across regions, especially between the Global North and South.

3. Contextual factors significantly affect the practice of KT. 

We chose to describe the Global South as a space marked by weaker institutional structures, where KT faces unique challenges, such as limited public funding for science and research, structural inequalities and political landscapes dominated by vested interests.

This is not to say that many parts of the Global North do not also face these challenges – but the scale and magnitude of these are patently different. 

However, it’s important to note that contextual factors aren’t only institutional or macro-level. Micro-level factors can also shape the KT process, as follows:

  • Frequent power outages can disrupt research processes and communication, making it difficult for researchers to access digital resources or communicate their findings effectively. 
  • Hyperinflation can erode the value of research funding and impact the affordability of essential resources, thereby limiting the capacity for research and KT activities. 
  • Poor transportation can hinder researchers’ ability to conduct fieldwork or engage with stakeholders and communities directly, impacting the quality and relevance of their research. 
  • High levels of informality can complicate the implementation of the policy recommendations derived from KT, as informal systems might operate under different rules than formal ones.

4. To enhance the effectiveness of KT, we need to strengthen these contexts – for example, through science granting councils, advisory systems, civil service reform and political party strengthening. 

We need to consider how funding and other forms of support can help us to address the micro-level challenges faced by the sector.

In my view, if we don’t invest in KT and in evidence-informed policy, more broadly, we will not make a difference. 

What KT research funders could do

Rely on the assessments of their local partners 

Funders interested in supporting well-informed decisions should do this to understand how they can best incorporate KT into their work. At most, they should facilitate access to a global exchange of skills and experiences so their partners can inform their own choices. 

This would give their partners much greater agency to set their agendas, choose the most appropriate partners for them (locally or internally) and to lead KT processes

This calls for a shift in the power dynamics, giving grantees much greater agency to set the agendas and lead KT processes.

Play a more proactive role in addressing the systemic issues affecting KT

Understanding the wider ecosystem influencing KT initiatives and collaborating with other funders who focus on different parts of this ecosystem could lead to more effective KT efforts. 

We don’t expect research funders to venture into the world of political party reforms, media strengthening or civil service reforms – apart from allocating resources for these. But every funder’s strategy to support the generation, communication and use of evidence should include a very clear plan for how they will collaborate with those funders who do work with institutions like political parties and the media. 

Embrace a broader understanding of KT and broaden the scope of investments

Embracing a broader understanding of KT is preferable to using narrowly defined activities or roles – even professions or fields can be too narrow. 

Funders could consider the study of KT itself as an integral part of the research they support, and so broaden the scope of their investments. While this includes the fields of evidence-informed policy and the sociology of knowledge, it also extends to political science, public sector reform and the literature on political knowledge regimes. 

Engaging with these domains could offer fresh perspectives and could enrich our collective understanding of KT in a larger system.


Read the primary research report, Bridging text with context: knowledge translation in the Global South and final synthesis report, Knowledge translation in the Global South: bridging different ways of knowing for equitable development.