Rethinking how research is communicated: two cases from Cameroon

16 July 2014
SERIES Think tanks and communications 26 items

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Sandrine Ebakisse, a knowledge manager by profession. She carried out this analysis with a research grant from the Communications Division of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). You can read some slides about this study and the full study report on the IDRC website.]

Research Uptake: Yes, Communication Really Does Matter

We generally tend to relegate communication to a classic triptych: if we have formulated a message, developed the tools to transmit the message, and reached the desired target, then we assume to have communicated. Job done. My study of research communication in Cameroon’s forest sector shows the importance of going beyond this traditional model. The ability to be analytical and think strategicallyis critically important. Otherwise, neither the messages nor the tools for transmitting them will produce the desired results.

The two research organizations I studied were not content with traditional communication activities once their research work was done. They took the process a step further by developing successful knowledge-sharing and communication strategies. Without these, their research almost certainly would not have had such an impact or influenced government actions.

Two revealing cases

The first organization, the Centre pour l’Environnement et le Développement (CED), became actively involved in resolving a dispute arising from a concession contract signed between the government and a U.S.-based agriculture company. The case, known as the Herakles Farms scandal, related to the company’s plan to develop a large palm oil plantation in a forested area of southwest Cameroon. CED researchers uncovered non-compliance with the procedures for establishing a concession, serious environmental risks, and disregard for the rights of shoreline communities in the sought-after area. CED’s research sparked a debate on the proposed development and, as a result, the concession agreement was recently amended by a presidential decree.

The second organization, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), conducted a revealing study on the revenue generated by the domestic sale of timber in Cameroon, which was not regulated enough by forestry legislation. CIFOR’s research data helped put the regulation of domestic wood harvesting on the agenda, and showed that government revenue from this sector could eventually match the income from timber exports.

A closer look at these results confirms two important points:

  • A communication strategy that fits the context can easily be integrated into research plans from the outset and will enhance the uptake of research knowledge.
  • A strategy based on an organization’s theory of change can help meet its objectives.

A better understanding of these points could help many organizations achieve greater success with their research-uptake activities.

Communication approaches linked to theories of change

CED and CIFOR operate in similar contexts, but they interpret those contexts differently and each occupies their own particular niche. CIFOR acts as a partner with the Cameroonian government and benefits from direct access to it, mainly because of its International Organisation standing (CIFOR is a member of the CGIAR consortium). On the other hand, due to its limited access to government decision-makers, CED, that has a more domestic focus and nature, has adopted an advocacy approach to meet its objectives. The figure below by Daniel Start and Ingie Hovland illustrates these different positions.

Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 11.06.53

CIFOR’s approach is to communicate directly with the public forest administration, whereas CED uses indirect communication. CIFOR designs tools such as policies briefs and journalistic reports to influence government decision-makers and to promote evidence-based policies and practices.

CED, on the other hand, conveys this same evidence-based data to the media and other multipliers such as donor agencies and non-governmental organizations, by using press releases, public debates and other tools. These intermediaries pass on CED’s message until it reaches its ultimate target: the forest administration. This is for example the case with the relay conducted by the Oakland Institute and Greenpeace on the Herakles farm scandal.

Although these two organizations have vastly different nature and approaches to influence, they use some of the same techniques. I present these below as necessary conditions for research to gain influence through communication.

Conditions for gaining influence

CED and CIFOR both needed to fulfill the following conditions to influence policy and practice:

  • Patience and continuity in communication activities: The groups made ongoing efforts to gain exposure for themselves and their research activities without necessarily seeking immediate influence.
  • Presentation of findings in accordance with decision-makers’ interests: These organizations formulated messages adapted to their target audience and designed to spark their interest prior to any substantive discussions. CIFOR, for example, appealed directly to the government’s interests by highlighting the revenue that could come from regulating domestic timber harvesting. The centre also drew attention to environmental issues that would not have become an issue if they been addressed from the start.
  • Ability to create or join networks: Networks are important for both organizations, and especially for CED who seeks to influence “from the outside” and feels like it is swimming upstream. Networking helps researchers find and nurture allies, lending more weight to their cause. Researchers can also piggyback on the campaigns of activist groups that seek to put pressure on the government. For example, Greenpeace Africa and the Oakland Institute took up the Herakles Farms dispute and lobbied Cameroon on the issue. They became frontline champions, addressing government officials directly.
  • Use of informal communication with various actors: Informal interactions can help predict the amount of attention that the formal publication of research findings will attract. CIFOR’s behind-the-scenes discussions turned out to be very informative. CED also made use of private meetings and other communication through unofficial channels, given that no government official would agree to appear publicly with representatives of this NGO.

The CIFOR and CED experiences point to some lessons on communicating research that can help allay misconceptions and benefit research organisations and the donor agencies that fund them.

  • Communication is not a secondary activity. Communicating the lessons of research findings is a central concern, and should not be driven simply by donor agency requirements or a need to spend surplus funds. Communicating results helps achieve the change objectives identified by the research project and thus should always be part of the planning process from the outset.
  • Communication does not necessarily require substantial resources. If the communication of research findings is likely to require extra effort, those requirements can easily be incorporated into a project at the strategic planning phase. Traditional project planning and monitoring tools, such as theories of change and outcome mapping, are just as effective for planning and monitoring research communication activities. Organizations simply need to ensure that they are using the tools correctly. CED’s experience also shows that policies and practices can be influenced effectively with an informal strategy that has not been written down.
  • Researchers communicate directly and indirectly with decision-makers, depending on their nature and objectives. Some research organizations are unsure whether researchers need to have communication skills or whether it is better to call on communication specialists to convey the research findings. In practice, the problem resolves itself if the organization has a fully developed theory of change.

To manage their image and properly present their work, research organizations need communication professionals. However, researchers themselves are also responsible for communicating about their work. Giving a presentation at a conference is a form of communication, for example. It therefore stands to reason that serious organizations will ensure that their researchers understand the basic concepts of communication. That said, every research project has specific goals and purposes, and calling on communication professionals as intermediaries will be more important in some cases than in others. It all depends on the objectives.