(The Humanitarian Social Network)
I originally put this on my blog and would like more thoughts on this (there's a poll and everything). Here it is reposted.
Last week I attended a project management training workshop. The course ran from 9.30-3.00 for five days and was organised partly by my organisation and partly by Intrac. As this was the first such training that I had been to, I was pleased that it started with the basics but didn't feel the need to hammer them home; if you work in this industry, you have to learn fast. From what some more experienced friends in the industry say, getting the opportunity to learn in a structured, planned way - as in a workshop or induction - is all too rare. All too often, agencies as a whole and, particularly, new staff are required to learn their lessons at the same time as actually trying to do their jobs.
We skipped along touching on sector specific academic thinking on topics like: results based management, project cycles, organisational structures commonly found in the world of NGOs, the basics of monitoring and evaluation in a project context. Later in the week we focused more on the how of such things - how or why to apply that theoretical learning from earlier in the course. This was very useful and I'm pleased to have been able to get access to something like this before I actively have my job, career or, worst of all, projects and beneficiaries on the line.
Something that was a noticeable motif throughout the week were the words "but in reality..." as we moved on from looking at the academic side of one topic or another and onto how we could apply those things in reality. Because the trainer was a former NGO practitioner, one of the great strengths of a specialist training company, he wasn't presenting a series of pie in the sky best practices, most of which will never get implemented because a) you'll never be given the time to do them and b) you'll never be given the funds. There aren't donors lining up around the block desperate to hand over extended deadlines and bloated admin cash after all.
There's always a disconnect between academics and their counterparts in implementation (obviously this is not a black and white distinction) with politics being a good example - the neo-liberal policies of Western politicians in the 1980s were pioneered by predominantly Harvard based academics 5 to 10 years earlier. When Nozick and Hayek et al were calling for a new type of conservativism to be enacted by the conservative politicians of the USA and Western Europe they were more interested in, respectively, the crisis of a generation shaping scandaland the struggles of post-imperial statehood. But is this delay untenable when the whims of largely comfortable electorates don't need to be sated?
In a sector where learning quickly is a must and where crisis response happens even more quickly, can development professionals afford a 5-10 year delay in learning the lessons of academia? While two of the most well known development types are professors - Sachs and Easterly- the discussions/bitch fights between are at such a high level that they rarely seem that applicable to the actual day to day work of development peons like myself. The gap between discussion and action, between academia and agencies, between theory and implementation, seems extremely wide to me.
Is this really a big problem? Am I simply to far down the food chain to be involved in the right discussions or is their a gap in the industry for a greater collusion between theorists and activists - maybe something like 'Academics Without Borders' where such experts are parachuted into agencies to help shape and direct their policies more effectively?
I think about this a lot, more in the sense of the amount of work required to translate most research into practice. I have toyed with the idea of a think tank devoted to figuring out how development agencies can actually act on new research.
Alanna - great idea. But if it's a think tank would it research how to put research into practice or would it actually put it into practice ;-)
p.s. when I quit my day job I'd love to work there.
I might even quit my day job to work there...
Yes, it is an interesting idea. Let me know if I can be of any service.
Seems to me, that finding a way to bring attention to and translate new research to agencies would be of help to agencies. The other difficulty for agencies in using research is that the publishing process can be painfully slow especially in compared to the pace that most agencies move.
A common way that I've seen research used in agencies is more for grantwriting or marketing. It can also directly affect practice but many studies are so specific that this can make it difficult to apply unless you know and follow the larger body of literature.
But there is a lot of interest in trying to do this so I think an effort like this would be welcomed by many.
Actually there are already a number of initiatives which do this - see this from IDS who co-sponsor something called the knowledge brokers forum
ODI and IDRC have similar initiatives. But they succeed in making what they do sound super technical (even to me and this is essentially part of the work I do from the demand side) i.e. has all the right kind of language to be taken seriously by academics - but I wonder how much has actually been achieved in practice.