Putting research and policy-making on the same page

Reports. They gather dust on the desks of journalists and bureaucrats—after having been opened with reluctance, and closed with speed. Months of work may have gone into their production; but all too often, the only use for these weighty tomes seems to be as doorstops.

Even worse, the findings contained in reports are often disregarded by those who draw up policies on various social and economic issues.

Now, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), an independent think-tank based in the United Kingdom, is turning its attention to this and other mismatches between research and policy formation.

“[The] ODI is now working on the interface between research and policy.
We are trying to find out why some research feeds into the policy processes and why some doesn’t,” said Naved Chowdhury, a project officer at the ODI’s research and policy in development programme.

“For various reasons, policy-makers do not use it [research] while making policy. We are trying to bridge up that gap,” he said at a workshop held in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, recently to discuss this issue.

Similar meetings are being scheduled for Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda.

Chowdhury’s words were echoed by Julius Court, a research fellow at the ODI.

“In many ... parts of Africa and other parts of the developing world, this capacity [to link research and policy] really does not exist,” he noted, while in other regions it has “become worse during the last few years”.

Many participants at the Kampala workshop noted that officials frequently distrust the research findings presented to them, and are hence reluctant to incorporate these into policies.

In certain instances, there also appear to be differing priorities between researchers and policy-makers.

“Our experience is that most of the research is not linked to policy,” said Chowdhury. “Content is a big issue. Of course, it needs to be ... thoroughly researched. But, also, I think it has to be relevant to the interest of the policy-makers.”

Presentation of research findings can, in its turn, be problematic. Policy-makers typically want the findings presented to them in a way that is concise and easy to understand. However, what they sometimes get are reams of information, larded with jargon, graphs and tables that make it even more difficult to digest.

“The main point of research should be communicated in a brief, short, precise and direct form,” observed Chowdhury.

While the internet has doubtless been hailed in the past as something that could make the volume of research information easier to store and manage, it too has its limitations—particularly in developing nations that are still labouring with slow internet connections.

But, not everyone blames bulky reports or a laggardly service provider for the gap between research and policy formation.

Francis Byekwaso, project and evaluation manager at Uganda’s National Agricultural Advisory Services, said certain NGOs are short on skills for implementing policies. Even if these groups are aware of innovative research findings, they may lack the ability to translate them into practice.

In this regard, Byekwaso pointed to the situation of certain NGOs involved in agricultural development in Uganda.

“They are normally not efficient in the area of business development. Although we trust them to develop farmer groups, by and large their capacity in rural development is still very weak,” he noted.

Participants at the Kampala workshop highlighted instances where research has fed into policy development with beneficial effect.

Michael Wandukwa, project coordinator at Farm-Africa, a British-based NGO that helps poor farmers and herders, said research into the needs of poultry and goat farmers in the eastern Mbale and Sironko districts of Uganda has improved the lives of 375 individuals.

“There is now increasing demand for project activity in the area,” he added.

However, delegates also noted that the failure to link research to policy could prove catastrophic.

Court said this has been the case with the Aids pandemic: “It highlights that when things go right, they can go right. But when they go wrong, they can actually get disastrous.”

“HIV is such a problematic policy issue because if you don’t really understand the science early, by the time a large number of people are beginning to suffer and to die, the disease can be widespread throughout the population,” he added.

Uganda is one of Africa’s success stories in the fight against Aids, having reduced its HIV prevalence from 30% in the early 1990s to 6% today.

However, Southern Africa has become the epicentre of the pandemic, with one of the countries in the sub-region, Swaziland, registering the world’s highest prevalence rate of almost 40%.—IPS

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