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  • Local communities ‘sidelined’ in development research

Image credit: Frederic Courbet/Panos

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  • The current model assumes that scientific knowledge may be handed out as a gift

  • But only a ‘minuscule fraction’ of research reaches local people’s hands

  • Funders should stipulate that research must be disseminated in a suitable way

[BONN, GERMANY] Development research remains far too academic and disconnected, with a “minuscule fraction” ever reaching local communities in a useable form, experts say.

The research community rarely succeeds in transmitting knowledge to the people their work is supposed to help, said speakers at the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes’ meeting in Bonn, Germany, last month (23-26 June).

This is because research is dominated by a developed-world philosophy that prizes hard, technical data over more practical inquiry, they said.

“The amount of research that is getting in the hands of local people and giving them the power to adapt it to make decisions is a minuscule fraction.”

Mike Powell, Emergent Issues in Information and Knowledge Management


Funders should begin stipulating that research must be disseminated in a language and format that is appropriate to local people, said Mike Powell, director of Emergent Issues in Information and Knowledge Management, a research programme funded by the Dutch foreign ministry.

“The amount of research that is getting in the hands of local people and giving them the power to adapt it to make decisions is a minuscule fraction,” he told SciDev.Net on the sidelines of the conference.

The current model “assumes knowledge is produced in ivory towers and handed down as a gift”, he said. It can see researchers distributing copies of peer-reviewed reports to villagers without any consideration of local needs, he added.

Innovative forms of communication, such as theatre productions and role play, that can make research more relevant and understandable are rarely used, he added.

International development organisations spend around US$2 billion a year on information and communications technologies (ICTs) in developing countries, yet there is “no money, no promotion and no encouragement” for strategies that are more appropriate for communities whose needs are more immediate than computer access, he claimed.

This disconnect is exacerbated by a recent trend towards contracting the private sector to conduct development research, said Powell.

Incentives for these organisations to go beyond their contractual obligations and disseminate results are even smaller than for public institutions, which at least have the pressures of providing a public good, he added.

John Akude, a researcher at the German Development Institute based in Bonn, also sees an overreliance on ICTs in the research dissemination strategies of the big development players as excluding all but the well-educated and well-resourced.

One such big player, the World Bank, relies on civil society in its target countries to act as the link between researchers and local communities, he told the meeting.

But in many places colonialism ravaged African society at a local level, creating a self-serving civil society with a deep disrespect for and little interest in “primordial” cultures, he said.

Therefore, Akude believes scientists are a much more reliable bridge to help disseminate results as most do development research because they want to make an impact.

For this, funders and employers must give them the time and money needed to dedicate time to activities such as translating research into local languages and carrying out community consultation, he added.
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