Over the past few decades, development interventions have often been constrained by a narrow, sectoral approach that fails to address the fundamentally intersecting nature of development, said participants at the biannual conference of the London International Development Centre (LIDC).
The centre was launched in 2008 by a consortium of colleges from the University of London to forge innovative, integrated approaches to development problems by pooling academics' diverse expertise in areas such as agriculture, gender and health.
"The mechanism was really just one of creating informal workshops to bring people together around issues that were on the international agenda and worth talking about," Jeff Waage, the LIDC's director, told SciDev.Net at the conference.
"You have to create opportunities for researchers to meet in a relatively unthreatening environment, to facilitate discussions and to develop the first steps of interdisciplinary collaboration," he said. "Out of that dialogue will emerge one or two champions who will develop ideas together, and then things take off."
Waage described how this "subversive" approach — in part "a reaction against rigid academic and UN agency structures" — has fostered insightful perspectives on development.
The LIDC has facilitated meetings bringing together social scientists — anthropologists, sociologists and economists — and natural scientists — epidemiologists, hydrologists and veterinarians, among others — to discuss issues ranging from water and disease to gender and conflict.
"Take the case of anthropologists and their expertise on local situations," Waage said. "The way in which anthropologists approach problems can help economists and nutritionists go into households and carry out interviews and research."
Since 2008, the centre has helped nurture dialogues and collaborations that have generated funding for new initiatives, such as the London-based Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health.
"Bearing in mind that the idea was to create interdisciplinary collaborations in international development, it's been a real success, in terms of the numbers of projects that have started that wouldn't have happened without these interactions," Waage told SciDev.Net. So far, the centre has set up 14 externally funded projects.
"I think as an academic initiative, the real measure of our success is the extent to which we see international development organisations and donors supporting interdisciplinary agendas," he added.
As well as pooling academic and sectoral expertise in the West, Waage said, the LIDC has also learned from the global South.
The centre found that interdisciplinary methods were already enshrined in many African academic and development contexts.
"The really interesting thing about interdisciplinarity is that when you take it out of a British academic context and put it into an African context, there are other things that come into play, like the better utilisation of scarce resources," Waage said. "The ability of different groups to work together — say in a surveillance programme to find out where a disease is — is actually a plus in resource-poor settings."
But the past five years have not been straightforward as the LIDC's launch coincided with the global economy entering free fall.
"We thought the economic slump, as it hit universities, would reduce our activities, with academics withdrawing into their shells," he said. But the idea of linking up different subjects across different organisations seems to be holding despite the crunch in academic activity.
"That's partly because, increasingly, people who provide funding want to see connectivity, collaboration and consortiums."
An added difficulty is finding a common language across the diverse approaches within the natural and social sciences.
And whereas the natural sciences, particularly health, can be "pre-disposed to interdisciplinarity", other academic disciplines can be less easy to access, said Waage.
He added that the next project in the LIDC pipeline is to compare different types of evaluation across sectors.
"Impact evaluation has become such a big area in development, but different kinds of interventions are evaluated in different ways," he said. "What we want to do is create interdisciplinary dialogue so that qualitative and quantitative approaches, and the benefits of those, can be compared."
Link to the LIDC's five-year report
Link to an LIDC-Lancet report on the Millennium Development Goals