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An evaluation of Dutch-funded research programmes in developing countries raises questions about the concept of local "ownership".

Anyone interested in learning more about the possibilities and limitations of demand-driven research — in which research programmes are determined by those who will benefit from their results — should look at the recent experience of Dutch organisations that fund research in developing countries.

In particular, they should read the report of an evaluation carried out by the Policy and Operations Evaluation Division of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, set up to look at the Dutch experience of providing funds during 1992–2005.

The report is based on detailed interviews in six of the countries where the projects were carried out — Bolivia, Ghana, Mali, South Africa, Tanzania and Vietnam.

It highlights several projects where having potential users of research results in the driving seat undoubtedly had a beneficial effect. Projects in Bolivia, South Africa and Tanzania, for example, proved to be highly successful, notably because they included a strong focus on research capacity building.

But the evaluation also identifies cases where projects failed. Understanding the reasons for this failure provides important indicators to the components of success. It is dangerous to ignore capacity building or to run projects isolated from other research communities, particularly those in the developed world.

Adopting a broader perspective

As the evaluators point out, part of the problem lies in the relatively rigid way in which demand-driven policy was implemented. The approach was introduced in the early 1990s as part of a broader strategy designed to ensure that development projects in general were properly 'owned' by the community or country intended to benefit from them.

For example, Dutch researchers — many of whom had a strong reputation for working on problems relevant to the needs of developing countries — were explicitly excluded from participation in the design of research projects, and responsibility was passed to project teams within the developing country itself.

The overall situation was not helped by the fact that the Dutch government in the 1990s abandoned the priority it had previously given to research, focusing its efforts instead on the social sector. This led to the termination of many research projects in areas such as food security and agriculture.

But even taking these external factors into account, the report's conclusions make sobering reading.

Flaws in the demand-driven approach

The evaluators identify three particular problems with the demand-driven approach.

First, there may be situations in which such an approach is not necessarily the best or even the more appropriate solution. This can happen, for example, where the broad socio-political context is unfavourable — as the Dutch discovered in Vietnam and Mali.

Second, rigid adherence to the belief that all significant input should be bottom-up can result in individual programmes becoming isolated from the broader experience of the research community. A lack of dialogue with scientific peers, in both developed and other developing countries, can be damaging.

Third, the evaluators emphasise that the large amount of time required to start research programmes from scratch can hinder the growth of a more strategic and broad-based approach to research support.

"Participatory agenda-setting generated a fragmented programme, with many small-scale research activities," said one of the evaluators at a conference held in the Hague last week (26 February), organised jointly by the Institute of Social Studies, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, and the Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education.

"These indeed responded to individual researchers' interests, but they did not lead to knowledge accumulation."

Identifying operational flaws

None of this throws into doubt the essential value of community participation. Nor should it undermine a basic commitment to ensure that research claimed to be in the interests of the developing world must be seen as both valuable and relevant to its intended beneficiaries.

But it does strengthen the case for shifting away from the simplistic insistence that research be entirely demand-driven, and indeed from the concept that research results should — or even can — be 'owned' by the communities concerned. Rather, it points to a broader approach that seeks to achieve its objectives by focusing on social need, capacity building and empowerment.

In other words, development research programmes should seek to achieve relevance not merely through specifying who defines the research agenda — or even who carries out the research — but also by shifting emphasis to the way in which research fits into the broad patterns of national innovation. This can of course include consideration of how innovation policies can themselves be politically determined.

The Dutch development community has learnt the hard way. A new policy is now being implemented that seeks to learn from these lessons. It is to be hoped that others will do the same, without having to undergo experiences that are quite so disruptive or painful.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net