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Expanding the evidence base on knowledge brokering in international development

Sarah Cummings, Edith van Ewijk | 22 October 2018

At home and abroad, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs is trying to bring together governments, civil society organizations, the private sector and research organizations. Since 2012, it  has been investing in multi-stakeholder knowledge platforms for global development, which have yielded positive results, according to The Gold Standard learning review, undertaken in 2016. However, the scientific evidence base of these platforms and other knowledge brokering initiatives still needs to be strengthened. To identify ways in which the use of evidence in policy and practice can be enhanced, the Science for Using Research (SURe) programme initiated three research projects. The preliminary results of these projects are presented here.

Science for Using Research (SURe)

SURe is a research programme supported by NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development. It aims to strengthen the scientific and evidence base for knowledge brokering activities in research programmes for international development. In particular, the programme focuses on knowledge brokering performed by the five Dutch knowledge platforms and projects funded by NWO-WOTRO. In June 2017, NWO-WOTRO issued a call for research proposals, which led to approval of three research projects involving post-doctoral researchers. The projects started in September 2017 and will run for two or three years. They all include a systematic review and an empirical stage. For the purposes of SURe, knowledge brokering comprises all of the activities and processes that facilitate the sharing and use of knowledge, as well as the co-creation that takes place between research, policy and practice.

The new research projects initiated by SURe investigate knowledge co-creation and brokering for sexual and reproductive health, for food and business research, and with the private sector. The projects, which were initiated in September 2017, started with a systematic literature review to determine the current state of knowledge brokering in the three fields under investigation. During the first exchange meeting on 3 April 2018, the project teams presented their preliminary findings. This article is based on the interactions and findings presented at this meeting.

Key findings

Although each of the three research programmes addresses a specific topic, participants came up with some general key findings.

  • First, there seems to be little overlap between the three bodies of literature identified during the literature review phase. Apparently, there is no single ‘core’ literature on knowledge brokering. This implies that for a more common understanding of the knowledge brokering process, it is important to look outside specific sectors.
  • Second, the research team focusing on sexual and reproductive health observed that knowledge is usually explicitly or implicitly depicted in the literature as an external, immutable and transferable object, a pure fact that imposes a meaning on its user. This finding was unexpected because research focusing on knowledge acknowledges that different actors can bring in their own knowledge. Moreover, the literature recognizes the importance of local knowledge in understanding development processes and improving practices.
  • Third, the literature on the private sector's role in knowledge brokering is growing, but is still limited. This is an interesting finding, given the increased emphasis on the private sector's role as a key development actor, arguably calling for more emphasis on the private sector in further research.
  • Fourth, the projects identified that there is probably a research bias towards positive cases, given that researchers are more likely to write about successful knowledge brokering processes. This raises questions about how research findings should be interpreted.
  • Last, the potential to scale up was identified as limited, indicating that this aspect needs to be considered in the analyses.

These findings demonstrate that the reviews represent a solid base for the next phase of the three projects, the empirical phase. In addition, the literature reviews were found to be relevant to the approaches taken by the Dutch knowledge platforms and NWO-WOTRO. This was confirmed by Yvonne Erasmus from the Africa Centre for Evidence, University of Johannesburg, South Africa, who noted during the meeting that she was “impressed by the richness of the findings from the different projects”.

Challenges and ways forward

The exchange meeting was marked by a lively exchange between various stakeholders who, over the course of several sessions, discussed the projects in detail, leading to some important conclusions about challenges and ways forward for the next phases. As each of the research projects focus on a distinct topic and are developing their own approach to assessing and analysing the existing scientific literature, some challenges emerged in finding communalities. At the same time, however, the heterogeneity of the findings was recognized as a strength, with the SURe programme fostering interaction and knowledge exchange between the projects. During the exchange meeting, Louise Shaxson, Senior Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, UK, encouraged the project teams to place emphasis on understanding the political economy of knowledge brokering, including its goals, legitimacy, understanding and incentives. The importance of the politics of knowledge was also emphasized in the meeting’s afternoon session with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, various knowledge platforms and NGOs. These stakeholders stressed the need to consider sustainability and institutionalization – what happens after project closure? – and the role of researchers and donors in facilitating this kind of research.

The systematic review phase will be completed in October 2018, so those interested in the results of the reviews will soon have access to the final results.

About the research projects

1. Knowledge translation for sexual and reproductive health
The project ‘Translating evidence into better sexual and reproductive health: how can we assess, improve and institutionalise research use?’ is based at the Erasmus School of Health Policy and Management in Rotterdam. The project’s aim is to mobilize existing insights and experiences from Science and Technology Studies to better understand and guide the translation of knowledge into action. Project partners include a consortium of research units and networks in the Eastern Mediterranean, West and Central Africa, together with the global network of Cochrane, with expertise in systematic reviews, knowledge translation and sexual and reproductive health.

2. Knowledge brokering and co-creation in food and business research
The project ‘Putting heads together: knowledge brokering and co‐creation in food and business research’, based at the University of Amsterdam, with a co-applicant at the University of Energy and Natural Resources in Ghana, aims to unravel knowledge brokering, learning and knowledge co-creation in food and business research. The project specifically focuses on multi-stakeholder platforms. Empirical research looks into the applied research of the Tree farms project in Ghana and the researcher-driven Inclusive Value Chain Collaboration project in Ghana and South Africa, supported by NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development. The research will also look at the approaches applied by the Food & Business Knowledge Platform (F&BKP).

3. The role of the private sector in knowledge brokering
The research project ‘An unusual suspect: the private sector in knowledge brokering in international development’, based at the Athena Institute of the VU University Amsterdam and with a research hub at the Makerere University School of Public Health, focuses on the role of the private sector in knowledge brokering using the example of the five Dutch knowledge platforms and comparable platforms in Uganda, Europe and Africa. It aims to develop new insights in relation to the domains of practice, policy and research, and the private sector. Although research has been conducted on public-private partnerships in international cooperation, previous research does not explicitly cover knowledge brokering. To overcome the diversity of the private sector, this systematic review focuses on the corporate sector, financial institutions, and small and medium enterprises, excluding cooperatives, social entrepreneurs and farmers. The project partner is The Broker.