‘What knowledge brokers do’ #2: How basic services turned digital

INCLUDE knowledge platform,Knowledge brokering22 Jun 2021Kim van Wijk, Hannah Itcovitz

The INCLUDE knowledge platform, in which The Broker is one of three consortium partners which make up the secretariat, is one of our longest-standing project commitments to date. Since 2014, our team have been conducting knowledge brokering activities within INCLUDE that contribute to policies which promote inclusive development on the African continent. The platform had a research programme on ‘access to basic services in Africa’ in the pipeline for 2021-2022, with a dedicated role for knowledge broker Hannah Itcovitz. When COVID-19 hit, however, it required some regrouping and flexible planning to ensure the programme had relevance and impact. Hannah shares her take on the trajectory towards the new programme, ‘Digital divides or dividends? Including basic services in Africa’s digitalisation agenda’.

In this series ‘What knowledge brokers do‘, we share perspectives from our knowledge brokers on various knowledge brokering trajectories in our projects. With this, we aim to give you an inside look into our work and answer the question “What is it that you do?”


What happened that made you redirect the focus of the initially envisioned research programme on basic services?

The original programme was going to look at trends in sub-national human development and explore linkages with basic services like education and social protection. “We wanted to keep this disaggregated focus, but in the context of the pandemic, it felt like too much of a missed opportunity not to explore the digital aspects of basic service provision and how inclusive they are.” Therefore, the specific angle of research on the theme of ‘access to basic services in Africa’ was reevaluated by the steering group and platform members, and broadened to include linkages with digital transformation. With this in mind, Hannah took the lead in developing the foundations of the new research programme (which will eventually turn into a call for proposals) by reviewing the frameworks and initiatives in this field and identifying missing angles in the debate on inclusion, basic services, and digitalisation where the programme could add value and perspective.

How would you describe the knowledge brokering activities needed to formulate a solid research programme proposal?

Drafting a research programme proposal starts with gaining understanding of where the actual knowledge gaps are. “In essence, this was a synthesising exercise. It was like making a ‘gap-map’; honing in on what we know and what we don’t know.” Subsequently, Hannah explains, one of the assets of a knowledge broker is “to be able to zoom-out and connect the dots.” To do so, Hannah gathered knowledge from researchers, INCLUDE platform members and the existing literature. “I was trying to find the balance between what’s feasible and what’s new/innovative; to find an approach that will facilitate the most cross-fertilization of knowledge. Finally, I would think about how the research can really be taken up in the future – the end impact.”

With these brokering activities, how do you view the added value approaching this process from a knowledge broker’s perspective?

Where the added value of a knowledge broker comes in, according to Hannah, is the ability to remove part of the bias, think long-term and connect with different stakeholders throughout the programme. “It’s the ability to have a birds-eye view of the trajectory, to think about the programme from start to finish, and even beyond the finish”. This requires looking at future scenarios of the research programme from the angle of all different potential stakeholders involved: “From policy makers who need the information, to end users affected by policies, as well as civil society organizations involved in delivering services and information.”


“Other people plant a seed in your head.  We [knowledge brokers] are not the ones with all the evidence, we are the ones to take it all in and work out the puzzle.”

How are you supported as a knowledge broker by your colleagues and professional network?

It is important to test your ideas and bounce them off of the people you work with. “I felt like the vehicle that everything went through. (..) I would ask my coworkers for feedback on my ideas, to test whether they made sense. It’s really about finding connections and being open to shift your approach – just as we did from the planned to the new research programme.” In her constant search for relevant input, trying to find good examples, Hannah says “Other people plant a seed in your head.  We [knowledge brokers] are not the ones with all the evidence, we are the ones to take it all in and work out the puzzle.”

How does all of this line up with the mission of The Broker for a more sustainable and inclusive world?

“The Broker’s work is about seeing new developments in a specific topic and taking the opportunity to explore how this can contribute to more inclusive and sustainable policy making.” Hannah shares. “Digitalization of basic services is topically relevant and meaningful, as everything is being digitized these days. The angle of this programme that makes it a current issue is about looking at the many small-scale initiatives that are ongoing and seeing how they can be integrated, replicated and scaled to contribute to the bigger picture of development.”

What are your hopes for this ‘Digitalization of Basic Services’ research programme?

“To make inclusiveness more central in the digitalisation debate, especially in basic services where this type of intervention is on the rise. This will help to make sure that the benefits of technology for accessing good quality affordable services, from education to social protection to participation in democracy, are available to all people.”

The call for this research programme opens from July 8th via the INCLUDE website. Find all of Hannah’s work for the INCLUDE knowledge platform here.