Thursday, 20 December 2012

Evolution of new roles: from researcher, to activist, to knowledge intermediary

By Simon Batchelor

The IDS Bulletin that this series of blogs is associated with was titled New Roles for Communication in Development?  My own article, Changing the Financial Landscape of Africa... was about a ten year journey for a small group of researchers and certainly over the decade (gosh that’s a long time!) our own roles evolved and changed.  

Researcher: In the article I start with some basic research. Commissioned through a competitive bid, we started researching how people were using mobile phones in Africa (and Asia).  This led to an insight about exchanging airtime, where people in three different countries (even in 2001) had worked out that they could do a sort of money transfer using mobile phones and airtime.

Lobbyist/Activist: It is at this point that our role begins to change. We started to move beyond our research responsibilities (as stated on the research proposal) and evolve into ‘research communicators’, even becoming advocates and lobbyists.  The article goes on to describe how conversations occurred with donors, private sector, senior government, central banks – presenting the idea of mobile phone money transfer (and the evidence that there was demand within Africa) and trying to get interest and buy-in to the idea. 

Knowledge Intermediary:  Moving on a year or so our role evolves further.  From lobbying about an idea, we begin to get involved with the details of implementing that idea - legislation, policy environments and private sector development.  Alongside this detail work, we also get involved with creating discussion space for the emerging players.  We start brokering meetings between people, undertaking social network analysis to identify who should talk to who, creating international conferences to create the space for donors, private sector, and legislators to come together, and for bankers and telecommunication to find each other in a new digital converging space.  We were (as Blane et al say in their introduction to the Bulletin (PDF)) “seeking to strengthen the linkages and flows of information between disciplines, areas of practice or sources of knowledge”  So from being a researcher investigating how communities use mobile phones we seem to have evolved into knowledge intermediaries.  

From researcher, to research communicator, to lobbyist, to knowledge intermediary.   Interesting. 

Recently I was working on Theories of Change and Impact pathways for the CGIAR centres, and their proposals really raised the question – where do the responsibilities of a researcher finish?  Do researchers have a duty to change the world, or do they produce their findings and leave it at that?  Do they have a duty to communicate their findings to those who might use them?  Do they have a duty to follow through and make sure that their research does more than sit on a shelf?  What are the boundaries of their and our responsibility?

As a final thought can I just add that the paper is constructed around a framework for policy influence first proposed by David Steven (PDF).  Steven talks about changing the framing of a discourse and creating spaces for dialogue within his five point frame.  I wrote the ‘story’ of the article as a narrative before finding the Steven framework; and then when I found it I realised that the story fits his framing.  I don’t know if all research to policy activism can be mapped onto his frame but I was amazed at how closely he captured our journey – I recommend it.

Simon Batchelor wrote the Bulletin article Changing the Financial Landscape of Africa: An Unusual Story of Evidence-informed Innovation, Intentional Policy Influence and Private Sector Engagement.
Simon is managing director at Gamos Ltd, and formally interim manager of the Impact and Learning Team at IDS. 

More blogs on the IDS Bulletin New Roles for Communication in Development?