Women at community meeting holding paper
Women at community meeting in Jakarta. Ryan Brown, UN Women | Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Applying 8 principles for fair and inclusive research partnerships

Research is more important than ever to NGOs, who need data to plan their work and show evidence of their impact.

Many NGOs are now working with academics in mutually-beneficial partnerships to conduct research. However, there are some persistent barriers and bottlenecks in these research partnerships that risk undermining their international development goals.

The Rethinking Research Collaborative has published new research and a set of resources to address these issues and help create fair and equitable research partnerships. We gathered perspectives from different research partners in UK-led research collaborations, including academics and practitioners based in the global south, UK-based international brokers, and international NGOs.

The report [PDF] shares findings on the challenges and presents eight principles for addressing them. The resources – an introduction, six modules and nine written and audio case studies – help different stakeholders involved in collaborative international development research put the principles into practice.

Why do we need to think about fair and equitable partnerships?

In recent years the UK government has invested highly in international development research. For example, the Global Challenges Research Fund provides £1.5 billion to support cutting-edge research that addresses developing countries’ challenges, and a £735 million match-funding stream, the Newton Fund, focuses on tackling development challenges through science and innovation.

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Both funds have partnership at their heart, building on recent trends for collaborative research as a response to the complexity of development challenges, as well as a belief that collaboration is more likely to lead to accessible and useful research.

This means that academics based in universities in the global north are not only partnering with academics based in other institutions and countries, but also with actors from civil society, government and the private sector based in the global north and global south.

While the rhetoric of partnership sounds good, in practice these collaborative partnerships are often quite challenging and unequal, with UK-based academics holding considerably more power than their southern-based or non-academic partners. We need to change this dynamic for all partners to becoming active co-creators of the research and the knowledge it generates.

Eight principles for improving practice

The Rethinking Research Collaborative conducted interviews, focus group discussions and a round-table event to develop eight principles for fair and equitable partnerships:

  • Put poverty first. Constantly question how research is addressing the end goal of reducing poverty by better designing and evaluating how the research will have a real world impact.
  • Critically engage with context(s). Consider how representative of different countries these partnerships and governance systems are, and commit to strengthening research ecosystems in the global south.
  • Redress evidence hierarchies. Incentivise intellectual leadership by southern-based academics and civil society practitioners and engage communities throughout.
  • Adapt and respond. Take an adaptive approach that is responsive to context.
  • Respect diversity of knowledge and skills. Take time to explore the knowledge, skills and experience that each partner brings and consider different ways of representing research.
  • Commit to transparency. Put in place a code of conduct or memorandum of understanding that commits to transparency in all aspects of the project administration and budgeting.
  • Invest in relationships. Create spaces and commit funded time to establish, nurture and sustain relationships at the individual and institutional level.
  • Keep learning. Reflect critically within and beyond the partnership.

The resource materials take these principles as their starting point and are made up of targeted modules for different stakeholder groups (UK-based research funders, UK-based academics, academics based in the global south, international NGOs, civil society organisations based in the global south and research broker organisations) and case studies based on real experiences.

The Rethinking Research Collaborative is an informal international network of individuals and organisations committed to working together to encourage more inclusive, responsive collaborations to produce useful and accessible development research. The collaborative will be working with UK research funding bodies to implement the recommendations from this work, and with diverse research partners to help put our principles for fair and equitable partnership into practice.