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Moving through uncertainty toward research for impact


Georgina Cundill-Kemp

Senior Program Officer, IDRC

There was a time when we thought that change was predictable, and that our interventions in particular contexts would lead to the outcomes that we anticipated.

Today we know that this is not the case. We understand that all communities, all governments, all countries, and each one of us, are part of deeply connected political, economic, and cultural systems. These systems can be both profoundly resistant to change and they can shift rapidly and in unexpected ways that have an impact far beyond the source of change. We continue to see, for example, the knock-on effects of recent and relatively rapid political shifts in Europe and the United States.

As we look down the long road toward a world that will certainly grapple with climate change, we know that some communities are more vulnerable than others. It is imperative that we work with these communities to expand their ability to confront an uncertain future, and that we simultaneously work to dismantle power structures that maintain inequality, and therefore vulnerability. In other words, we need to pursue change in profoundly connected systems where the outcomes of our interventions tend to be unpredictable.

Successfully pursuing research impact is about accepting this uncertainty, and therefore accepting that our pursuit of change must be part of an unfolding practice. It requires that we are purposeful in asking for whom we pursue change, how we pursue that change, and who might stand to lose if we succeed. It is easy to become overwhelmed by these questions, however in the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), we’ve learned a thing or two about how to move forward in a way that embraces this uncertainty.

How to pursue impact in the face of so much uncertainty?

Let’s start with what it means to achieve impact. At IDRC we believe that research has an impact when it benefits society, and there are many pathways toward that goal. A similar, if broader, way to think about research impact is to use Mark Reed’s understanding of impact as the “good that research can do in the world”.

But even with the best intentions it is easy to feel paralyzed when confronted by the enormity of the task before us and the low chances of success. Over the past five years the CARIAA program has reflected and learned about how to maintain hope, how to keep pursuing change, and even how to make a difference.

Flexibility, learning, change. In our experience, these are the basic principles for effectively pursuing research impact. These principles were behind HI-AWARE’s success in getting its research into Nepal’s National Adaptation Plan, they have been behind PRISE’s success with influencing Pakistan’s parliamentarians to integrate climate information into policy development, they have been behind ASSAR’s success in integrating both climate and gender considerations into development planning and drought management in Botswana, and they have certainly been behind DECCMA’s influence on the Odisha State Action Plan on Climate Change in India, highlighting the importance of recognizing gender differences.

Through all of these successes, we’ve learned that truly internalizing flexibility, learning, and change means prioritizing long-term relationships with partners on the ground and embracing a reflexive practice that unfolds over time. CARIAA’s Research-into-Use Learning Guide is designed to share these lessons beyond the program.

What do we need to change to enable flexibility?

Although flexibility and learning sound easy enough, they have significant implications for funders and researcher-practitioner teams alike. We’ve learned that work plans and budgets need to be approached in the same way we might approach cooking a complicated recipe: the recipe is an essential guide with great ideas, but unexpected outcomes will be the norm and you’ll have to improvise when things fall apart.

As a funder, we at IDRC are learning about the need to support research teams to be responsive to their growing understanding of the context and the growing appreciation of the leverage points for change in those contexts. We need to do this by building flexibility into grant agreements while balancing critical risk management considerations that lead us toward tighter contracts with pre-identified impacts and outputs. Both matter.

Research-practitioner teams are learning that they need diversified skills to identify opportunities for impact and to support learning and reflection. These teams are realizing that moments for reflection and course adjustment must be budgeted for at the outset of a project, as should flexible funds that allow teams to mobilize swiftly in response to opportunities for impact.    

In the end, CARIAA’s relentless emphasis on research for impact from the start of the program has pushed all of us to keep trying to generate positive change in climate change hot spots. This is despite the uncertainties, and despite none of us being fully equipped for the opportunities and the challenges that we have encountered. Through all this, dedicated research for impact leaders have emerged across the program and offered each other support (sometimes with ideas, sometimes just moral support, both of them valued). Perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of CARIAA’s learning about research for impact will be the community of people we have built that have a shared passion for a more equitable future in a climate-changing world, and the humility to keep learning as they succeed and fail.

Georgina Cundill-Kemp is a senior program officer at IDRC.