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Lessons from the field: IDRC’s second Annual Public Meeting


“Our approach is one of collaboration,” said IDRC Chairman, the Honourable Barbara McDougall. “We learn as much from our research partners as they learn from us.”

She spoke at IDRC’s second Annual Public Meeting, held October 26, 2010 in Ottawa, and attended by about 75 people. The speakers presented an overview of the Centre’s operations and its contributions to developing countries, while highlighting IDRC’s 40th anniversary.

Knowledge and savvy

Members of IDRC’s Board of Governors also attended. These included Dr Pratap Mehta, scholar, writer, and President of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. In an inspiring talk, Mehta argued that IDRC’s endurance and effectiveness have boosted Canada’s credibility worldwide. He praised the Centre’s staff, citing both their unsurpassed knowledge of their research fields and their organizational savvy.

IDRC, Mehta said, is rare among development organizations in that it embraces the risk of supporting researchers long before they have made their professional mark. Furthermore, IDRC has succeeded in creating whole “research ecosystems” because staff members can engage with grantees on an intellectual level, and because IDRC believes that knowledge works most effectively in networks.

Seeking answers

Dr Sharmila Mhatre, head of IDRC’s Governance, Equity, and Health program, explained how field research works to find practical answers to development issues. A specialist in health systems and the prevention of sexual violence and HIV/AIDS, she described IDRC's approach to achieving healthcare solutions in developing countries, which is to focus on the problem itself, rather than on the available technology.

In the case of the immunization of children in Burkina Faso, for example, researchers discovered that even though vaccines were readily available, many children were not getting their shots. The key, according to Mhatre, was to “look at the bigger picture” which meant, in this instance, seeking answers within the dynamic of decision-making in the family unit.

Another “lesson from the field,” Mhatre said, is to examine not only the immediate cause of a healthcare problem, but also its root cause. Among women in India, for example, the lack of access to emergency obstetrical care is one immediate cause of maternal mortality; the low social status of these women is among the root causes.

Experience teaches

The learning exchange continued following the presentations, when IDRC President David M. Malone and others fielded questions and comments from the audience. Among these was a call for IDRC to “push back against the audit” — the economic valuation of everything — and instead pursue a broader kind of moral accountability for the initiatives it funds. The response: IDRC must consider the bottom line because the organization disburses taxpayer money, but at the same time it invests heavily in evaluation in order to draw useful lessons from experience.

Replying to questions, Malone also described IDRC’s regional focus and its general approach to planning, its relationship with trade unions and non-governmental organizations, and the impact of development efforts in Africa.