LIDC-ONE debate: research and advocacy can lead to better development policies

Academic research is sometimes conducted in isolation from policy-making and the practice of international development (e.g. operational work of development agencies and NGOs). Many researchers would like to see their work inform, inspire and influence policy-makers and development practitioners, but they often struggle to get their work noticed and utilised. On the other hand, advocacy organisations are good at reaching the general public and policy-makers with their messages, but they often lack a strong and sufficient evidence base. Meanwhile the target of both academics and advocates are policy-makers who have to balance politics with evidence-based policy.

This event, organised jointly by LIDC and ONE, and moderated by Lucy Lamble, Global Development Editor of the Guardian, explored how to bridge the gap between research, advocacy and policy, using the format of an interactive debate.

The debate featured distinguished speakers from the world of academia, advocacy and policy: Chris Whitty, Head of Research at DFID and Professor of International Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Angela Little, Professor (Emerita) of Education and International Development at the Institute of Education; and Jamie Drummond, Executive Director and co-founder of ONE.

In his opening statement, Chris Whitty stated that advocacy is essential and can drive positive change. Evidence that can be obtained through research is essential as well, in order to test whether policy interventions are working. To be useful, this evidence must be neutral. In policy-making, evidence serves to pick the right battles. The speaker went on to say that advocacy driving evidence can be dangerous, so it is important to keep the two separate.

Angela Little admitted that, as a researcher, she finds advocacy to be a rather unfamiliar world that she does not feel comfortable in. Advocacy, using a discourse of ideology, should follow, and not drive research. Tensions arise when advocacy distorts research findings.

Jamie Drummond began by saying that the policy process does not always lead to the best decisions, as politicians face pressures from populist forces. Basing policy on evidence is not enough; one first and foremost needs to ‘sell’ the decision to the public and win their support. He expressed hope that the discussion will shed light on how to improve the links between advocacy, evidence and policy, and how academics can help advocates measure the impact of their work.

During the discussion that followed, Chris Whitty argued that we should distinguish between evidence of need, where plenty of data is available, and evidence of impact, where there is often disagreement or data is missing. Academics cannot tell policy-makers what to invest in, but they can help at a more micro level. He also pointed out that evidence does not work in the same way in natural and social sciences, for example it is easier to obtain hard evidence with respect to health than education.
Angela Little argued that both policy and evidence should be viewed in the context that they are being used in and one needs to constantly ask: whose policy, for whom?

Chris Whitty pointed out that some policies do not need to be or even should not be evidence-based. However, in most cases one should continue looking for evidence of what works in order to inform decisions.

Answering the question of how to improve the link between research, advocacy and policy, the panel talked about the need for researchers to synthesise their research and communicate it in more accessible ways, as well as to anticipate future policy needs for evidence, thus cutting the long time that it takes to obtain research findings. Researchers need to be honest and critical about the weaknesses of their data, making sure that they separate their role of evidence seekers from the role of advocates.

Listen to the audio recording (podcast)