Researcher relationships

RDI Network
August 2021
5 min read

Research for international development is often done in groups. This could mean an academic team drawn from different institutions across various parts of the world. It might also look like NGOs, universities, and/or governments working together. Collaborations typically aim to combine funding and diverse expertise so the research is relevant to communities and nations. It can bring great benefits to evidence based programming and policies but has its challenges. Whether it is a small project, or an institutional level partnership, many of the same principles apply.

  • Relationship building requires time. The importance of building trust, and establishing expectations of each other early, comes up again and again in the research. It allows for a deep understanding of each other’s strengths, limitations, and perspectives. However, it is also recognised by many case studies that the time needed for developing rapport is often difficult to find. If you have limited time at the beginning, at least build in milestones or processes for reviewing how the team is working together or how to deal with difficult conversations, because they will arise. You might also build a partnership upon a past project, as the trust and collaborative foundation is already there, and may allow for longer term research objectives.
  • Discuss roles with power dynamics in mind. Funding, expertise and discrimination influence the governance structures, decision making roles and status given to different individuals on a team. For example, in a North-South partnership, decisions are more likely to land with the Northern-based individual or institutions due to funding arrangements. Less respect may be afforded to local conceptions of knowledge and methods. Women from many backgrounds, especially if they are in a junior role, can be sidelined. Elevate capacity building to go beyond data collection training, rethink funding and governance structures to integrate local knowledge systems and agency, and consider as much co-authorship as possible.
  • Obtain broad institutional support. Some research collaborations arise from narrow grants or individual research interests, particularly from the university side of partnerships. If this means there is a lack of institutional ownership, it can lead to issues when someone goes on leave, or expansion is needed. Consider this as a gap in planning or find other ways the work can be further supported by the institution.
  • Think of ways to balance different institutional drivers. Different groups in a collaboration may be looking for different research outputs, depending on their institutional drivers. For example, academics will want to produce peer-reviewed publications, often in English, that bring credibility and robustness to the project. This might not be timely or targeted enough for the sharing, advocacy, or policy aims of NGOs, with sensitivities to different stakeholders built in. Some teams have worked around this by being clear about the purposes of publications and putting them under the ‘auspices’ of the partnership.

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