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Clockwise from top left: Cordelia Lonsdale, Aliocha Salagnac, Dr. Junaid Razzak, Alastair Ager (Chair), Laura Miller, Dr. Rabih El Chammay, Dr. Gloria Seruwagi

Key takeaways from a recent panel discussion on research to impact in the humanitarian sector

Our Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises programme (R2HC) recently invited professionals from across the humanitarian sector to discuss the lessons drawn from our collection of Impact Case Studies.

Panellists shared their experiences of influencing policy and practice with evidence, stressing the point that health research supported by public funds should drive real change for people affected by crisis.

We also launched our Research Impact Framework – a set of strategies and enablers to support research impact – with many of the ideas explored by the panellists reflecting the tactics outlined in the Framework.

The panellists shared the following useful insights on priorities for improving the impact of evidence on policy and practice:

1. Push forward the open data conversation and include local actors

Research built on existing evidence is more likely to be applied to policy and practice, however relevant data for humanitarian decision-making is generated and owned by a range of different actors. This means that academics may struggle to access the right data for their study designs. Despite advances by the humanitarian open data movement, large INGOs still have some way to go to manage, clean and make their data available for researchers, and privacy and safety issues need to be considered.

Increasingly, researchers are being urged by funders to make their own data openly available. It was suggested that existing open data guidelines and requirements (for example those of the National Institutes of Health) could help inform this conversation within the humanitarian sector. Useful examples from the panel included research projects directly involving local academia and government, which improved the quality of evidence by using locally owned, relevant data.

“Data needs to be made available and needs to be shared. I was once told that the data that is being collected is only as good as the decision it enables.” – Aliocha Salagnac

2. ‘Skill up’

Co-production with stakeholders is a key principle of the Research Impact Framework – and indeed an important tenet of many research partnerships – but such partnerships can have hidden costs or even be harmful if skills gaps are not considered. Dr. Rabih El Chammay noted that encouraging stakeholders in low-income and humanitarian settings who are not research literate to engage with research processes may be tokenistic, disheartening and ultimately counterproductive. Understanding ‘how research works’ is central to meaningful participation in research processes, and to applying the results to decision-making.

Within international partnerships, should carry out a skills and capacity audit and address any gaps with partner institutions before undertaking research projects. This should include opportunities for two-way learning and sharing the knowledge of all partners, aiming to benefit all parties over the long term.

Additionally, evidence-use abilities (eg, training, communications or advocacy) may not be in all researchers’ wheelhouses, and team leaders should be open and honest when appraising and addressing skills gaps within their teams. Dedicated research uptake leads with appropriate expertise should also be appointed to projects.

3. Walk the localisation talk

While it is widely accepted that equity and local ownership is a key principle of good international research partnerships, too often partnerships are equitable in principle but struggle in practice. Dr. Junaid Razzak pointed out, ‘policy is local’: academics who fail to meaningfully engage with local stakeholders will likely produce wonderful peer-reviewed journal articles, but little change in policy and practice.

Our panel shared their advice for researchers wanting to improve equity and local ownership:

  • ‘…engage with the system that is in place, no matter how hard’, and link your projects to overarching priorities.
  • Don’t create ‘Cadillac projects’ that sound exciting to academic colleagues but have no relevance to humanitarian needs; always ensure results have a destination in a policy or programming decision.
  • Pay attention to questions of cost-effectiveness and practical implementation.
  • Discuss policy or practice relevance and recommendations with stakeholders well before you start to write up final outputs (and ideally, before designing the study!).
  • Translate evidence into languages and outputs that stakeholders can read and use.

4. Improve accountability and standards

A discussion on greater accountability and improved research standards raised several focus areas. Firstly, the need for continued attention on upholding ethical standards of research in humanitarian settings.

Secondly, humanitarian donors need to take greater responsibility for demanding evidence-based interventions, and withholding funding from programmes or interventions that do not have sufficient supporting evidence. It was proposed that country-level donors should be more actively involved in research to increase engagement.

Finally, additional effort and resources are required for measuring the impact of research, as this is still difficult and not undertaken consistently. Dr. Gloria Seruwagi further noted the need to understand how communities being engaged in research may define these measures of success.

5. Support the whole research-to-impact pathway

Long-term funding is needed to generate real change for entrenched humanitarian problems. Most research ‘needs a phase two’ – to define a problem, create an intervention, test it, cost it, improve it, then strengthen or adapt a system to support adoption. All this requires several stages of inquiry and engagement.

Additionally, evidence alone is not enough to deliver change. People, and relationships, are just as important, and engaging key individuals within institutions can help shift the needle on issues that may seem inflexible. Increasing mutual understanding between researchers, policymakers and practitioners takes time but results in improved and more relevant research outcomes.

“Invest in relationships with people, really make an effort to get to know them and build trust, because at the end of the day, it’s people within institutions. Institutions are not as real as we think – people are more important, and people can make changes that are sometimes not possible for institutions.” – Dr. Rabih El Chammay

Find out more

Watch the full panel discussion from this event.

Read more about the Research Impact Framework and the accompanying guide, and explore our set of Impact Case Studies.

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