Over the last couple of months, I think we’ve all been going through a process of grappling with the implications of COVID-19 on our work and our personal lives. For those of us involved in promoting use and uptake of research evidence in humanitarian health policy and practice, the situation presents specific challenges.
First, because it is a general principle that conscious, dynamic engagement with the context for policy-making and decision-making is critical for achieving uptake of research evidence. COVID-19 obviously affects this context – and therefore the process of influencing policy or practice with research evidence – in significant ways. (More general insights at ‘On Think Tanks’ : being constructive and relevant in the pandemic’.)
The humanitarian context in particular, however, already holds multiple challenges for knowledge brokers seeking to inform policy and practice, even before a pandemic (these challenges are explored by ALNAP here, Tufts here, and Evidence Aid here). Since COVID-19, these challenges feel like they have multiplied exponentially. Recently, I consulted the R2HC’s informal working group of ‘research uptake focal points’ (all individuals with ‘knowledge broker’ roles working with research evidence in the humanitarian sector), and we identified the impacts of COVID-19 emerging in our respective roles and working contexts.
This list of impacts can feel overwhelming and even worrying.
At Elrha, we’ve been working to understand what individual study teams, who we fund through our R2HC programme, need from us at a time like this, and to respond flexibly and supportively. But it’s clear that the challenges for humanitarian evidence use are likely to be more significant than can be addressed at this one-on-one level. Faced with such challenges and considering the list of impacts above, I have found personally (and heard in other discussions with those in ‘knowledge broker’ roles externally) that it is tempting to adopt one of two modes: panic ‘rapid action’ mode (trying to produce ‘rapid outputs’ which we hope will respond to the perceived need for COVID-19-relevant evidence). Or, conversely, paralysis mode: thinking that we have nothing useful to contribute.
Many humanitarian response organisations have worked hard to establish internal research expertise and to build strategic, high-level support for formal research uptake pathways. A culture has been growing around the need to ‘understand what works’, of carefully monitoring and evaluating, of developing robust evidence to underpin programme decisions. Though it is easy to use urgency as an excuse to put good practice on hold, this could be damaging long-term.
For those of us with capacity to do so, there’s value in taking a pause, and reflecting how competencies in translating research evidence into knowledge, policy and practice can best contribute in the changed humanitarian environment. Thinking about context more systematically could help. For example, reviewing a context model, like this one provided by Politics of Ideas and INASP, and asking yourself: what’s changed for the institutions I interact with and the way they use evidence? What’s changed in the flow of information between key actors? How can I adapt accordingly? (If you’re like me, you might have to break off to attend to caring responsibilities or play Lego with a 9 year old- but do what you can.)
Doing this type of thinking also highlights how drastic the impacts of COVID-19 may be for our work promoting evidence use, in our sector and more widely. Even the ‘macro-context’ for uptake- the underlying and normally fixed political, economic and societal structures — may be at a ‘critical juncture’ for change, as Duncan Green has argued. But there may also be opportunities arising from the pandemic for positive changes in the humanitarian sector too.
These are unprecedented and challenging times for humanitarian partners, so be compassionate in interactions with operational stakeholders. In project conception and design, think about sensitive allocation of the ‘heavy lifting’ (financially, operationally, administratively, intellectually) in the co-production and sharing of knowledge.
The humanitarian context is changing, and work at the intersection of research evidence and decision-making- ‘knowledge brokering’- is changing with it. But assuming we are safe, well and able, a systematic assessment of context and stakeholder needs can help knowledge brokers adapt so that responders can still access much needed evidence and expertise.
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