In this blog, Sue Szabo of IDRC considers the importance of understanding different contexts in which global development agendas play out. She highlights that to “understand” context, it’s not enough simply to gather and aggregate data, or even just to hear the voices of individual citizens. Research processes and outcomes need to include and engage with citizens if we are to address collectively our most wicked development challenges. Sue highlights lessons learned through the work of the Think Tank Initiative and also from consultations at the 2016 Vancouver Global Symposium on Health Systems Research.

[Editor’s note: Sue Szabo is an Executive Committee member of the Think Tank Initiative (TTI). She is also Director of the Inclusive Economies cluster of programs at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), which includes TTI as well as three other programs:  Maternal and Child Health, Governance and Justice, and Employment and Growth.]

Acknowledging multiplicity

Last November, I attended the Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Vancouver. I was humbled about how little I (a Canadian) knew about this city on Canada’s West Coast, over 3,500 km away from where I live in the nation’s capital. I was struck profoundly by the fact that Vancouver is located on traditional territories of three of Canada’s First Nations. The symposium’s opening session acknowledged that we were guests on this Aboriginal territory, and both explicitly and implicitly called on us to consider whose voices we were listening to and whose reality was being reflected. 

This theme was further explored during a consultation I led with about 40 people who either work in or are involved with policy research institutions. We debated the role that such organizations – and the funders that support them – can play in meeting development challenges, particularly around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It was unanimously agreed that those organizations based in developing countries are well positioned for bringing to light the many different realities of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, realities that are often masked by aggregate statistics. Without investments in collecting, validating, analyzing, and sharing local data, it will be extremely difficult for the SDGs to truly reach all people.

The Vancouver consultation also illuminated an important concern: that the global development agenda needs to go beyond simply collecting and codifying data on all citizens. It needs to go further even than gathering and recording views of the voiceless, important as this is. Instead, there is a real need to reimagine the meanings and practices of inclusion. Put simply, we need to find ways to support better connection with citizens. Although none of us were sure how exactly a revisited participation and accountability agenda would look, there was consensus in the room on the need for strengthening inclusive dialogue and ensuring that the SDGs are not just a conversation amongst the elite. The goals should not just be for citizens, but worked on with citizens.

Why does this matter for research?

Understanding and integrating local realities into research is still a challenge in many domains. This was clearly articulated by Dr. Jean Shoveller, Professor at the UBC School of Population & Public Health, in her presentation at the Symposium. Here, she referred to a review of recent research on population health interventions in influential journals, which found that context often does not extend beyond describing the setting of the research. Instead, Shoveller and her colleagues argue for context to be examined more fully as a key aspect in understanding the ultimate effectiveness of interventions. For instance, what links exist between the social and physical aspects of a particular context? How are people connected to each other and to various institutions? How do different perceptions of context affect behaviour?  

The various discussions on context also contained a sense of urgency for better addressing the fundamental causes of vulnerability and inequity. This reminded me of another article from last year, which stuck with me given my own training as an economist. The article compared the ranking of leading economists from 2006 to 2015, a decade that saw serious challenges to prevailing economic theory. Despite these challenges, the author found a surprising lack of mobility among the top 200 ranked economists during this time. Moreover, despite women’s gains in other domains, a mere four women were amongst the top 200 in 2015, up from just three in 2006. Also, only 11 of the top 200 were from emerging economies, an increase of just one over the decade. I suspect that this trend is similar in other disciplines as well.    

To me, this inertia matters because, as a director at a research funding organization, I often hear about the need to fund the “best” research. This, however, biases funding to those who are “best” at this point in time, as well as being able to navigate funding modalities that tend toward global competitions and larger grants. “Best” is not synonymous with “rigour”, though, and I think research funding can do better at simultaneously promoting rigorous research and measurable changes in geographic and gender diversity.Ultimately, national research granting councils in the developing world will need to play a larger role in supporting their own researchers in ways that not only contribute towards greater diversity of leading researchers, but also can promote much more inclusive research processes and outcomes with citizens. But this role, particularly for funding to the social sciences, is just beginning. The research and evidence needed to support the achievement of the 2030 SDG agenda in developing countries will require continued support from foreign funders – support to produce the evidence per se, and also for the individual researchers and research institutions who are seeking to make a difference in their countries through approaches that are truly grounded in the realities of their contexts.

Realistically appreciating local research

While I do believe that local policy research institutions are best placed to uncover and address the contextual barriers and opportunities within their developing country settings, this does not mean uncritically assuming that all of them can and will engage in more inclusive approaches to research. Gender is a case in point – I’ve often been surprised at how many research proposals I read that are gender-blind, whether in the research questions, methodologies, and/or teams. This critical, while supportive, perspective also surfaced at our consultation in Vancouver, which reflected on the diversity of purpose, capacity, and approach amongst the organizations engaged in the SDG agenda.

By the end of the consultation, we agreed on the need to better understand the advantages and disadvantages of supporting local research organizations, explicitly considering the nature of their connections to local populations and a more inclusive approach to research. Also essential is valuing not just the products, but also the process of research. A complementary element is to intentionally identify ways of linking local research institutions into wider regional and global debates, to ensure that local voices are better reflected in global conversations as we collectively more forward with the SDG agenda.  

Moving forward

The discussions I had in Vancouver, both throughout the symposium and in our consultation, offered many points for reflection on the importance of local context, the roles of policy research institutions, and the urgency of action toward the 2030 SDG agenda. They left me even more convinced that research funding, in the context of the SDGs, can do better at connecting the best that local research can bring – in terms of relevance and ownership – to the momentum that regional and global efforts can offer, in a way that can deliver measurable, transformational impact. Ultimately, I believe our actions should be congruent with our aspirations. Going forward, this approach will be central to the agenda of the Inclusive Economies cluster of research programs that I manage at IDRC.