It has become widely accepted that the use of evidence is essential for improving development policies, programmes, and practice. The call for evidence-based work in development has grown increasingly louder. As a result, many civil society organisations (CSOs) have started to invest in research in the context of their programme, sometimes also seeking to strengthen the research capacities of organisations involved and creating opportunities to do research within CSO partnerships. However, research opportunities within CSO partnerships are often skewed, with most of the funding and decision-making power resting in the Global North, leaving Southern-based organisations often in a position of implementing a donor-defined research agenda.
Capacities of Southern-based organisations are often approached from a deficit perspective, in which Southern organisations are deemed to lack the necessary expertise to conduct high-quality research and ‘need their capacities built’ by their Northern counterparts. This approach to CSO research severely limits the space for Southern-based CSOs to work from their own contextual understandings and locally-defined knowledge questions and delegitimises research that Southern organisations can do, thereby disqualifying relevant, contextual knowledge and capacities.
Furthermore, by failing to acknowledge the tensions emerging from different perspectives on knowledge and a lack of appreciation for more informal approaches to research, CSO partnerships run the risk of becoming exclusionary and disconnected from local needs and realities.
Especially for CSOs that see themselves as intermediaries between different actors in the development process, and as brokers of knowledge and expertise, such as international NGOs carrying out multi-country development programmes, it is critical to step back and address questions of power and practices associated with the production of knowledge. Based on critical and collective reflection, organisations can address these power imbalances in order to support research that advances the quality of programmes, while being locally led and locally relevant.
The ‘Civil Society Research Eco-system’ model was developed to help civil society organisations move forward with this. Rooted in an analysis of the perspectives and experiences of staff interviewed in three programme countries in the Work: No Child’s Business programme (running 2019-2024), the guide offers principles for advancing research through localisation, pathways for change, and conversation starters to explore opportunities and ways forward together.
Jan Apperloo, member of the WNCB research working group, explains the background of this research.
“Within the WNCB Alliance we want to stimulate evidence-based working to increase our collective impact on child labour. We therefore set-up research working group, tasked to stimulate quality research within the alliance with a bottom-up approach. To understand how evidence-based working could be advanced in our programme, we asked the WUR to conduct this research. We believe that the outcomes of this research can be insightful and interesting for other organisations or programmes.”
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