Partnership in practice: dispelling myths about research in international development

Kelly Durrant and Rachel Coghlan

16 Nov, 2016

Research in international development is often accused of being exclusive, time-consuming, inapplicable and expensive. An exemplar program to improve health, vision and quality of life for elders in Sri Lanka has lessons which can help dispel these myths.

Let’s start by setting out a few myths we often hear about research, and particularly its relationship to international development:

1)    Research is the domain of university professors, not of those implementing development programs

2)    Research produces data or findings which are time-consuming and difficult to interpret or apply  

3)    Research is expensive for the return

4)    The value of research is locked behind paywalls of exclusive academic journals

5)    Different motivations make it difficult for academics and development professionals to work together

At a recent Research for Development Impact Network Symposium, the Fred Hollows Foundation and the Burnet Institute showcased an integrated research and development program undertaken in Sri Lanka.

Lessons from the case study can help us to dispel these myths.

The Better Vision, Healthy Ageing (BVHA) Program addressed the health, vision and quality of life of elders in Nuwara Eliya district in Sri Lanka. The program was a collaboration between the Sri Lankan government and civil society partners, with technical assistance from the Burnet Institute, and funding from The Fred Hollows Foundation.

Recognising that the rapid increase in the proportion of older people is leading to a growing burden of vision impairment in Asia, the program trialled an innovative model of healthy ageing that included health promotion, blindness prevention, and social participation through the platform of Elders’ Clubs.

The unique design of the program allowed for the layering of research within a development program. The research used qualitative methodologies, including Focus Group Discussions with elders to understand their views on the impacts of vision impairment and barriers to eye health care; and a Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) which assessed the impact of Elders’ Clubs on the health-related quality of life of elders (results forthcoming)[i].

The Fred Hollows Foundation and Burnet Institute are now looking at ways to use the research evidence to advocate for change in future policies and practices for older people in low and middle-income countries.

So let’s return to our research myths:

1)    Research is the domain of university professors, not of those implementing development programs

Neither the Burnet Institute nor the Fred Hollows Foundation are universities, but both share a strong commitment to the importance of evidence-based policy and practice. The Burnet Institute is an accredited Australian Medical Research Institute (MRI). The BVHA partnership successfully brought together a diverse range of stakeholders to contribute to, and participate in, the research element of the program: local, national and international NGOs, government, and research institutions.  Capitalising upon local input and expertise ensured that the research questions and design, as well as the data gathered, were relevant to the needs of local communities.

2)    Research produces data or findings which are time-consuming and sometimes difficult to interpret or apply

The research component of the BVHA Program allowed the production of extensive qualitative and quantitative data, with time built into the research plan for collation and analysis of data.  This time invested in analysis proved essential in facilitating the application of the research, ensuring future programming and policies for older people can be implemented as effectively as possible and achieve their intended outcomes. The results of the BVHA Program research will enable the team to:

-          Document the impacts of vision impairment and the barriers to accessing eye care among elders in Nuwara Eliya district;

-          Understand some contributors to health and well-being among elders in the target communities;

-          Evaluate the effectiveness of the program interventions, particularly the health and social benefits of Elders’ Clubs;

-          Determine the potential for this type of program to be scaled up; and

-          Raise awareness of the issues faced by elders and the contributions that elders can make to their families, communities and society.


3)  Research is expensive for the return which it provides

Research can be expensive, therefore from a value-for-money perspective, it was cost effective for the BVHA Program to have an integrated research-programming approach, with the research study drawing from activities already underway, facilitating cost sharing opportunities. In this particular case the direct cost of the research component was reasonable as a proportion of the overall budget (approximately 6%). The investment was justified, taking into consideration the long-term practice and policy implications which it will inform. Appropriate translation and application of the research output has been considered throughout the program design and implementation.

4)  The value of research is locked behind paywalls of exclusive academic journals

This partnership has demonstrated a commitment to making the results of the program available in a range of different formats for different audiences, including practical guidance documents and peer-reviewed journal articles. One example is the development of the Better Vision Healthy Ageing Program Toolkit which is freely available and provides practical information to program managers and health practitioners interested in healthy ageing or community-based eye care. A policy brief outlines the challenges and solutions for improving the quality and accessibility of specialist eye health services for elders in Sri Lanka, and makes recommendations to government, medical institutions, and eye health and community organisations to improve eye health policy and practice.

5)  Different motivations make it hard for academics and development professionals to work together

A lack of shared understanding and conflicting motivations are often cited as reasons why NGOs and academics hesitate to share ideas or work together. This example of partnership in practice provides a valuable example for us all of how a positive partnership approach and strong institutional buy-in can result in successful research outcomes. By integrating research into the program design, learnings were gained and implemented ‘live’ in the program cycle, and valuable data and knowledge for ongoing advocacy efforts on important issues have been developed.

So, were there challenges? Of course. But these were greatly outweighed by the positive outcomes brought through the distinct skills and expertise of the organisations involved in the partnership.

The study provided a lesson in how research in international development can be inclusive, time-efficient, applicable and cost-effective. Now, we need to continue to apply these principles consistently and shout about our success.

By Kelly Durrant, the Burnet Institute and Rachel Coghlan, The Fred Hollows Foundation.

To research learn more about partnerships for research in international development, sign-up to the Research for Development Impact (RDI) Network monthly newsletter.

[i] Holmes et al (2016). Impact of vision impairment and self-reported barriers to vision care: the views of elders in Nuwara Eliya district, Sri Lanka,  Global Public Health, DOI 10.1080/17441692.2016.1241816



  • Kelly Durrant and Rachel Coghlan
    Kelly Durrant and Rachel Coghlan

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