Partnership in Practice: Top tips for aid and development researchers and practitioners

Photo: Lisa Fitzgerald, Nossal Institute for Global Health.

Michelle Kermode

17 Jan, 2017

The Research for Development Impact Network has the objective of bringing together academics and aid and development practitioners to create greater impact in the field. Recently, the Network and the Burnet Institute showcased examples of academic-practitioner research partnerships in a health-focused Symposium. Having been deeply embedded in research partnerships as a team member of the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne, Michelle Kermode presented invaluable advice for researchers and practitioners.

In 2011, the Nossal Institute, in partnership with Anglican Overseas Aid and their local partner organisation, the Mothers Union of the Anglican Church of Kenya, implemented a DFAT-funded five-year program of work to improve maternal health care services for semi-nomadic pastoralist communities in Kenya and Ethiopia, known as The Road Less Travelled (TRLT).

TRLT had primarily a programmatic focus, however during the course of the project, additional funds were obtained (also through DFAT) to investigate the factors influencing the uptake and quality of maternal and child health care services among pastoralist communities in Kenya. The findings of the research study (conducted with TRLT and Amref Health Africa) were used to inform the development of a pastoralist-friendly maternal health care checklist that is being piloted in three sites in Kenya.

The project demonstrated a successful integration of programs and research, and is viewed as an example of best practice. In reflecting upon this project and similar research activities undertaken in India, here are some top tips for partnerships between researchers and programmers:

Recommendations for researchers

1. Listen to, understand and respond to the expressed needs of programmers (rather than your own research interests) – involve programmers and affected communities in the research conversations from the beginning.

2. Working in international contexts, engage with local research partners. Make use of local ethics approval processes (be sure to budget enough time for this), and adapt your research practices to align to cultural realities and protocols.

3. Invest time in training the local research team. Ensure they are familiar with the research objectives, data collection methods and tools, ethical requirements, and data management practices. Check data quality early to detect and address any problems promptly.

4. Take great care with translation of data collection tools, pilot them well, and provide supervision to the data collection team, especially at the outset when unanticipated problems can arise. Coordinate data collection so that it doesn’t interfere with the delivery of programs.

Recommendations for programmers

1. Help researchers to understand the big picture of your project and allow for their expertise to strengthen activities such as monitoring and evaluation. Allow space and flexibility for research findings to influence your log-frames and project plans.

2. In order for research to maintain its integrity, findings must be collected objectively and presented honestly. Cherry-picking positive findings to support your agenda is not good research practice.

3. Understand that research is demanding in terms of time and skills, and that while the potential impact of research is significant, it may take longer than your reporting cycle to be revealed. Also, recognise that all research has limitations, and not all questions can be (easily) answered.

4. It is best to appoint dedicated research staff rather than use program staff for research. Conducting research is time consuming, so it is difficult for program staff to juggle both of roles, and they risk not being able to do either properly.

Recommendations for researchers and programmers

1. Recognise that programmers and researchers will often approach research with different needs and expectations. Be sure to discuss this openly at the outset, and agree how best to focus your efforts, and also how to manage any negative findings, then maintain open communication channels throughout the life of the collaboration.

2. Discuss authorship and intellectual property up front and ensure due recognition is given to all partners in all communications. This process can be embedded in an MoU or other informal agreement.

3. Be creative about your research outputs and communications; traditional means of research output e.g. peer-reviewed publication will not usually meet the needs of a partnered project, so be clear about what each partner would benefit from in terms of the presentation and dissemination of findings.

By avoiding common pitfalls, practitioners and researchers will have a far more positive partnership which will produce meaningful and usable results. In turn, these results will bring impact through strengthened programming and practice.

This year’s Research for Development Impact Network conference promises to offer international development practitioners, academics, students, consultants and private sector representatives a unique opportunity to explore and develop opportunities for cross-sector collaboration and partnership.

Visit to read more.

  •  Michelle Kermode
    Michelle Kermode

    Associate Professor at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health


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