After my presentation on human rights documentation practices at the ESRC-DFID Impact conference, a Department for International Development (DFID) representative asked; ‘what can we do differently?’ A relevant and viable question when dealing with state violence, human rights and repression, I answered; ‘you, DFID, can be more political!’
What I was asking for was more proactive engagement with national and local politics in the country including support to human rights defenders and civil society and rethinking of international trade agreements, convincing the country’s political elites to abide by national and international laws and standards. Of course there are no guarantees when you are trying to change how the world works, and it could lead to expected (and unexpected consequences). For example, we might lose access to cheap labour and, in this case, low-priced clothing.
Change is a two-way street
To put it into context, my project was a two year project, dealing with sensitive political issues. I am not arrogant or naïve enough to I imagine I can change the politics within the country I study or that I can change Danish, British or EU foreign and trade policy.
Think about how difficult it is to change policies and practices within your own municipality, let alone national legislation in free and open democracies. The challenges are much greater in repressive or less transparent and resourceful regimes. This said we can do great and relevant research, even under difficult conditions, but we cannot expect easy and straight forward applicable solutions. Social change is political and will be politicised.
You cannot change other people, especially at a distance. You can only change yourself. This is not easy, it often entails substantial costs. But you can offer opportunities, space and resources to pursue ideas for improvements and advances on their own terms. In research collaboration, this is a two way street, regardless of national boundaries and attachments.
What do we mean by training, capacity and impact?
With this context in mind, at the conference, three words were prominent; training, capacity and impact. The latter most often used in the meaning of ‘research uptake’. These are problematic and complicated concepts, issues and practices. And they somehow carry particular connotations and world views when used in the field of development.
I think the vocabulary of training, capacity and impact, technical as it is, diverts our attention from the real problems of relevant research and new research findings, namely how we can find ways to interact with local politics constantly challenging our work, achievements and aspirations.
When it comes to impact, we need to remember that we are talking about people, it is not just an abstract concept. Whether they are targeted as citizens, authorities (state and non-state), professionals (lawyers, engineers, journalists, social workers, nurses, doctors etc.) or representatives (democratically elected or not) of particular groups, communities, peoples or nations (add more to your own liking). And we are talking about institutions, the places where the people mentioned above works and interact with every day. And we are talking about the systems that govern these institutions and they ways in which the people performs their tasks on an everyday basis.
Nonetheless, we are also talking about change. Change in behaviour, outlook and performance of the people we target and therefore seen as important to achieve the goal we are aiming for and aspire to achieve. Without these people, we cannot make the changes we want to see – the desired impact of our (or the tax payers) investment.
Training is seen as particularly important. It is seen as a driver of change and improvement. Moving people, institutions and societies from an undesirable situation to another preferred state of affairs. However, the process of training is less straight forward, and also invariably used as a ‘buzzword’. A very knowledgeable and professional social worker that for more than 10 years worked as psycho-social councilor after the conflict in Sierra Leone said in response to a project document I had drafted; “You educate people and you train animals”.
So what is it we want to improve and enhance? It is our partners’ capacity! – Our documents would argue. A question remains; capacity for what or to do what? Cambridge dictionary defines capacity as; “The ability to do a particular thing”. It is somewhat of a practical skill set. Again we could ask; do we ‘train’ people only to carry through the project?
So what is this capacity we are talking about? It is somehow easier to determine when we look at what we don’t have – the lacks and deficiencies but does this not again become a sort of filling the gap of particularities exercise that hardly encompasses a research partnership or research activities. Who can claim to capacitate the other? Based on what register of knowledge, skills and know-how?
I see capacity as something we do, as an act and a practice. It is not a thing we give to each other or transfer in a particular bounded moment in time but something we continually work on to expand our outlook, understanding and experience, at times individually or collectively but often indefinitely.
In a truer partnership you need to recognise what you don’t know; what your rationalities are and what they are based upon when entering into a new relationship. In my opinion this is what research collaboration is all about; the individual and collective process through which we share and develop new knowledge jointly becoming better at what we do, not the filling up of technical gaps and transfer of particularities.