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Is the humanitarian sector really using research evidence?

Not enough, according to our latest learning paper - but collective efforts by funders, researchers and humanitarian organisations could help overcome barriers

Is there a gap between what we ‘know’ and what’s being ‘done’? Credit: Greg Plominski

Evidence is critical in humanitarian response. It is needed to identify needs and priorities, to inform planning and programming, and assess current practices.

Humanitarian evidence, broadly defined as ‘information used to prove or disprove a specific proposition’, might include needs analyses, reports, evaluations, various data generated by organisations, the inputs of stakeholders and communities, and the technical expertise of individual decision-makers. And increasingly, peer-reviewed academic research plays a role.

Academics, perhaps particularly in global health, are engaging more than ever in crisis-affected and humanitarian settings. Of course, we at Elrha and our donors have played a key role in this increased activity. The research is intended to inform the work of INGOs, humanitarian agencies, governments, and other international and national actors providing health services to refugees and IDPs- making it more ‘evidence based’.

View of the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development.

The scale of this is significant, perhaps more than humanitarian actors may realise. Anecdotally, for example, I was recently told that around 500 research study teams currently have access to the camps at Cox’s Bazar. Will the residents of Cox’s Bazar, or those working with them, see tangible benefits from this research?

Is research being used?

I support study teams to engage humanitarian policymakers and practitioners in their research evidence. We hope that use of quality evidence will inform programmes, policies and practices, ultimately improving the health and wellbeing people affected by crisis. Some study teams have influenced changes in global standards through high-level, formal engagement. Others have improved clinical practices or influenced provision of sanitation facilities in refugee camps by directly engaging with practitioners to enable use and application of evidence.

There’s no ‘one right pathway’ for research evidence to get into use. Researchers who are successful in driving impact are often well connected and knowledgeable about the context for change, and well-positioned to act on opportunities as they arise (as Duncan Green recently highlighted in his blog, From Poverty to Power).

However, I’ve also witnessed how difficult it can be for research teams, even the well-connected ones, to translate and share learning with humanitarian actors and for them to monitor and evaluate their impacts. Research uptake requires analysis, reflection, engagement, and is often an iterative process; it takes time, money and effort. It doesn’t just happen on its own, particularly given the operational challenges in engaging in humanitarian and low-resource settings.

Better communication of research can help to some extent. We’ve made progress, by supporting grantees to blog, participate in events, and produce short summaries of their studies for humanitarians. But as our grantees and stakeholders tell us, and as our recent review of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support research found, simply communicating research isn’t enough to drive use and application of that evidence by humanitarian policymakers and practitioners.

The honest answer to the question ‘Is research being used’? is probably “some of it, sometimes…we think.” Is that really good enough?

We didn’t think so, which is why we commissioned a Learning Paper to delve deeper into the barriers to uptake and what we could do as a research funder to improve the situation.

What are the barriers and how can we overcome them?

We asked three experts in humanitarianism and evidence use — Anna Paterson, Teresa Hanley and Fred Carden — to undertake a learning exercise.

They explored the barriers preventing humanitarians’ use of research evidence and identified potential solutions — including highlighting best practices through case studies. They took a consultative approach: as well as a literature review, engaging a cross-section of the humanitarian community.

Here are some of their key insights and findings.

Good work is happening, but it needs more support

The importance of research and evidence is no longer an afterthought in the humanitarian sector, with many humanitarian organisations creating their own sophisticated research agendas and prioritising the development and use of quality evidence.

Many INGOs have expert research staff and evidence and learning teams working on uptake pathways. The case studies in the paper show how humanitarian organisations have collaborated with academic actors, humanitarian networks and other international actors to produce, share and use research evidence to improve humanitarian programming and practice.

Despite this progress, the overwhelming feedback from those consulted is that best practices to enable evidence use still aren’t well supported more broadly within humanitarian organisations.

Evidence brokers and humanitarian researchers still struggle- especially connecting research with practitioners working directly in crisis settings.

As one humanitarian evidence broker said to me recently: ‘We already know what works to drive research uptake. So why is it still so hard?’

The paper recommends a range of specific solutions that humanitarian organisations can take- including strategic leadership to champion the role of evidence in programming, and investments in knowledge brokering. But if we don’t tackle the entrenched barriers to uptake, it’s possible these proposed solutions won’t make much difference.

Four systemic barriers to evidence use

Four key barriers were identified. The first three are reasonably well known to anyone familiar with debates on the issue in the humanitarian and development space:

  1. Various time pressures impacting key people involved in the ‘pathway’ to evidence use
  2. Funding/resource constraints
  3. A (perceived) lack of relevance of academic evidence to the practicalities of humanitarian operations
  4. Lack of relevance of humanitarian research evidence for humanitarian actors in the Global South

The fourth barrier is pertinent to highlight given current dialogues on humanitarian ‘localisation’, anti-racism, and the decolonisation of global health. As Southern actors are increasingly key players in humanitarian response around the world, not to mention the wealth of public health expertise in Southern institutions, fostering Southern leadership is likely to be an essential pillar for driving impact in humanitarian health research and eradicating some of our most entrenched challenges.

This needs to influence our concept of what research impact looks like, beyond presenting at top-tier conferences and engaging with senior individuals in Geneva or Washington. As funders based in the global North, we also want to support stakeholder engagement and translation of evidence that will empower policymakers and practitioners working directly with crisis-affected communities in the global South.

Unfortunately, the four barriers often act as disincentives for study teams to engage and connect meaningfully in this way. As the paper notes, the barriers are also tough to overcome because of structural incentives embedded within both the humanitarian and academic political economies.

Perhaps the so-called ‘shake-up’ to the sector, partly catalysed by COVID-19, will provide opportunities to empower Southern researchers and evidence brokers in translating evidence for use. But the changes will need to go deeper, considering how research questions are conceptualised and how research partnerships are put together.

All of us — humanitarian organisations and their donors, research organisations, and research funders — have a role to play in overcoming all four barriers.

Moving ‘from knowing to doing’ requires a collective effort

The paper proposes six key action areas with related recommendations:

  1. Partnerships
  2. Global South leadership
  3. Evidence brokering
  4. Research translation and application
  5. Humanitarian data
  6. Humanitarian leadership

For R2HC, two action areas particularly resonate.

First, the need to tackle ‘the last mile’ of research uptake — namely the application of research findings to the operational work of humanitarian practitioners.

Men standing by hand-washing stand
From the blog: Research team assessing handwashing facilities in Zimbabwe in the drought-affected areas. Photo taken as part of an R2HC-supported study tracing community perceptions to curb the spread of COVID-19. Credit: Action Contre la Faim

Though some participatory research methods can enable practitioners to learn from ongoing research (as this blog by an R2HC-funded study team explores), the critical step to connect evidence with front-line practitioners often needs to be taken after final results are available, and researchers themselves may not be best placed to undertake this knowledge translation.

Barrier three — funding constraints- is at play here. This step usually follows the end of a research grant, and to apply the learning requires resources for implementation (the ‘doing’), which we can’t fund.

R2HC already encourages study teams to allocate adequate resources for knowledge translation and communications. And I’m working to develop tools and resources that support study teams and evidence brokers in humanitarian organisations with research-practice engagement and knowledge translation. But all stakeholders need to play a role in closing this gap. The paper suggests humanitarian “implementation science”, may generate solutions- but the idea needs consultation and fleshing out before further investment.

The second proposal of importance for us is fostering and supporting leadership of Southern actors in humanitarian health research. This is a strategic priority for Elrha. On R2HC, as a direct follow up to this paper, we’re aiming to convene consultations to explore how we as a research funder can do more and better here, including looking specifically at how the critical role Southern actors can play in evidence use and impact can be strengthened. We’d welcome any potential collaborators on this front to get in touch with us.

This Learning Paper doesn’t have all the answers; but we hope that with the recommendations and action areas it provides some critical starting points for conversations. We hope you find the paper useful, and would welcome connections, comments and ideas to advance this agenda.

Read the paper in full here.

New learning paper — from knowing to doing: evidence use in the humanitarian sector. visit elrha.org

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Cordelia Lonsdale

Cordelia Lonsdale

Passionate about evidence use and equity in international development and humanitarian response. Research Impact Manager @Elrha.