Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Bridging Research and Policy

Time (GMT +01) 08:30 11:00


Simon Maxwell

John Young
Karin Christiansen
Margie Buchanan-Smith
William Solesbury
Julius Court

  • This was an open seminar to discuss the results of ODI’s Bridging Research and Policy Project. Simon Maxwell introduced the session suggesting that different individuals play many varied roles in international development, bridging research and policy should be a common competency of them all.

  • John Young outlined the work of the RAPID programme so far, describing how an analytic framework of bridging: context, evidence and links had developed from a review of recent theory. This was to tested in the four case studies to be presented today.

  • Karin Christiansen described the first case study: the move towards PRSP’s by the World Bank.

  • She outlined the complications in the story of a policy shift where many different individuals took credit for creating the PRSP. This led to the idea having many ‘champions’ who lobbied for it in various contexts.

  • A window of opportunity was created globally, inside IFIs and within national government as major, well respected critiques of past policies emerged. These contexts were actively shaped and changed by individuals.

  • Even when ‘labels have come off the idea’ rigorous, well regarded evidence can have an indirect effect on policy.

  • This case study made clear the importance of understanding the context that policy makers are working in: their agendas and their constraints.

  • Margie Buchanan-Smith spoke about the second case study: the emergence of the Sphere project to strengthen accountability within humanitarian agencies.

  • This shift emerged in the wake of the Rwandan crisis in 1994, when the work of numerous NGOs came under critique.

  • There was a consensus amongst both NGO practitioners and the donor community that minimum standards of humanitarian practice should be made clear.

  • The resulting Joint Evaluation Study 3 was seen as a ‘Rolls Royce’ of an evaluation: it was well resourced, rigorous and undertaken by both academic researchers and those with operational experience. The findings were presented in an accessible way and the team was safeguarded from external pressures by steering committee.

  • She posed the question: does there need to be a strong push factor for major change to occur within the humanitarian sector?

  • John Young presented the case of animal health care in Kenya, where the question was not so much how policies change, but why they do not change.

  • In Kenya, livestock owners were trained to provide animal care services for a fee. This practice was illegal, but spread like wildfire across the country where conventional veterinary services were inaccessible.

  • Despite the efforts of NGOs like ITDG, the successful training programmes were not legalised, and the Kenyan Veterinary Board was consistently obstructive – publishing an open letter threatening prosecution in the national press.

  • This case study poses the question: How can we win over individuals who are trying to block change?

  • William Solesbury described the case study where DFID incorporated a new perspective: sustainable livelihoods, into the core of their policy making.

  • The concept first came to prominence in a seminal paper by Chambers and Conway in 1992, which was very widely read and well remembered.

  • By the mid 1990s, at the time when the 1997 White Paper was being drafted, the idea was ‘in good currency’. It was seen as an attractive way to mark the start of a new government with a new and fresh approach to development.

  • The story highlights that a clear division between ‘researchers’ and ‘policy-makers’ does not hold. Many individuals played various roles in the process, and movement between jobs and institutions was critical.

  • William concluded that the case study illustrates the need to separate ‘necessary’ and ‘sufficient’ conditions for policy change – putting all the necessary conditions in place to make a policy change, doesn’t guarantee that one will occur. Time and chance will always be major factors.

  • Julius Court rounded up by presenting some of the cross-cutting issues and lessons which emerge from these cases. The cases showed the RAPID analytic framework to be robust, but that the trio of context, evidence and links should be best understood as floating spheres, overlapping differently in different instances.

  • He argued that context is the crucial factor in policy shift, but that you can maximise your chances. There are ways to cater to the demands of policy makers, and there are also ways to create that demand itself.

  • There are various gaps in our current body of understanding: principally around the area of ‘links’. There is a need to tackle issues of trust and legitimacy, the use of networks, and a need to develop better theory specifically for developing countries (rather than the development context as a whole).

  • He outlined the future work of the RAPID programme: including systematic cross-country studies, for example a study of the factors shaping HIV/AIDS policies in different countries, and action-research with on-going research projects to promote greater policy impact.

Comments addressed a number of issues

  1. There are communication issues between researchers, policy makers and ordinary people in a developing context – it is important to always bear in mind who research is coming from and in whose interests it serves.
    The time lapse between research and policy is a key factor and will always put some policy issues beyond the grasp of research.
  2. Evidence has to construct a strong narrative that makes explicit links between action and improvements.
  3. Whilst you have to understand how to cater to the interests of policy makers, it is important to realise that these are not immovable things. Interests are always tradable and we need to know how they can be bought off.
  4. There is always an issue of how much the policy environment at an institutional level really affects people on the ground. We have to avoid looking at bridging research and policy as a centralised planning exercise.
  5. We have seen how political contexts change, but evidence changes too – what happens when the policy context influences the evidence?
  6. Where does research stop and campaigning begin?
  7. We have to think about what happens in a policy change when the heat has gone out of it. When policy shift are operationalised they often lose a sense of passion – how do we keep this momentum going?
  8. Time and chance are undeniably important, but can we find ways to predict policy opportunities?
  9. The important thing is creating as much collaboration in research as possible, so there is a shared investment in evidence.
  10. We have to be able to turn these cases into tools to help individuals make strategic decisions in how they allocate resources.
  11. We have to think about the structures of incentives that tend to lead people to do certain things – in what way can we design institutions that bridge research and policy more effectively?


How can policy-makers best use research, and move towards evidence-based policy-making? How can researchers best use their findings in order to influence policy? How can the interaction between researchers and policy-makers be improved? ODI’s Bridging Research and Policy project has been exploring these questions over the last 18 months. This seminar provided an opportunity to learn more about this project, which included a literature review, the development of a new framework for analyzing and strengthening research-policy links and four in-depth case studies.

The New Framework suggests that research uptake is a function of the interaction of Context: Politics and Institutions; Evidence: Approach and Credibility; and Links between Researchers and Policymakers. The project used the framework to explore four recent policy events:

  • How did Poverty Reduction Strategies emerge from the international discourse about the Common Development Framework, and become the key financial planning instrument for the World Bank, the IMF and most bilateral donor programmes in 1999?
  • The Sphere Project is spearheading the move to strengthen the accountability of humanitarian agencies and to find ways of improving performance in humanitarian response. How did research, and in particular to Joint Rwanda Evaluation contribute to this policy initiative?
  • There has been a quiet revolution in Livestock Services in Northern Kenya over the last decade where veterinary services are now provided illegally by trained livestock keepers rather than veterinary staff. Why has convincing evidence of their effectiveness not lead to policy and legal reform?
  • How did research contribute to the development of the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach, its adoption as one of the key principles of the 1997 White Paper and its rapid institutionalisation within DFID over the subsequent few years?
This seminar, and corresponding workshop, aimed to develop practical approaches to promoting evidence-based policy. The public seminar was held in the morning to present and discuss the results of the research with an audience of researchers, policy-makers and practitioners.