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How Can Research Build Capacity for Development?

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30

Andrew Barnett
, Director, The Policy Practice
Dr Dave Haran, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine


Dr Barbara Adolph, Triple Line Consulting


Andrew Long, Central Research Department, DFID

Andrew Barnett

Andrew Barnett focused on outlining the Innovations Systems model, and described the benefits that this approach can bring to capacity development activities.

He argued that in recent years the emphasis on demonstrating the 'impact' of research has led to hostility towards the area, since evidence of research impact is typically slight. Research has become seen in some quarters as the opposite of action, rather than the opposite of ignorance. Since research has an impact where it is used, then looking for this impact is to demand innovation - the use of new ideas in a place or by people where they have not been used before. If research converts money into knowledge, then innovation converts knowledge into money.

The essence of the Innovation Systems approach is to put weight on understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the systems involved in effective innovation: the context of rules, institutions and infrastructure that constrain and facilitate the innovation process. This involves working with a wider range of actors, as it is important to strengthen all parts of this system, and to ensure that two-way communication between the actors balances supply and demand to ensure that research evolves to meet the needs of practitioners. One application of this approach is the DFID Crop Post Harvest Programme (CPHP), which explicitly drew on innovation literature. The CPHP represents an exciting change in the way research is managed because it worked at project level.

The implication for capacity development is that the focus should shift to what capacities are needed at each stage of the innovation system to facilitate the transfer of research into use. This would involve working not just with researchers and their organisations, but also businesses and practitioners, and 'intermediate organisations' such as consultancies and facilitators. To temper these conclusions, Andrew added that it is necessary to also bear in mind that people-embodied knowledge is also important, and that the pressure to codify knowledge is not always appropriate.

Dr Dave Haran described his experiences of capacity development from research programmes. He argued that capacity development is, at its core, about taking individuals and making them better at doing their jobs, for the purpose of developing livelihoods and improving the quality of life of populations. This typically involves research, training and policy development, and needs strategies for how to implement the policies. To carry out these activities effectively, it is incredibly important to monitor and evaluate training, something which is very rarely done.

The health service capacity building which Dave has been involved with can by split into 5 types:

  1. Classic training through health service skills courses

  2. Training on specific courses aimed at individual skills development

  3. University career development qualifications such as MPHs and PhDs

  4. On the job training

  5. Consultancy

Of these, by far the most important and effective have been numbers 4 and 5. Over the 16 years of Dave's experience he has observed shifts from developing the capacity of the LSTM (by learning lessons from African counterparts) to developing the capacity of developing country partners; from disciplinary training and support to building capacity for communication and advocacy; and most significantly, from classical training approaches to on the job training and consultancy.

Dave ended his presentation by highlighting the danger of capacity building: capacity building benefits individuals, who have their own career paths independent of the institutions they work for. In the international market for academic and consultancy skills, most Ministries of Health and academic institutes in poorer developing countries cannot compete. What he regards as his 6 biggest successes in building capacity were members of staff for the Ministry of Health (MoH) in Ghana; these individuals have all now joined international organisations. Has his capacity building therefore served to benefit the MoH or destroyed it?

Dr Barbara Adolph

Discussant Barbara Adolph reacted to the points raised by the two speakers by highlighting 3 sets of questions and issues.

The first surrounds the definition and the correct focus of capacity development. She argued that although Dave had focused on the human resources aspect, it is also important to recognise that the capacity of institutions is important. However, in many situations, the facilities and infrastructure are not as important as the lack of resources, which is often the cause of organisations losing staff overseas. What might be a way forward is to understand how capacity is linked to the national innovation environment: perhaps we need to develop the capacity of all parts of the system, and change the incentives for individuals within organisations.

Second, we need to ask whether the 'Innovation Systems' approach is really very different from action research (AR) programmes, or whether it simply introduces more jargon. At the very least, we need to recognise that a lot of good research has aimed for this sort of impact all along, even if the elements of this approach which were already present were only tacitly acknowledged. When considering this question we should ask what taking an Innovation Systems approach means for those in the South - are we swamping them with more jargon, or do we need this new framework to trigger change and mobilise activity around these principles (whether or not it was often done already)?

Third, we should bear in mind the power relationships between those involved in research and capacity building, and donors. Who decided who is involved in capacity building? Is this shift to innovations systems thinking a real power shift or simply an indication of the current 'flavour of the month'?


  • Andrew Barnett argued that the Innovations Systems approach is hugely different to AR. Innovation Systems gives a or summary of best practice for a number of important lessons which, even if they were tacitly acknowledged by those carrying out AR projects, was certainly not codified or extracted.

  • It is a trade-off between creating knowledge (research) and putting knowledge into use (innovation), and it is important to strike a balance between these, rather than favour one over another. Andrew argued that the emphasis of Innovation Systems was necessary to make the balance a healthier one.

  • Andrew argued that Innovations Systems show that that there is a role for Northern institutions in research and capacity building, and the UK government has a responsibility to utilise UK knowledge on development.

  • Dave Haran argued that in order to influence who is involved in capacity building, it is necessary to engage with those bodies which really control the services (e.g. for health, he found it was frequently the Ministry of Finance). It is also very effective to identify and then work with those individuals who will be the policy makers (for example he had great success after working with someone whom he knew would become the Minister for Health in 5 years' time).

  • The Innovations Systems' focus on money was questioned: it was suggested that this ignores the fact that there are many other incentives and outcomes which people aim for (quality of life). Dave agreed that we should focus on improving quality of life, and Andrew argued that the focus on money was necessary, as looking at other mechanisms for research uptake and utilisation had failed.

  • Institutional capacity development is essential for long-term capacity building, but it is a mammoth task. For example, building the capacity of the Ministry of Health in Syria was Dave's first task and this required all 50,000 employees to be given job descriptions!

  • We should be looking at networks rather than institutions. Most researchers would define their position by declaring allegiance to some knowledge network, and it is these which we should be strengthening.

  • We should also look to strengthen the linkages in the knowledge system to those in less well organised groups.


The third seminar in the 'Learning from Experience' series focused on how research can build capacity for development, through the Innovations Systems model.

The meeting looked at the essence of the Innovation Systems approach is to put weight on understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the systems involved in effective innovation.