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Knowledge, policy and power: New directions in the development policy arena

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30
Nicola Jones
– Research Fellow and Programme Leader, Research and Policy in Development (RAPID), Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
Dr Naya Sharma Paudel - Environmental Governance Specialist, Forest Action Nepal

Louise Shaxson, Director, Delta Partnership

John Young – Director of Programmes, Research and Policy in Development (RAPID), Overseas Development Institute (ODI)


John Youngopened the meeting by explaining the background and purpose of the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) Programme at ODI. He noted that RAPID focuses on two main areas: understanding the role of knowledge in development policy and practice; and the skills, capacities and competencies necessary for organisations to translate knowledge into action. The booklet that the event centres around is an important first step in outlining RAPID’s future research agenda within the first area of focus.

First speaker, Nicola Jones: Background and content of the Knowledge, Policy, Power (KPP) paper

Nicola Jones began by describing the positive role that research can have on development policy in describing the influence of the non-political evaluation of Mexico’s conditional cash transfer programme – Progresa, which contributed to the longevity of the programme though a number of governmental changes and assisted in persuading other governments to invest in similar programmes. Conversely, climate science was discussed as an example of piecemeal impact.

She noted that this implores the development community to think more strategically about the conditions in which knowledge makes a difference, as well as how to think about the justification of funding. She then addresses the six dimensions identified in the KPP paper, which seek to expand on a previous framework (context, evidence and linkages) that acted as an analytical starting point, but does not sufficiently address the nuance and complexity of KPP debates.

These are respectively:

1.    Types of knowledge – interaction with policy alternates depending upon the uses of knowledge from scientific research, project or programme information, e.g. the SMERU research institute has approach policy work on social safety nets by drawing data from participatory processes, econometrics and independent data sets.

2.    Political context - one party, post-conflict, level of authority, regional forums, - but the interest is in why some are more likely to listen to new knowledge.

3.    Sectoral Dynamics – there is little systemic discussion on the dynamics of policy dialogues and the privileging of discussions and the differing characteristics between a. complex debates (trade) b. economic interests – dominated by private sector which may limit participatory knowledge c. issue contestation – in reproductive health, moral arguments carry greater weight and d. internationalisation of debates – linkages to international debates and actors enhance chances of success

4.    Actors – including traditional leaders, think tanks, legislators and networks. For instance, there is significant interest from the Hewlitt foundation in African think-tanks, which will adjust future knowledge – policy negotiations locally and internationally. Furthermore, the role of legislators in ensuring bureaucratic process has been under investigated

5.    Innovative Frameworks – these now need expanding using complexity theory and the application of social science to understand multidimensional issues and feedback mechanisms, as well as the multiple knowledge sources that need to be facilitated and incorporated.

6.    Knowledge Translation – an attribute not readily accessible to decision-makers, this moves away from a linear modal of Knowledge Policy linkages toward packaging knowledge appropriately between actors not normally in contact and uptake.

By way of conclusion, Dr. Jones noted that although the RAPID framework provides entry point, effective tools still require mindfulness of the extreme complexity in KPP issues and that there are 3 main gaps in our knowledge that need filling.

Firstly, while sharing experience is critical, there is demand to systematize these insights to facilitate more tailored approaches – e.g. working across countries with legislators or within countries on sectors in order to identify similarities and differences.

Secondly, the appropriate role of intermediaries in translating and brokering information at critical points in the knowledge-policy information transfer chain needs greater investigation

Thirdly, how best to work with or dismantle specific knowledge hierarchies requires further explanation, including the specifics on how to do that depending on context and sector

Second Speaker: Dr. Naya Paudel - Knowledge, policy and power: Insights from Nepal’s forest policy process

Dr. Paudal highlighted his position working between researchers and policy makers on forestry and environmental issues in Nepal. He summarised his presentation in terms of discussing 3 areas – 1. the research policy context, 2. two case studies, and 3.  opportunities and challenges

1.       The research policy context

Dr. Paudal discussed the position of Nepal as a state emerging from a decade long Moaist conflict and having undertaken a peace agreement and the drafting of new constitution that has brought a ‘New Nepal’ discourse with all its inclusive and democratic promises.  There is, however, a frequently changing government and weak rule of law with political actors becoming increasingly dominant and reliant on bureaucratic structures.

Furthermore, he noted that the significance of the forestry sector is based on the fact that Nepal is largely agrarian, with livelihood issues therefore based on land concerns and resource use, as well as forestry bureaucracy and significant environmental concerns (downstream effects). These policy concerns have brought about a power configuration that has traditionally involved strong civic action (more so than other sectors).

Dr. Paudel then mentioned the major policy issues, i.e. institutional modality – contestation on use of Terai forest, with almost all forest owned by states and handed to committees; tenure security – controls vary with management rights, climate science – carbon use will undermine local community user rights in favour of government revenue; and evaluation reports – existing knowledge comes from the commission or from international Master’s and Ph.D programmes.

Case 1 – Forest Sector Restructuring Task-force

Dr. Paudel presented this case study to demonstrate the challenge of a shifting political context. A forest sector restructuring task force was created with input from donors, civil groups, consultancies. These were looking for window of opportunity and managed to expand the Task Force mandate to include regional consultations. However, despite a comprehensive report being finalised over one and a half years, it now sits on a ministry shelf.

As a result, Dr. Paudel declared a number of opportunities and challenges in the political context, such as increased access of researchers to political forums alongside low government ownership, as well as opportunities and challenges in the forestry sector, such as increased civil society capacity in turning over information rapidly despite the difficulty of translating complex (e.g. climate) information into policy suggestions.

Case 2 – Constitutional Assembly

This second case-study provides is presented by Dr. Paudal as a counter-point to the first in that demonstrates the opportunities that actors or groups (in this case the Forestry Sector) can now seize at government level. He introduced this in terms of a consultation group that is now existent within the new government structure that consists of a range stakeholders through which interest groups can represent themselves to committees and ministers, as well as where individual citizens can present input where necessary.

The group is said to provide a facility for constitution building where researchers have direct access to policy making and where their evidence is given more credit. By contrast, it was noted that MPs often tend to remain ideologically divided and hence seek out friendly or resonant knowledge only.

Dr.Paudel closed with five general lessons:

1.       Rapid and timely (quick and dirty) analysis is more suitable during political transition

2.       Producing evidence is not enough – communication to the right actors is vital (task force report)

3.       High level of contestation limits the scope of research (land reform or management of Terai forest) 

4.       Bureaucrats’ vested interests on forests leads to ignoring any evidence against their interests.

5.       Internationalisation of agenda is helpful in bringing about policy change

Discussant - Louise Shaxson

Ms. Shaxson declared that the depth of analysis in the KPP report is commendable, but in relation to her particular role as a management consultant in the UK context, she could make four observations;

1.       Importance of the type of issue: Ms. Shaxson stated that more investigation on this is necessary at the outset of knowledge –policy interactions, with cost-effectiveness and clarity of demand-pull being critical. For instance, clear political goals will source robust evidence. The challenge however, is the ‘how to do it’ rather than the ‘what’, e.g MDGS are high –level, but below it is much discussion, while water policy in the UK is backed by sanctions (a major driver).

2.       Knowledge : In a mature policy area, policy context of target area is important. Bureaucratic response is greater if knowledge resonates (politcally palatable).

3.       Actors: Although types of actors are well covered in research, Civil Society organisations are often viewed as lobby groups, but there is no upfront reason why these should be privileged (between executive and legislative).

4.       Tools: management consultants have a suite of tools, trade models, analyses etc. that need to be simple, especially if fast moving agenda. e.g. outcome mapping is not always appropriate.

In concluding, Ms. Shaxson implored the audience to be aware of the context in which civil servants work, i.e. that they are often fearful of internal change. In this regard, we should all remain sympathetic to organisational complexity.

Questions/Answers session

On type of knowledge:

Q: How are civil society groups legitimised and prioritised?

A: We do not systematically source citizen knowledge (on UK basis) – citizen  input is not brought in , and if it is, it is in anecdotal in form. However, if policy makers pay too much attention to citizen juries, then democratic process could be challenged.

A: Even if there are mechanisms to pickup info from civil society groups,they often lack capacity to articulate appropriately. Therefore there is a role for knowledge translation capacity building.

A: In Nepal, forestry groups now less representation in policy forums. They are even more marginalised, remote stakeholders, and the crisis of legitimacy is increased – a different context to the UK.

Q: Why is donor/consultancy research favoured in the Nepal context?

A:  In Nepal, the use of World Bank data is easily accepted from CSOs, and each group has a national federation in which they influence national policy. Meanwhile, the Government has limited capacity to invest in other baseline surveys.

Q: To what extent has ‘power’ been considered in the KPP paper?

A: Power is conceptually represented through the use of the term ‘knowledge’, rather than ‘evidence’. This understanding of knowledge includes the various types of power – hidden discourse, overt, or participatory – and is present in various ways throughout each of the six dimensions discussed in the paper.

Q: what is the role of individual behaviour/roles in the KPP process?

A:  In Nepal, a programme concerned with leasehold forestry over 20 years showed particular people in different bureaucracies relying on personal experiences that reinforce outcomes. These individuals have a moral commitment that is consistent over time and place. This raises interesting questions on taking account of these personalities , finding them and mapping them.

A: We must also be aware of relying on single personalities–they may leave their role/position.

Q: Discussions on knowledge procurement processes need space – there are inefficiencies on government procurement processes and the supply-demand structure.

A: Agreed, noting that it is better to avoid using heavy reports and aggressive approaches in favour of having shortened/contextual responses or suggestions.

Q: Is there a growing agenda on knowledge-brokering?

A: Agreed, the role of intermediaries needs to be expanded – where they should be placed and the type of partnership they should forge should be analysed more systematically and regularly.


The results of household disease surveys in two rural districts in Tanzania informed a process of health service reforms that contributed to over 40% reductions in infant mortality between 2000 and 2003.

The evaluation evidence from Mexico’s Progresa/Opportunidades cash transfer programme has inspired governments around the world to invest in social protection for children and their families.

Examples like these show the critical importance of knowledge in strengthening policy and practice in development circles. While there is considerable value in academic knowledge in terms of shaping the thinking of policy actors and practitioners over time, policy research can also have far-reaching impacts on programme design and budget allocations, with tangible impacts for the poor and marginalised.

At this event,  Dr Nicola Jones introduced new thinking about the role of knowledge in development policy and practice undertaken by the Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI’s) Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme. Recent research has focused on six key factors that contribute to or limit the ability for knowledge to translate into action: types of knowledge, political context factors, policy sector dynamics,  policy actors, innovative frameworks and the knowledge translation process.

Dr Naya Sharma Paudel discussed his recent work on the forestry sector in post-conflict Nepal, exploring the contested nature of knowledge production and tensions that are often present between technocratic expertise and community sources of knowledge.