There is an increasing focus in academic and policy circles on research-policy partnerships. These partnerships are often achieved through co-creation, or “the joint production of innovation between combinations of industry, research, government and civil society.” Co-creation is central to innovation in the hard sciences and technology, but its role in international relations scholarship and aid policy remains underdeveloped.
As scholars of international aid practice, we believe that co-creation can help us design and conduct more relevant, rigorous, and impactful research. It is also a core mission of the Research on International Policy Implementation Lab (RIPIL), whose co-creation process engages policymakers and practitioners in: 1) the generation of important, policy-relevant research questions; 2) research on these questions, through regular validation and consultation; and 3) the development and dissemination of findings and their policy implications, which often leads to the identification of important new research questions and opportunities.
In this piece, we focus on the first phase: the co-creation of research questions. This is one of the trickiest phases of the co-creation process because it requires researchers and policymakers to find a common question and research design that aligns with academics’ incentive to publish rigorous research and policymakers’ incentive to feed evidence into the policy process. Future blog posts will discuss how to implement co-created research and disseminate co-created findings.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we initiated a collaboration intended to generate policy-relevant research questions on the changing nature of international aid. Our aim was to get a sense of whether the combined shocks of COVID-19, growing calls to decolonize aid, and the rise of populism and popular protest had changed the underlying power dynamics in aid.
Importantly, in this project, we did not just want to learn from practitioners based in Western Europe or North America. We wanted insights from key thinkers and actors from the context where aid dependency has been most acute: the African continent. We wanted to understand how these thought leaders viewed aid-related power dynamics and how research could help answer their most puzzling questions.
Between 2020 and 2022, we conducted one-on-one interviews, organized virtual focus groups, and hosted a high-level roundtable in Geneva with donor governments and international non-government organizations (INGOs) on power in aid, all to better understand the changing nature of aid and the research questions that matter to policymakers, practitioners, and key African thinkers.
A synthesis of our thematic findings is available here. In this blog, we discuss our four most important lessons learned about the co-creation process itself.
First, co-creation requires scholars to bring knowledge to the table and to put the voices of others at the center
We saw our discussions as an exchange of knowledge. Therefore, we wanted to make sure that we brought something to the table. Before each meeting and workshop, we circulated a summary of the existing research and our discussions from previous meetings. Having set the stage with these syntheses, we then focused each interview and workshop on listening (not talking). This allowed us to build on the existing academic knowledge, and to use the conversations to identify how it diverged from the everyday experiences of our interviewees and workshop participants. It also allowed each participant to arrive feeling well-prepared, in part through the materials we provided.
Importantly, we began each workshop and roundtable with presentations by African scholars and practitioners. They helped shape the power dynamics of the conversation from the outset.
The process worked. Our preparation, planning, and careful facilitation enabled open and respectful communication among key African thinkers and representatives of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), donor governments, recipient governments, and the United Nations.
Second, co-creation requires regular communication, persistence, and respect
We wanted to hear what donors, recipients, and key observers had to say about changing power dynamics around aid. We wanted to understand the perspectives of people from different recipient and donor countries to see if there might be broader trends.
Most of the people who participated in our discussions did not know us or each other. To enable an open conversation, we had to create an environment where they could trust us, and each other. This took time. We had to reach out to people repeatedly; build relationships through one-on-one conversations at the beginning of the process; and use these one-on-one conversations and our repeated meetings over time to establish our own credibility. This paid off in the quality of the conversations we were eventually able to have in our focus-group discussions and, subsequently, in our high-level panel in Geneva.
Third, co-creation requires researchers to be flexible and willing to let go of their prior expectations
If the point of co-creation is to spark new lines of inquiry, researchers involved in co-creation must be willing to let go of the questions they think they should be asking and be open to the questions that others think are most important.
In our initial one-on-one conversations, we focused on asking open-ended, big picture questions to get a sense of whether participants thought power dynamics had changed and, if so, how. In some cases, their answers confirmed our assumptions. In others, we were surprised by new insights.
For example, respondents indicated that the rise of populism in Africa was leading to a backlash against aid recipients and donors. This led us to start a new research project on aid and populism that we could not have imagined at the beginning of the process.
Fourth, co-creation requires a considerable time investment
This is hard to understate. Co-creating research questions involves the translation and transfer of ideas between science, policy, and practice over an extended period. This means that researchers should not engage in co-creation expecting quick wins or immediate research results. Co-creation is not a quick strategy to increase your research output, but a long-term commitment to identifying important research questions and building the relationships necessary to answer them.
When done well, co-creation has the potential to improve the relevance and impact of research, foster greater collaboration and understanding between researchers and practitioners, and ultimately contribute to positive change in the aid sector. But it is time-consuming and requires patience, careful planning, regularly questioning one’s assumptions, and continuous communication.
We believe that the investment of adequate time up front has been worthwhile, greatly enhancing our understanding of the power dynamics in aid today and enabling us to ask (and answer) cutting-edge research questions. It has also given us the connections necessary to conduct research on these dynamics, ensuring that our research authentically reflects the views shared by African stakeholders and is relevant to aid policymakers and practitioners globally.
To learn more about RIPIL, visit https://bridgingthegapproject.org/ripil/.