Partnerships and collaborations between academics and their respective institutions is not something new and so is the long tradition of NGO practitioners in collaborating with like-minded civil society organisations in implementing joint programmes across the globe. What is new, however, is the emerging academic-practitioner collaboration in generation of new knowledge – a field that has long been reserved for academic researchers.
Whereas the emerging collaboration by academics and practitioners in generating knowledge may present ‘new ideas’ worth celebrating, some commentators are hesitant to join the trendy ‘academic-practitioner bandwagons’. Part of the reasons which critics give is that it is very difficult for the wider public to access contemporary research outputs as academic peer-reviewed journal publications are not free, even to the academic community. The limited access to ‘public’ knowledge characterising ‘academic elitism’ is not atypical to academic circles per se. Publications and field reports from some NGO sectors oftentimes are also ‘invisible’, archived or locked up safely in donors’ file cabinets. Besides, cross-institutional sharing of research knowledge experiences between academic institutions and NGO practitioners still remain inadequate, partly because of possible institutional and individual biases and scepticism.
In spite of the perceived problematic divides between academics and practitioners rooted in mutual biases and scepticism as highlighted above, efforts to bridge these gaps have become fashionable and trendy in recent times. Severally, individual academics and NGOs continue to interact: there is active staff mobility between the two spheres as well as in disseminating and making contemporary research knowledge relevant to the wider public. Academics and NGOs/practitioner are also increasingly getting involved beyond their institutional ‘likeness’ in research collaborations. Although this may be perceived as good news, critics question the motives behind academic-practitioner collaboration – whether it provides space for complimentarity, co-conspirators or it is just another form of economic opportunism. Or could it be externally (donor) driven?
In seeking to explore why and how academics and NGOs collaborate, the skills required for successful research collaboration and how they could work better, the John and Elnora Ferguson Centre for African Studies (JEFCAS) at the University of Bradford, INTRAC and World Vision co-organised a two-day workshop in London from 3 – 4 May 2012. This workshop, sponsored by the Development Studies Association’s (DSA) New Ideas Initiative, also explored different categories (CORE Group, 2008) and typologies of academic-practitioners research collaboration models (Roper, 2002).
Several lessons emerged from the case studies that we conducted and the discussions which ensued during the Academic-NGO practitioners’ workshop. Through collaborations, institutions compliment each other’s skills and resource gaps in co-production of knowledge and can also be better placed as co-conspirators in responding to emerging opportunities that only require consortia. Nevertheless, one of the most critical challenges to joint academic-practitioners research collaboration is on how broad research outputs can be easily made available to the general public. We argued that publishing in an open-access type journal offers a user-friendly pathway of addressing the cancer of academic ‘capitalism’ and hawking away of knowledge. Carefully planned cross-professional research collaborations have the potentials of addressing structural and cultural issues inherent between academics and practitioners.
CORE Group (2008) CORE Group Members Discuss NGO Roles in Global Health Research: A summary statement by the CORE Secretariat following CORE Group’s Annual Spring Membership Meeting Atlanta, Georgia, April 14-18.
Laura Roper (2002): Achieving successful academic-practitioner research collaborations, Development in Practice, 12:3-4, 338-345.