Bridging the Gap – Designing Effective Cooperation between Academia and Practitioners for Better Results

By Kacana Sipangule

While development practitioners and researchers both share the ultimate goal of fostering economic development, the ways in which these two groups work to achieve this goal are often polarized. In Germany, in particular, recent surveys conducted by the Poverty Reduction Equity and Growth Network (PEGNet) indicate that development practitioners do not base their work on results obtained from development research and vice-versa. Motivated by this evident gap, PEGNet initiated the Best Practice Award to recognise projects that have successfully managed to achieve effective interaction and cooperation between research and practice. This year, the Best Practice Award will be awarded for the sixth time at the PEGNet Annual Conference that will be held in Lusaka, Zambia on September 18 and 19.

This session aimed to identify the challenges faced in fostering cooperation between the two groups and to provide lessons from three projects that were awarded the PEGNet Best Practice Award. The session was chaired by Eva Terberger from the Evaluation Institute of the German Development Bank (KfW). Having previously worked in academia and now currently involved in more practical development work, Eva Terberger brought an interesting perspective to the panel by sharing her experiences from both fields.

The first presentation was given by Andrea Vigorito from the Universidad de la República in Uruguay. Andrea Vigorito and Veronica Amarante were awarded the 2009 PEGNet Best Practice Award for their project on the ‘Design and Implementation of Conditional Cash Transfer programs in Uraguay’. This project was a collaborative effort between the Uruguayan Ministry of Social Development (MIDES), Social Security Institute (BPS) and three faculties of the Universidad de la República. The project administered and evaluated the effectiveness of the PANES temporary cash transfer on its recipients. Andrea highlighted the initial challenges faced by the collaboration between researchers and practitioners in the project which included difficulties in finding a common language and goals that resulted in the delay of the research agenda. Despite these setbacks, the project successfully managed to reduce the poverty levels of its beneficiaries by 6 percent.

Esaie Gondonou from the University of Benin illustrated how development interventions may fail if they neglect central problems. Together with a team of researchers from Universities in Benin, Switzerland, the Netherlands as well as a group of practitioners from the National Bureau of Statistics in Benin and the German Ministry for Development cooperation, Esaie Gondonou was awarded the 2012 Best Practice Award for his project on “Impact evaluation of drinking water supply and sanitation programmes in rural Benin”. He showed that interventions aimed at promoting piped water did not have an effect on reducing water borne diseases because they neglected one key issue- hygienic water storage and sanitation. Using an RCT the project showed that campaigning messages increased safe drinking water and reduced the incidence of disease.

The third presentation was given by Nicole Stauf from the Health Bureau. Nicole Stauf demonstrated that sometimes the smallest development interventions can have the largest impact in her presentation of the “Fit for School – bringing public health to a public place through innovation and research” project that was awarded the 2011 Best Practice Award. The Fit for school programme is collaboration between GIZ and UNICEF that aims to improving the health and educational achievements of children attending school through three main interventions; encouraging students to brush their teeth, wash their hands daily and to deworm bi-annually. The project was evaluated by researchers at the University of the Philippines, the University of London and George Washington University. It resulted in reduced school absenteeism, worm infection and dental caries infections. The project also increased body mass indices of children that participated in the project.

 “It’s all very well in practice, but it will never work in theory.”  (French proverb)

Annamarie Bindenagel Sehovic, the fourth presenter in the session was more sceptical on the interaction between these two fields. She opened her presentation by citing a French proverb that she used to summarise her experiences while working on HIV/AIDS research in South Africa. She pointed out that the South African State had failed in its responsibility to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic which led to the emergence of non-state actors such as NGOs who filled the void. She then presented a theoretical framework that showed steps that need to be taken to bridge the evident gap.

The presentations led to several reactions from the audience who were particularly interested in the setup of the projects and the ways in which challenges such as finding a common language between researcher and practitioners can be overcome. The session effectively managed to highlight the importance in bridging the gap between practice and academia in developing and developed countries which is one of the main aims of PEGNet.

Kacana Sipangule is a PhD Candidate in Economics at the University of Goettingen and a Research Fellow at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy and the Poverty Reduction Equity Growth Network (PEGNet).