Global Challenges Summit 2018. “NGOs – why work with academics?”

The Global Challenges Summit 2018, co-hosted by Northumbria, Newcastle and Durham Universities, held yesterday (26th July) was hugely informative, inspiring and exceptional for sharing perspectives and making new contacts.

Northumbria’s very own Matt Bailie-Smith hosted an insightful informal ‘sofa-style’ session ‘Thinking Across Sectors’ with guests from NGOs and consultants working in international development, based on the north-east:  Ben Margetts of Team Kenya, Catherine Gunby of Traidcraft, Lucy Kendall of COCO (Comrades of Children Overseas) and Rachel Shah of Springfield Centre.

In this blog post, we’ve captured the main points – potentially useful learning points for the academic community.

Matt kicked of with ‘Why work with academics?’ 

The answers were varied and very positive – to gain new models of working and ideas, to gain new insights from academics who may have worked in a specific field/region for many years, to have a critique of the NGO’s work methods and evidence, to understand and use the most suitable methods for research taking account of the theory and different points of view, for the research which is produced to have more ‘authority’ and independence, to gather evidence, and to be endorsed and validated by a leader in their academic field.

Matt summed this up as ‘evaluation, evidence, independence’ and then asked then asked researchers in the audience to consider if their own CV could convey these three key offers.

‘What do you need to work with academics?’

Easy access information to find out about academics and their interests and expertise. Currently, it’s difficult to find out who is who and you tend to work with the same people, as it takes time to find new people. Help us with theory of change, and help us take a step back and design our activities to really deliver what we want to achieve.

Matt then daringly asked ‘Why might you choose not to work with academics?’

NGOs want concrete, definite recommendations and clarity and sometimes academic outputs are lengthy and too nuanced. Time pressures mean NGOs do not have time to set the ball rolling on new relationships or to read 300 page reports. Funding is a frustration, with GCRF and other funding for academic research allowing only a small proportion of funding to the practitioners which is disportionate to the effort required. NGOs struggle with when to say yes and when to say know to taking part in funding proposals, especially small NGOs with limited time and human resource. When time is limited, there can be a dilemma on whether to spend the time influencing and lobbying others who have more ‘power’ or to work on a partnership with a university. Heavily academic proposals can be a bit scary to be involved in. There are ‘language’ barriers with academics using terminology which is unfamiliar to the NGO. There can be a real time lag before the NGO gets the research findings it really needs to have an impact on development practice, and these lags can mean the agenda has moved on. NGOs need a mix of meeting short terms needs and preparing for the long term too. There is an advantage in longer term relationships, as you build trust and know eachother.

“What do you need to improve collaborative working with academics?”

A network of charities and universities based in the north-east would be really helpful, enabling us all to know what we are working on and how we can achieve mutual benefit. The NGOs themselves need to know what eachother is doing, not just the universities. Collaborative working needs a shared understanding of timelines and constraints which each partner works under (NGOs and universities will have different needs) and have a very frank dialogue on what everyone needs to that interests align enough for the working together to be worth it for all parties.

Here is our ‘happy family’ photo captured at the end of the session. Thank you to all for a very informative Summit!