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Co-production: an opportunity to rethink research partnerships

by Dr. Caitlin Wake and Dr. Michelle Lokot
12 April 2021

The recent focus on localisation and decolonising humanitarian action has meant increased scrutiny on how humanitarian actors collaborate and how international and ‘local’ non-governmental organisations (NGOs) might equitably share power and resources. Terms like ‘collaboration’ and ‘partnership’ are most commonly used to describe these engagements and, increasingly, the term ‘co-production’ is being used within the humanitarian sector. Yet while there is a growing body of literature and evidence on co-production in healthcare and service settings, there is a dearth of research or guidance on the co-production of research in humanitarian settings. 

Co-production is a murky and in vogue term, used colloquially to refer to all manner of partnerships. For instance, when a university or international NGO/institute designs research and sub-contracts a local NGO to carry out data collection, it may be (inaccurately) framed as co-production. Although the local NGO might not be invited to participate in data analysis, and communities who participated in the research themselves never hear back about the findings or outcomes, such research may be problematically labelled as ‘co-produced’. In this kind of dynamic, the difficult work of data collection is outsourced to those ‘in the field’ while ‘experts’ sit in offices in London and New York to design research questions and tools, dictate how data collection occurs, and analyse and write-up the findings. Through this process, the power hierarchies that already structure humanitarian aid are reinforced. 

We argue that co-production within research is more than a sub-contracting dynamic. As part of the RECAP and GOAL projects at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, we recently conducted a study on the co-production of research in humanitarian settings. We interviewed a range of NGOs, universities and other research actors about their experiences of co-producing research and research partnerships. This research resulted in a Practice Guide outlining some practical considerations and advice for NGOs and universities interested in co-producing research in humanitarian settings. In the Practice Guide, we suggest a definition of co-production within research that encompasses seven aspirational principles:

Co-production in research refers to a horizontal partnership between researchers (both academic and non-academic) and active research participants to undertake research that can inform action. Co-produced research tackles unequal power dynamics, challenges existing knowledge production hierarchies, ensures more equal partnerships and shared decision making, emphasises reciprocity, promotes mutual capacity strengthening, ensures greater reflexivity and enables flexible ways of interacting and working across the research cycle.

Our interviews reinforce what is evident in the literature: that co-production is not an outcome but a process. In reality, faced with donor demands, ethics committee requirements, time pressures and competing work priorities, it can be difficult to focus on all the principles. Indeed, individuals committed to co-production are still often part of bureaucratic structures and hierarchical organisations that do not necessarily support the flexible, open, creative space needed for co-production. We suggest the principles of co-production, discussed below, are aspirational and may be addressed incrementally. This aligns with other work that suggests co-production occurs on a spectrum.

  1. Tackling unequal power dynamics is a central principle of co-producing research and cuts across all the other principles we have identified. Power affects all aspects of research, including who funds it and sets the research agenda, who makes decisions within partnerships, whose voices are heard and how findings are disseminated. Power is shaped by structures and identities such as race, gender and disability, and is reinforced by social relations and access to resources. In humanitarian contexts, power asymmetries between Northern and Southern partners may include tension around technical expertise versus experiential knowledge, who collects data and who authors outputs, and access to resources (including those to ensure safety and security in high-risk field sites). Conducting co-produced research requires disrupting traditional power hierarchies. Naming and discussing them openly is a first step, but this must be followed by deliberate action to redress the inequitable distribution of power.
  2. Challenging knowledge production hierarchies is another important principle for co-production, because international (Western), technical, expert knowledge has traditionally been valued over local and experiential knowledge. While incorporating a diverse range of voices into all stages of the research cycle is an important starting place, challenging knowledge hierarchies also involves rebalancing the weight those voices are given throughout the research cycle. In humanitarian settings, this means the experiences and viewpoints of those affected by crises, as well as local responders, should be valued as much as the perspectives of those in greater positions of power.
  3. Ensuring more equitable partnerships and shared decision-making is particularly relevant for co-produced research in humanitarian settings. Despite recent efforts to ensure locally led humanitarian action,  research partnerships within the sector still tend to be unequal, with international actors more likely to hold funding and set the research agenda. Research partnerships are often forged on short-term contracts, with one party assigning the work and the other obliged to complete it. This is not what we would term co-production. Interviewees emphasised the importance of involving all stakeholders from the outset, so that joint decisions are made about the focus of the research, methodology, ethics, budget, authorship and dissemination. In practice, this is difficult work. It means building relationships before funding proposals are drafted, and changing the normalised practice of finding a local partner to collect data just before data collection. One interviewee, who worked for an NGO in Asia, said, ‘Always look at the end product as something that is contributing to your partners. Never look at the commissioning or a study simply as a commission. Never see your partners as an instrument. Treat them equally the way that you want to be treated by others’.
  4. Reciprocity is also important. Part of creating more equitable partnerships involves ensuring all stakeholders – including those conducting and participating in the research – benefit from their involvement. Reciprocity refers to an exchange of time, knowledge and participation across all stages of the research process for mutual benefit. As one woman from an NGO in South Africa said, ‘A lot of the time, we expect participants to just give their time for free. We also expect people to be part of something that then has an academic paper as an outcome. That has very little relevance to most of the stakeholders that you’re engaging with. There’s got to be something in it for them … There’s got to be some value in them attending’.  Such an exchange can foster trust, respect and responsibility-sharing.
  5. Capacity strengthening has long been implemented (and debated) in humanitarian and development work; however, we position mutual capacity strengthening as a key principle of co-production. The word mutual is crucial – it is not about one partner assessing and strengthening the capacity of the other. Rather, it recognises that each stakeholder brings diverse knowledge, skills, experiences and views to the partnership. In addition to making a valuable contribution, each partner stands to help the other learn and improve anything from their understanding of people affected by crisis, to local customs and norms and technical research skills. Capacity strengthening happens at individual, organisational and community levels, and is often most effective and sustainable when done over the medium to long term. This may be challenging with short-term project and funding cycles, but it is something to aspire to.
  6. Ensuring reflexivity in research is common practice in academia but perhaps less so in NGO-led research. Reflexivity within research means critically reflecting on all aspects of the partnership and research cycle, and specifically thinking about how our positionality (our own background, culture, identity) and perspectives (assumptions, beliefs, worldviews) shape the research process. Being reflexive throughout the research cycle can be challenging and confronting, but it’s a critical part of recognising how our perceptions of the research process are filtered through the lens of our experiences and features of identity (such as gender, race/ethnicity). This creates space to better understand and accommodate a range of perceptions and inputs.
  7. Enabling flexible ways of interacting and working is the final principle of co-production. It almost goes without saying that this would support better research on humanitarian issues, but organisations who hold more power in partnerships often dictate the terms, and these can be rigid (e.g. fixed timelines, budget, and research focus). A critical aspect of co-production is creating tolerance for uncertainty and allowing time and flexibility for the research to evolve: the process is as or more important than the outcome. Given the outcome-oriented nature of donor, NGO and academic institutions, this may require challenging norms, expectations and research timeframes.

Challenging research and organisational norms

Co-production inherently involves challenging both research and organisational norms. In the wake of discussions around localisation and decolonisation, it provides a process through which diverse stakeholders can work together to acknowledge and address issues of power, equity, capacity and knowledge production hierarchies in research on humanitarian issues. Taking a co-production approach might mean challenging existing ways of working, including how we contract others to conduct data collection, but limit their ability to contribute to analysis. It might mean sharing decision-making power in new ways, or engaging research participants as more than just sources of data.

Our study suggests that co-producing research is not the same as simply creating a research partnership. It goes beyond sub-contracting and challenges power dynamics, unravelling the norms and practices that structure partnerships. Ultimately, we believe co-production, as an aspirational process, offers helpful principles to enable humanitarian actors to rethink and reshape research partnerships.

Dr. Caitlin Wake is the Education and Capacity Strengthening Manager for the RECAP project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

Dr. Michelle Lokot is a Research Fellow at the LSTHM working on the GOAL project.  Michelle and Caitlin recently co-authored the co-production practice guide discussed in this article.

The research discussed in this article was funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund through the RECAP project (ES/P010873/1) and the GOAL project (ES/T00424X/1).

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