Issue 50 - Article 11

Research partnerships in humanitarian contexts

May 9, 2011
Jess Camburn, ELRHA

The challenges the humanitarian community encountered last year in Haiti and Pakistan clearly emonstrate that it urgently needs new knowledge, new expertise and new approaches. At the same time there is a growing expectation that decision-making and programme design by humanitarian agencies should be evidence-based. However, the pressures on today’s humanitarian practitioners to deliver assistance at great speed and often according to predefined goals, methods and targets provide little space for analysis, reflection and investigation. As a result there is a division within our community between those who are employed to ‘think’ and those who are employed to ‘do’. This limits our potential to be truly responsive to humanitarian crises.

Why work with academia?

A 2009 study by ALNAP identified three processes of learning within the humanitarian system.[1] The dominant model, single loop learning, focuses on increasing compliance with existing ways of working by achieving incremental improvements to established practices; as such, it does not seek to generate new or different ways of operating. Double and triple-loop learning, in comparison, involve greater reflection on the appropriateness of existing practices, policies and norms, with the objective of generating new ways of doing things.

The role that evidence plays in each of these processes is also very different. In single-loop learning, the collation and utilisation of evidence is essentially a highly controlled affirmative process towards the continuing improvement and extension of existing practices and cultures. The relationship of evidence to practice in double and triple-loop learning, however, is more dynamic and externally oriented, enabling new ideas and approaches to be rigorously investigated and tested. It is in this process of reflective learning that partnerships with an independent and objective research community are highly valuable.

There are eight core questions that humanitarians should ask themselves when considering partnerships with academic researchers.

Question 1: What can I expect from an ‘academic’?

The Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELHRA) initiative aims to provide a supportive environment in which humanitarian and academic communities can meet and develop partnerships that have a measurable impact on improving humanitarian outcomes.[2] However, this belief in the value of such partnership is not always shared by individuals within the two communities, as

illustrated by the following word clouds generated at a recent stakeholder symposium on effective partnership in humanitarian action.



The ‘altruistic, kind-hearted’ humanitarian who acts first and thinks later, and the aloof, theoretical academic who is disconnected from reality and ‘buried in books’, are both caricatures and do not reflect reality. There is a long history of effective partnership with academia in the development of humanitarian practice. From the creation of new water and sanitation technologies to the development of livelihoods approaches and disaster risk reduction programming, academics have been central partners in the transformation of humanitarian policy and practice.

Question 2: Do I have a valid research question?

It is important to check whether a particular issue or challenge is recognised by others within the professional peer group. When thinking about a potential research project it is useful to host discussions on the proposed topic with peers, for instance through local and professional networks and online forums, and to conduct an initial literature search to see what has already been written on the subject. It is valuable, although not always necessary, to build a community of practice at this early stage to increase the impact and share the benefits of the research. This also provides an ideal reference group to help maintain objectivity and identify any flaws in the methodology and findings.

Question 3: Do I need a research partner or a consultant?

A common complaint from NGOs is that researchers are too theoretical, do not provide practical outputs and take too long to come up with useful findings. In part, this seems to be because many NGOs mistake academic research for consultancy. Table 1 sets out some of the principal differences between consultants and academic researchers.


There are times when a consultant might act more like an independent researcher and vice-versa. However, it is important to consider the distinction carefully before entering into a partnership with an academic researcher. If what an NGO really needs is targeted technical advice or a solution to a problem within a relatively short period of time (single loop learning), it may be best served by a consultant. If, however, it is seeking to explore a particular challenge or issue for the wider benefit of the professional community, and to extend the established knowledge base of the sector, then a research partnership may be more appropriate.

Question 4: How do I find a partner?

Identifying the right research partners is crucial to the effectiveness of any research process. This sounds straightforward, but in practice can be difficult. Often practitioners believe that they do not have the skills to frame a research question in language that would spark the interest of an academic audience, or they are unsure how to relate their particular research question to established academic disciplines, thus making it hard to know where to look for an appropriate partner.

When trying to find an appropriate partner, it is best to begin with an exploration of local expertise and research institutions, especially if the question is connected to a particular place or region or with a particular community. However, if the issue requires specific expertise that is unavailable locally, online forums and networks may help in making contact with academic institutions.[3]

Question 5: What is my role?

It is common in an applied research programme for the practitioner to be cast as the ‘subject’ of the research, the ‘conduit’ between the researcher and the research subjects or the ‘end-user’ of research outputs. While all of these roles are valid, and may indeed be a practical choice given pressures of existing workloads, they are essentially passive and therefore limit the potential of the practitioner to stimulate and drive the investigative process. Evidence shows that, when practitioners seek to facilitate change in practice or generate and test a new theory, a collaborative approach to research, in which both practitioner and researcher are actively engaged, is particularly effective.

Question 6: What are my expectations?

Sadly, many partnerships between practitioners and researchers begin with great expectations, but then break down during the research process. Partnerships tend to fail when one side feels that it is not seeing any tangible benefits for its participation in the project, or where it believes the project has been diverted from the original goal or terms agreed. This is often a result of a lack of investment in planning and relationship-building at the start of the partnership. Because humanitarian practitioners and academic researchers come from such different working cultures, it is critical to set aside time at the very early stages of a project to thoroughly explore each other’s expectations and motivations, to clarify roles and responsibilities and agree project milestones and core outputs. These should be regularly and frankly reviewed by all involved in the project in order to address any misunderstandings before they become insurmountable.

Question 7: How durable is the partnership?

Because humanitarian workers are highly mobile, rarely staying in one place or one role for longer than a year or two, it is crucial to consider how durable a research partnership should be. This will mean working out whether the principal relationship will exist between an individual practitioner and co-investigator (meaning that the research would travel with that individual to new postings), or to a specific location or programme of work (meaning that relationships will need to be established with key staff and stakeholders from the outset). Of course it is often possible and may be beneficial to aim for both. It is wise to aim to build a broad base of ownership, engagement and investment with diverse stakeholders at different levels within the organisation, and with external communities. This makes it more likely that the programme of work will last beyond the commitment of specific individuals.



ELRHA believes that, from the small seeds of a well-managed collaborative venture, great programmes of work and long-term durable partnerships can grow. Last year ELRHA provided seed funding to five collaborative ventures between academic and humanitarian communities, all of which have gone on to develop ideas and plans for substantial projects that will have greater impact and include broader partnerships than those enabled by ELRHA’s initial investment. It is clear that, as practitioners and academics grow to understand and value each other, so the potential for effective partnership increases.

The key to unlocking the riches of the research community is to enter into any new partnership with a common goal and plan of action, as well as an open and inquisitive mind. Those humanitarian actors that develop trusted relationships and networks with appropriate actors in the academic world should find themselves best-placed to adapt, develop and transform humanitarian practice to meet the challenges of the future.


Jess Camburn is Director of Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA).



[1] Ben Ramalingam, Kim Scriven and Conor Foley, ‘Innovations in International Humanitarian Action’, in ALNAP 8th Review of Humanitarian Action, July 2009,

[2] For more on ELRHA visit

[3] Examples include ELRHA and the Development Studies Association (


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