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Understanding impact pathways in crisis response

Louise Clark
Institute of Development Studies

A new report on impact pathways from the Covid Response for Equity (CORE) programme provides deep learning on research engagement in a crisis.

Evidence in a crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic created an urgent need for evidence to understand the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic across the Global South, improve existing responses and generate better policy options for recovery.  In the face of this uncertainty, The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) reacted with its Covid-19 Responses for Equity (CORE) programme, that mobilised 20 Southern-led projects, working in over 40 low- and middle-income countries.

This research generated insights into macroeconomic policies for support and recovery; essential economic activity to protect informal businesses, small producers and women workers; and mechanisms to promote democratic governance to strengthen accountability, social inclusion and civil engagement.  IDS worked alongside the CORE programme to provide dedicated support in Knowledge Translation.  This support included a Learning Journey that worked with a sample of CORE grantees to reconstruct their ‘impact pathways’ and document the diverse research design and engagement strategies through which projects captured the lived experiences of vulnerable groups and influenced policy conversations on pandemic responses.

Impact pathways snapshots

The report of this Learning Journey presents a snapshot of these impact pathways to capture the lessons learnt from delivering research and engagement in a crisis context, promote knowledge exchange across the CORE cohort and share these insights with relevant stakeholders to inform future thinking.  Eight project pathways highlight the different ways that projects incorporated both grass-roots group and decision makers into research design processes to ensure the responsiveness of research to the emerging and evolving reality of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Moreover, as many of these projects worked across diverse national contexts, research design required finding the right balance between consistency of research questions, methodologies and frameworks at the project level, and flexibility to align research with the relevant social and political dynamics at the country level.  Knowledge exchange between national research teams and partners was key to sustaining this balance of consistency and flexibility over the 3 years of the CORE programme to maximise impact at the national level and support learning within projects and across the programme.

Institutional readiness

A common theme across these pathways is how this strong emphasis on establishing partnerships has been key to the use and uptake of research findings, both with political decision-making circles and by civil society groups to support their own advocacy and influencing activities.  CORE grantees were already well established and respected institutions prior to the pandemic, and this ‘institutional readiness’ enabled grantees to leverage their existing credibility, reputation and networks to access both community groups and policy spaces to design and deliver research that both informed and evaluated formal and informal responses to Covid-19.

The uncertainty generated by Covid-19 had knock-on effects at every level of policy and decision making and challenged all existing preconceptions of research to policy pathways.  In many cases access to policy spaces was reduced with the disappearance of previous engagement spaces and the high demands on policy makers to make rapid, wide-reaching and well-informed decisions.

Good enough data

The pandemic context also highlighted the value of ‘good enough’ data, creating dynamics and demand for information which strengthened dialogue and iteration between research teams and decision makers and the need to assess the implications and insights emerging from evidence to inform the design of policies and programmes.  Whilst adaptive management was a buzz word prior to the pandemic, the speed of the global crisis also accelerated the need for agile and responsive research and an imperative for researchers to provide insights and align emerging findings to rapidly shifting local contexts as new policy priorities emerged.

This collection of CORE Impact pathways highlight the different strategies applied to respond to the urgency of evidence demand, either by pivoting or building upon existing initiatives, revisiting existing data sets or engaging with government to embed research processes into response mechanisms.  The flexibility of the funding provided by IDRC is highlighted as a key factor in enabling projects to build upon their work and relationships prior to the pandemic, as well as to continuously adapt their research methodologies and engagement strategies in response to the evolution of the pandemic and subsequent climatic and financial crises.

Collective agency, action and advocacy

The pathways also document the key role played by civil society groups as both agents and subjects of research.   Whilst the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable and marginalised groups, many of whose livelihoods were instantly shut down, the pathways collection also documents diverse experience of collective agency, action and advocacy.  CORE research not only documented the diverse experiences and perspectives of these groups, but also created channels to build platforms across civil society, creating spaces for dialogue and using research processes to create a voice for these groups, deliver processes to organise and prioritise their needs, and increase their visibility in policy conversations.

This unique collection of impact pathways is part of the legacy of the CORE programme that demonstrate the range of innovative approaches used to engage decision makers and bring community voices into research processes.  Many of these projects have worked with local partners across the globe with a strong emphasis on facilitating relationships among national research teams, guaranteeing quality across different contexts and challenges, and supporting knowledge exchange between diverse experiences.

The legacy of crisis driven research engagement

These research teams have not only delivered compelling research evidence in the most adverse data collection conditions of repeated lockdowns and ongoing uncertainty; they have also delivered innovative engagement strategies that have established new relationships and alliances that have strong potential to continue beyond CORE.

You can learn more about the experience of CORE’s Southern researchers responding to Covid-19 in the latest issue of the IDS Bulletin.