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FEATURE: Multi-level learning – Insights from the ASSAR climate research consortium

Lucia Scodanibbio shares her personal insight on how the ASSAR climate change research consortium used different methods for internal communication, knowledge-sharing and learning to improve the whole team’s skills and effectiveness.

In a partnership of 17 organisations and over 150 researchers and practitioners working in the semi-arid regions of six countries in Africa, and India, the five-year ASSAR project combined transdisciplinary scientific research, capacity building and stakeholder engagement to improve our understanding of the barriers and enablers to effective and sustained adaptation to climate change.

Key insights from ASSAR’s research

With a strong focus on understanding the factors that enhance or diminish people’s vulnerability and wellbeing, and the responses they take to deal with both climatic and non-climatic stressors, we focused on the most marginalised. In particular, we sought to shift the adaptation narrative from centring mainly on infrastructural, technical solutions to forefronting and addressing some of the barriers posed by power structures, patriarchal norms and governance disconnects. We also researched the different elements that contribute to people’s wellbeing, such as social cohesion and connection, or subjective factors tied to achieving one’s aspirations, which are rarely on the agendas or plans of decision makers. Through extensive research, ASSAR provided ample evidence of the numerous intersectional and contextual factors that need to be understood, in order to avoid unintended consequences, such as maladaptation, and further marginalisation of the most vulnerable people.

In addition to focusing on the individual and household levels, the research also spanned multiple governance scales (from local to district to national levels) to gain a nuanced understanding of the factors influencing vulnerability, wellbeing and adaptive capacity. For instance, we analysed the resulting benefits and impacts of diverse development interventions, such as villagisation in Ethiopia, the creation of conservancies in Kenya and cotton cooperatives in Mali, or the decentralisation of water management in Namibia. Our objective was to understand how these interventions may enhance or reduce adaptive capacities of different stakeholder groups, given current and expected climate impacts.

We also conducted an extensive study on knowledge systems, and the factors that either enable or prevent the transfer of information on climate risks and adaptation between knowledge producers and knowledge users, and the feedback loops that do or do not exist between them. We also explored the impacts of a 1.5 degree and warmer world on the different countries where we worked, and looked at how changes in land use and land cover are affecting ecosystems and the services they provide for people’s livelihoods in already-marginalised and precarious semi-arid environments.

With so many dimensions and dynamics, it is not possible to summarise all ASSAR’s results in a couple of paragraphs. But, during the project’s final stages, and as research findings became available, we increasingly focused on publishing our results and developing communications products that could effectively enable a diverse set of audiences to understand, and act on, some of ASSAR’s most salient conclusions. A summary of our findings and a searchable list of our outputs is available on the ASSAR website.

ASSAR’s approach to research, capacity building and achieving impact

With a strong transdisciplinary emphasis, many of our findings emerged as a result of strategic partnerships and long-term engagement between a multi-disciplinary team of southern and northern researchers, practitioners and other stakeholders, and thus reflect a range of views and priorities.

With a firm focus on capacity building, and with the aim of increasing opportunities for research uptake, we sought to bolster the ability of ASSAR researchers to think about the impact of their findings on policy and practice, to develop theories of change, to engage stakeholders throughout the lifetime of a project, and to conduct influencing activities.

We also used a variety of novel approaches (such as participatory scenario planning and analyses, experiential learning games, theatre, and vulnerability and risk assessments), to promote collaboration and dialogue between actors from different governance scales (local to regional) and sectors (government, civil society, academia, private sector). These kinds of interactions, between stakeholders that seldom have the opportunity to learn from each other (e.g., farmers and government officials), led to an increased understanding of the challenges faced at all levels, and the types of responses which could lead to more holistic and equitable outcomes. In many cases, these inclusive processes empowered the different stakeholders involved, whether through a realisation of the value of their own knowledge, their abilities to ideate responses that are locally relevant, or simply through their enhanced understanding of the different drivers of change and the interactions between them.

Given ASSAR’s strong focus on research-for-impact (see our Massive Open Online Course), our communications and practitioner’s team also continuously worked with our researchers to identify the most significant findings, translate them into more accessible and engaging language and products, and share them with users in policy and practice spheres.

Key insights from ASSAR’s focus on research-for-impact

Here are some lessons about process that emerged from our work, many of which are also summarised on this CARIAA working paper.

  • Clarity on one’s desired impact is critical, and needs to steer research, capacity building and stakeholder engagement activities. For this, one needs a theory of change that has clear impact pathways that clearly connect activities to outputs and processes, and then to outcomes and impact. However, such clarity needs to be combined with a flexible and iterative approach, that can take advantage of emerging windows of opportunity. This means regularly scanning the horizon for such opportunities, and being able to quickly and efficiently mobilise funding and resources (e.g., to attend a meeting, develop a communications output) to take advantage of such opportunities.
  • As far as possible, one should try to develop outputs and follow processes that are beneficial and useful to stakeholders, as these will increase the chances of research uptake. Focusing on questions such as, “Why is our research beneficial?” and “Which ongoing processes can this work contribute to?”, will lead to more tangible impact than “Which journal should we publish in?”. Also, given the urgency of the climate adaptation problem, it goes without saying that we should forefront the applicability of our research for enabling more informed, integrated decisions and actions.
  • It is essential to do stakeholder mapping and power analyses at the start of a project, to identify the critical partners that one can collaborate with, can influence, or who have an impact on the issue at hand. Power is often invisible and entrenched: a clear understanding of its role is crucial. Such analyses need to be revisited over time, as power dynamics may shift over the lifetime of a project.
  • Research-for-impact requires dedicated and trained personnel who can act as knowledge brokers between the research team and the policy and practice world, and who ideally have a good understanding of both. Much thought is currently being directed to the types of skills brokers need to navigate such complex worlds. There are many modalities of collaboration between practitioners and researchers (e.g., staff embedded in a separate organisation, staff working in a centralised team), and there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. A key takeaway, however, is that the presence of a team in charge of conducting uptake activities should not mean that researchers are exonerated from such tasks. Capacity building activities on the importance of, and the skills needed for research-for-impact are required, as well as champions that see the value in investing time and energy in sustained stakeholder relationships. In ASSAR, one of the highlights that project researchers most often cited (in this survey) revolved around having learned about the multi-faceted nature of research-for-impact.
  • Clarity on one’s target audience and expected impact needs to drive the choice of communication activities. A desire to be creative, think out of the box and take risks can also help to connect with audiences in more engaging, interactive ways, and to potentially increase research uptake. In ASSAR, theatre and experimentation with experiential learning games, was a source of satisfaction for the project team and our target audiences alike.
  • Invest (as much as possible) in external capacity building, as this will create a lasting impact for the project. In the latter part of ASSAR, we used a flexible budget line to develop initiatives with the stakeholders with whom we had worked in the project’s early phases (e.g., those involved in scenario processes), to act on some of the barriers that the research had highlighted. Such activities constitute some of ASSAR’s most fruitful outcomes.
  • Monitoring, reflecting and learning from the different activities tied to research-for-impact are essential to change course and enable adaptive management.
  • Tension between research and research-for-impact activities is probably unavoidable. Thinking about and developing activities around impact, communication, capacity building, continuous stakeholder engagement, while also trying to be innovative, is time consuming, all-engrossing, and seldom rewarded in the academic world. In addition, practitioners that collaborate with researchers can find it challenging to keep stakeholders engaged when research findings are slow to emerge, or not “perfect enough” to be shared.

The good, the difficult, and the really necessary of collaborative work

During the course of ASSAR I conducted two surveys to find out what project members had been learning about the highlights and complexities of large-scale collaborations between different institutional partners hailing from diverse countries and cultures, disciplinary backgrounds, sectors (research, practice), and expectations and priorities. In this guide, we summarise many of the lessons learned from our collective experience and often by getting things wrong. Here are some highlights.

  • We must invest explicitly in building trust and relationships, as it is naive to assume that people from diverse backgrounds, who have never worked together before, will collaborate smoothly from the get-go. Before one can effectively focus on budgets and work plans, one needs to build a cohesive, trusting team. Maximising face time, especially at the beginning, can help. However, this remains important throughout the project as, particularly with geographically dispersed teams, one meeting often facilitates more progress than multiple emails and calls.
  • At the beginning of a project it is also crucial to discuss expectations, interests and priorities, whether these are from personal or institutional standpoints. Issues relating to roles and responsibilities, what one is prepared to commit to, how decisions will be taken, how budget will be allocated, and what one expects the project to achieve, all need to be discussed. If not, misunderstandings and resentments may develop and hinder progress.
  • It is similarly important to create a shared vision, language and way of collaborating, establishing working modalities and a common way forward. The team will also need to decide on the extent to which formal partnership agreements are needed to lay out governance structures and rules around collaboration.
  • Also, early on in the project, it is important to acknowledge power issues, demystify conflict and agree on how these will be dealt with. Power dynamics are inherent in any team, whether they arise because of north-south disparities, gender issues, differences between lead and sub-contracting partners, or disciplines. Since conflict is also inherent, it is advisable to bring potential sources of problems to the fore and discuss them openly, as these will otherwise simmer under the surface. Health checks, internal surveys or an independent group charged with acting as an ombudsman can all assist.
  • Systems that enable collaboration need to be set up. On a very practical level these can be part of an effective knowledge management system (e.g., in ASSAR we used the Google-enabled platform to work on shared outputs, hold calls and store documents). We also used a set of special funds to opportunistically allow exchanges of colleagues to learn from each other, work together on joint outputs, or attend workshops together to develop shared methodologies.
  • When working in large, dispersed teams, often only for a proportion of one’s time, it is easy to lose connection to the project. It is thus important to explore incentives and motivators to keep the team connected and on track. Over the entire length of ASSAR, we shared a weekly digest that kept the team informed about important documents, upcoming events and meetings, items for celebration, deadlines and external opportunities.
  • It is similarly important to promote cross-cultivation of ideas, to enable team members to learn from each others’ achievements, findings, challenges and mistakes. This can be achieved through setting up diverse working groups that can keep in touch through regular calls, holding internal webinars, or through specific activities (e.g., world cafes, knowledge clinics) during annual meetings.
  • Quite simply, teams need to take time to reflect, learn and adapt.

My final reflections

One of the greatest lessons ASSAR taught me is the importance of taking time to stop and reflect. Even at the beginning of the project, when we were eager to define work plans, responsibilities and start our activities, it was important to stop and reflect on where we wanted to go, as a partnership. Throughout the project, taking time to reflect on what we were learning, the challenges we were facing and the health of our partnerships was critical to take stock and adjust course. Sometimes, reflecting was the only way in which I would realise just how much we were achieving, and could feel proud of how much we were accomplishing, and in so many different areas.

And now, it feels strange to be writing ASSAR’s last blog. In the same way it took a long time for me to break my silence on ASSAR, it has taken a long time for all the project’s moving pieces to come to a halt, for the dust to settle and for us all to be able to clearly reflect on all that we learned. Many outputs are still in the publications pipeline, a couple of videos are still undergoing final checks, and – just like the ripples that reverberate from a stone thrown into a still lake – the impact the project has had on people’s livelihoods and on policy is still evolving.

As manager of the project, I went through my own ups and downs throughout ASSAR. There was a point when I applied for another job, was interviewed and nearly left. I am now grateful I didn’t, although I had to internally negotiate and re-negotiate what I was prepared to accept, and how I would proceed with my work. In the end, the personal and professional learning was immense, and my own reflections are still ongoing, about what I could have done differently, the types of skills I learned, the ones I wish I had from the beginning, the things I wish I had known when we started off to avoid making mistakes, and how all of this can help others embarking on such complex endeavours.

My main hope is that these reflections and learning may be of use, so that all of our work on development and adaptation may be more impactful and productive, and so that those doing this work, feel more fulfilled and satisfied in the process.

 

Image: courtesy Water Alternatives, flickr

 

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