Research for change in low- and middle-income countries

A framework for exploring knowledge translation in diverse contexts

08 . 06 . 2022

Leading thinkers from Africa, South Asia and Latin America are working with an international research team to explore how research evidence and diverse types of knowledge can promote safer, healthier and more equitable lives for all. They have identified four modes of knowledge translation that range from linear research engagement processes to interventions designed to enable evidence production and use.

Bridging theory and practice

The engagement of research with policy and practice has triggered a great deal of work seeking to understand the processes, methods and the knowledges and power dynamics involved. Many attempts have already been made to categorise different forms of knowledge translation, exchange, transfer and brokerage.

Yet scholarship in this field often fails to connect with the experiences of those working at the coal face in research organisations and policy communities, and particularly with those working outside of health and beyond Europe, North America and Australia. Predominantly theoretical discussions around how to define terms like knowledge translation, or research mobilisation and uptake, often fail to grasp what is really going on in diverse contexts.

An anthropologist in Ghana, supporting communities to improve social protection systems, or a macro-economist in Bangladesh advising their government on informal work and labour regulation, is far better placed to understand these processes, both theoretically and practically, than any scholar of evidence informed policy in a university in the UK or the United States. Rather than attempt to transfer knowledge on what works from high income country contexts to low-income settings, or from public health to macro-economic policy, we should be seeking out opportunities to bridge theory and practice, contextualise learning for specific environments and create mutual learning between sectors and geographies.

More inclusive understandings of knowledge translation

The Knowledge Translation in the Global South research project is steered by a group of academics and practitioners from Africa, South Asia and Latin America. Primary and secondary research conducted over a 12-month period seeks to identify similarities and differences in knowledge translation strategies and practices used by researchers and their partners across different disciplines and sectors and will investigate the challenges they face. Supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada, the project will recommend support mechanisms and procurement innovations to donors seeking to create an enabling environment for LMIC-led research for development.

We interpret knowledge translation broadly, as processes designed to engage research evidence with policy, practice, and communities to influence behaviours, policies, and practice. We are not limiting ourselves to purely linear and supply driven translation but are extending it, to cover different forms of engagement. In this project we are primarily concerned with research evidence, although we fully understand that this is only one small dimension of knowledge, which includes community experience, social movements and professional practice.

Given the historic over-reliance in this field on literature originating from, and focused on, high income policy contexts, the KT experts from LMICS steering the project and the international research team from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and OTT Consulting, developed a conceptual framework shaped by broadly different change processes. Our approach is underpinned by a commitment to contribute to a more inclusive and diverse understanding of knowledge translation theory and practice based on experiences from different contexts.

The resulting framework tries to incorporate the various modes or institutional arrangements that one may regularly encounter in LMICs and across sectors and disciplines. They overlap and in many cases co-exist but we think they may fundamentally differ in terms of the roles of stakeholders, the understandings of how knowledge can influence behaviours and the intended outcomes. Our research is both informed by this framework and will test its efficacy, producing, we hope, a modest contribution to understandings of these processes from multiple perspectives.

Four modes of connecting research evidence with policy and practice

These modes of knowledge translation range from more straightforward linear research engagement processes to interventions designed to enable evidence production and use.

Mode 1: Knowledge supply driven mode (Knowledge Translation)

Depending on the context, one might come across terms such as research uptake, knowledge translation, research communications or pathways to impact. These processes are project driven (supply driven) and may include engagement with intermediaries or boundary partners such as policy networks, the media and practitioners. Examples range from single studies and small projects to large multi-project consortiums.

Mode 2: Embedded Demand Driven mode (Integrated Knowledge Translation)

These embedded functions usually focus on specific areas of policy and practice and seek to improve the use of evidence in relation to specific challenges. Examples vary from institutionalised communities of practice which co-produce research to embedded scientific teams and formal government scientific advisory services.

Mode 3: Knowledge Brokering mode (Indirect Knowledge Translation)

Formal and informal networks and communities of practice, usually focused on specific policy or practice contexts convene dialogues between researchers, civil society, policy actors and practitioners. These networks may commission research (such as rapid reviews) but primarily work across existing knowledge systems. They often have an emphasis on making existing research evidence more accessible via various platforms and may play the role of innovation broker.

Mode 4: Knowledge System mode (Knowledge Translation Enablement)

Interventions are institutionalised, with systems level support designed to enable evidence use behaviours within specific policy contexts. This might include training for policy actors in specific ministries, research policy partnerships focused on particular challenges or the creation of new units or bodies designed to synthesise evidence and evaluate programmes. In some cases, this mode of intervention may include elements of all the other modes, and entail research capacity building and knowledge translation, science advisory services and knowledge brokering.

Challenging the dominant discourse on knowledge translation

Many brilliant networks and organisations in low- and middle-income countries are pioneering approaches that are challenging dominant global development narratives on evidence production and use. We look forward to working with those who are seeking to share their learning and expertise more widely. Together we will explore how research evidence and more diverse types of knowledge, can promote safer, healthier and more equitable lives for all. Not only do we hope we can contribute to existing efforts to enhance and understand KT in LMICS but that the project will go some way to “reverse the gaze” of the historically Northern dominated discourse on research for development.

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