BLOG | Moving through uncertainty, toward Research for Impact

Moving through uncertainty, toward Research for Impact

By Georgina Cundill-Kemp, IDRC Senior Program Officer

There was a time when we thought that change was predictable, and that our interventions in particular contexts would lead to the outcomes that we anticipated.

Today we know that this is not the case. We understand that all communities, all governments, all countries, and each one of us, are part of deeply connected political, economic and cultural systems. These systems can be both profoundly resistant to change, and they can shift rapidly and in unexpected ways that have an impact far beyond the source of change. We continue to see, for example, the knock-on effects of recent relatively rapid political shifts in Europe and the United States.

As we look down the long road toward a world that will certainly grapple with climate change, we know that some communities are more vulnerable than others. It is imperative that we work with these communities to expand their ability to confront an uncertain future, and that we simultaneously work to dismantle power structures that hold inequality, and therefore vulnerability, in place. In other words, we need to pursue change in profoundly connected systems where the outcomes of our interventions tend to be unpredictable.

Successfully pursuing research impact is about accepting this uncertainty, and therefore accepting that our pursuit of change must be part of an unfolding practice. It requires that we are purposeful in asking for whom we pursue change, how we pursue that change, and importantly who might stand to loose if we succeed. It is easy to become overwhelmed by these questions, however in the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), we’ve learned a thing or two about how to move forward in a way that embraces this uncertainty.

How to pursue impact, in the face of so much uncertainty?

Let’s start with what it means to achieve impact. At the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), we believe that research has an impact when it benefits society, and there are many pathways toward that goal. A similar, if broader, way to think about research impact is to use Mark Reed’s understanding of impact as the ‘good that research can do in the world’.

Even with the best intentions though, it is easy to feel paralysed when confronted by the enormity of the task before us, and the low chances of success. The CARIAA program has reflected and learned over the past 5 years about how to maintain hope, how to keep pursuing change, and even make a difference.

Flexibility, learning, change. In our experience, these are the basic principles for effectively pursuing research impact. These principles were behind HI-AWARE’s success in getting its research into Nepal’s National Adaptation Plan, they have been behind PRISE’s success with influencing Pakistan’s parliamentarians to integrate climate information into policy development, they have been behind ASSAR’s success in integrating both climate and gender considerations into development planning and drought management in Botswana, and they have certainly been behind DECCMA’s influence on the Odisha State Action Plan on Climate Change in India, highlighting the importance of recognizing gender differences, as examples.


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Following comments from the DECCMA team that the Odisha State Action Plan on Climate Change 2018-23 was gender blind, the state government included a chapter on gender within the plan (Photo credit: DECCMA)


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Successfully influencing Pakistan’s parliamentarians to integrate climate information into policy development (Photo credit: PRISE)


Through all of these successes, we’ve learned that truly internalising flexibility, learning and change means prioritising long-term relationships with partners on the ground, and embracing a reflexive practice that unfolds over time. The CARIAA Research-into-Use Learning Guide is designed to share these lessons beyond the program.

What do we need to change, to enable flexibility?

While flexibility and learning sound easy enough, they have significant implications for funders and researcher-practitioner teams alike. We’ve learned that work plans and budgets need to be approached as we might approach cooking a meal with a very complicated recipe: the recipe is an essential guide, with great ideas, but unexpected outcomes will be the norm, and you’ll have to improvise when things fall apart.

As a funder, we at the IDRC are learning about the need to support research teams to be responsive to their growing understanding of the context, and growing appreciation of the leverage points for change in those contexts. We need to do this by building flexibility into grant agreements, while balancing this with critical risk management considerations that lead us toward tighter contracts with pre-identified impacts and outputs. Both matter.

Research-practitioner teams are learning that they need diversified teams where the skills needed to both identify opportunities for impact, and to support learning and reflection, are present. These teams are realising that moments for reflection and course adjustment must be budgeted for at the outset of a project, as should flexible funds that allow teams to mobilise swiftly in response to opportunities for impact.     

In the end, CARIAA’s relentless emphasis on Research for Impact from the start of the program has pushed all of us to keep trying to generate positive change in climate change hotspots, despite the uncertainties, and despite none of us being fully equipped for the opportunities and the challenges that we have encountered. Through all this, a dedicated group of Research for Impact leaders has emerged across the program, and have offered each other support (sometimes with ideas, sometimes just moral support, both of them valued). Perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of CARIAA’s learning about Research for Impact will be the community we have built of people with a shared passion for a more equitable future in a climate-changing world, and the humility to keep learning as they succeed and fail.