Science, Finance and Innovation

Research for development: lessons for uncertain times

4 min


Carolina Bigonha, Andia Chakava, Jashodhara Dasgupta and Peter Taylor

At a conference in October 2019 to mark GDN’s 20th anniversary since it launched, there was much discussion of the power of research and evidence to help address global challenges and the implications for our understanding of and practices in development. This column outlines three key lessons from the conversation.

Even though the world faces enormous challenges, we are optimistic that genuine alternatives are becoming available, with research evidence and data to back them. Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals are creating real momentum for positive change among both the public and private sectors. Citizens are joining forces to shape the social processes needed for real transformation.

Yet we also know that positive change is not being experienced everywhere, or by everyone, in the same way. At current rates of global progress, it is hard to imagine achieving a world in which ‘no one is left behind’.

At the 2019 Global Development Conference, in a session that we convened with support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre, we opened a conversation about the power of research and evidence to help address global challenges and the implications for our understanding of and practices in development.

This conversation builds upon and connects with other work and initiatives around the world. But it is timely, and we heard a strong message: we do not simply need to do ‘more research’; we need to undertake research that has fundamental impact.

If as researchers we are serious about evidence-informed policy-making, we must enter the complex and unruly system of state-citizen relations, and grapple with issues of politics and governance. We need to become more reflective of the diversity of society and acquire new skills and capabilities if we are to become active disruptors and authentic agents of change.

We came away from the dialogue with the following three key lessons.

We aspire to an inclusive world – one that needs useful research

An inclusive world requires all citizens to engage in social, cultural, political, and economic activity. We see opportunities arising already. For example, entrepreneurial activity is on the rise in Africa, with women at center-stage, especially in growing sectors such as agriculture, textiles, and apparel.

But many people, particularly youth, still have fixed views and prejudices about the roles of men and women. There is a need to share more positive experiences and gender-balanced role models to help raise women’s aspirations in particular.

Research can help by exploring and identifying barriers to entrepreneurial growth and the underlying assumptions about groups in society – women, youth, the marginalized – that create unconscious bias. We need to find out more about the practical experiences of indigenous women, especially those in the informal sector – for example, with traditional capital providers such as microfinance institutions and banks.

State-citizen relationships are in crisis, especially with regard to data

Data on the lives, movements, and attitudes of people are increasingly being collected and used by both the public and private sectors. We now see many examples where citizens are excluded from access to that same data even when they are being used to inform decisions directly affecting their lives. As the private sector and political entities align to increase their involvement with, and control over, data, we see personal freedoms, security, transparency, privacy, and political processes being compromised.

Even though we are surrounded by an explosion of information and communication, are all groups in society really being represented in the generation of evidence and research data? As researchers, are we speaking and engaging sufficiently with those who have less power in society?

We need to assist citizens to rebuild their trust in evidence and data by seeing clear demonstrations of the relevance and usefulness of research. We also need research and evidence to help inform and establish strong regulatory frameworks for data generation and access.

Researchers and citizens need to find new forms of engagement

To move towards an inclusive world where no one is left behind, both researchers and citizens will need new sets of skills and capabilities. Education is hugely important to help people reframe their abilities, learn more quickly and effectively how to use new technologies, and become ever more adaptive to a changing world.

As researchers, we will need to be forward-looking, seeing trends, and identifying and understanding both public and private regimes that will try to control knowledge and limit access to it. We should ensure that the products of ‘development research’ are communicated to citizens as well as to policy-makers, and to ensure that public policy debates are informed by evidence that is valid, robust, credible, and useful.

We have to provide incentives for women, girls, young people, and marginalized communities to engage in research, and we need to promote collaboration, breaking down silos and finding ways to ‘co-create’ knowledge.


In our conversation, we were happy to hear many others who believe that research can be used as an effective tool to strengthen the evidence of what’s working. It has the power to uncover new paradigms and challenge the status quo. It can provide data that helps to generate more ‘buy-in’, and a sense of urgency, to address some of the most urgent social challenges.

But to make a real contribution to positive change, we must keep our eyes on the future. We will need to ensure that research processes are as inclusive as possible. We must be effective at shared communication and dissemination of useful evidence to promote collective action.

This is not an easy agenda, but we are hopeful in connecting and collaborating with other researchers, and citizens, on this shared journey.


Carolina Bigonha
Co-founder of Hekima
Andia Chakava
Investment Director, Graca Machel Trust
Jashodhara Dasgupta
Public health researcher
Peter Taylor
Director of Research, Institute of Development Studies