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Unraveling the politics of capacity building

Among the things I find most appealing in the work I do is finding people who are willing to learn together with both an inquisitive and critical look at the field and how we approach it. In fact, this has been one of the main drivers to produce and share lessons learned throughout the 6 year programme SFE in this paper.

Catherine Fisher’s reflections on the paper on her recent post at P&I have very pertinently raised an issue that we have not delved into when producing lessons: besides the more technical and practical lessons linked to developing capacity to strengthen links between research and policy in Latin America, we have also learned about its politics, i.e the political aspects of working along these lines in the region. So even if it is true that many of the lessons are useful for other capacity development initiatives on other issues, there are some particular reflections that we need to bring onto the table so as to make them more relevant to our specific field. I will share some of these now, and will continue with some further thoughts in upcoming posts.

As Catherine rightly identified, we strove to build an alternative knowledge base, by promoting Southern research production that would build on or sometimes even deviate from the Northern way of conceptualizing these issues. This decision was a political one: we believed that what existed out there was very valuable but that there was a need to make it speak and interact with our own contexts and more importantly, to incorporate to this body of knowledge what our future partners and participants of the programme already knew or would be capable of knowing provided the right incentives. Horizontal learning and knowledge co-production was a political stance based on our assumption that such a model would work better with Latin Americans’ idiosyncrasies.

Even though due to the scarce resources we had we cannot say that we have now a systematic body of new knowledge that interacts in a fruitful way, new insights emerged from the case studies, comparative analysis and papers we supported. Several interviewees who participated in diverse research activities highlighted that they began to re-frame other projects to increase the focus on how research can influence policymaking, instead of just focusing on public policies and policymaking. Furthermore, in some cases we even saw a rising interest in working more directly with governments.

For example, as he became part of some research and networking activities, Adolfo Garcé detected the need to strengthen the current framework with key political aspects that account for what happens in our region such as political knowledge regimes. For this, he used Knowledge Regimes (KM), a concept developed by Campbell and Pedersen, which is a main step forward in creating a theory about the use of research in policy debates. In his paper, he applied the concept of KR to three public policy debates in Uruguay to explore how it fits with reality in developing countries. Based on these analyses, the paper identifies some weaknesses in the concept and suggests a different dimension of analysis: political knowledge regimes.

Finally, there was also a considerable amount of training materials developed by CIPPEC and GDNet that worked very effectively to support capacity development activities such as online courses. For example, a paper produced by Lardone and Roggero on how think tanks are currently monitoring and evaluating their policy influence in Latin America allowed SFE to detect main needs and weaknesses in this region (and probably many applicable to other developing countries as well). This was used as the basis to develop a handbook on the topic that was presented and discussed in a regional workshop with think tank members. Questions, comments and debates that took place in the workshop then fed into an online course that implied tweaks in turns of content and also on what was feasible in terms of developing new capacities in M&E. Finally, what participants of online courses shared and produced through practical exercises in their organisations shed light on some additional opportunities as well as re-shaping guidelines and advice that were reflected in a final series guide on the topic. The level of interest, use and additional demand generated from this humble knowledge base is a clear sign of its contribution in terms of capacity building in this field.

As a side point, but a very relevant one, in the case of Latin America the fact that this knowledge base is in Spanish is a crucial one. Many practitioners and researchers would not have been able to participate in capacity building activities if they were mainly using materials and readings in English.

To sum up, as new lessons I would add that we found that there is need and interest in an alternative knowledge base that integrates what has been extensively produced and discussed in the North with Southern experiences, challenges and own solutions and ideas. Our small investment has ignited new insights as well as increasing interest in both researching and acting on this field; thus, there is now a more fertile soil to develop and strengthen current capacities.

The second lesson is that Southern produced knowledge is key in terms of future capacity building activities. Participants of workshops and online courses have expressed high interest in learning from peers through case studies, presentations, peer assistance, etc. We are currently seeing an increased demand for assistance from experts and practitioners who have local and regional experience and who can bring into the table experiences, examples and sometimes even direct contact with Southern colleagues. Knowledge systematization in this sense would probably be largely consumed and used. This is a field where Northern experts and organisations can certainly help us with.