Knowledge, policy and power: Six dimensions of the knowledge–development policy interface

Working and discussion papers
September 2009
Nicola Jones, Ajoy Datta and Harry Jones with ebpdn partners

 

The critical importance of knowledge in strengthening policy is increasingly recognised in development circles. While there is considerable value in academic knowledge in terms of shaping the thinking of policy actors and practitioners over time, policy research can also have far-reaching impacts on programme design and budget allocations, with tangible impacts for the poor and marginalised. This paper explores the six key areas of the knowledge–development policy interface listed below with the aim of stimulating more nuanced debates and the development of tailored tools for actors involved in knowledge translation processes – including knowledge generators, brokers or users.

  1. Types of knowledge: Moving from an analysis of ‘research’ or ‘evidence’, as previous frameworks have emphasised, to ‘knowledge’ more broadly allows an examination of the political and epistemological dynamics in the production and use of such knowledge, while still including (but also reframing) the insights gained into evidence and research. Seeing the value of incorporating different types of knowledge (from evaluations to participatory research, moral principles to programmatic knowledge), and the practicalities of doing so is crucial to understanding and improving the knowledge-policy interface.
  2. Political context: Political context has consistently been identified as the most influential factor in determining the importance attached to knowledge in policy spaces. While a wave of political liberalisation and democratisation in the 1980s and 1990s around the world led to a general rise in participation in policy processes, non-state actors still face barriers to input. Nor has greater participation necessarily led to greater use of evidence, or quality of dialogue or debate – in some cases, there may exist unexpected opportunities for the influence of new knowledge in decision-making processes in authoritarian, fragile state and crisis contexts.
  3. Sectoral dynamics: Knowledge–policy dynamics differ across policy sectors due to divergent actors, demands for new knowledge and capacities to use such knowledge. Some sectors, like trade, require highly technical expertise, while others, like education and natural resource management, involve increasingly extensive consultation processes. Vested economic interests might play more of a behind-the-scenes role in certain sectors, as might international debates. More contested sectors might also find less room for evidence, like in the reproductive health arena.
  4. Actors: NGOs, international agencies and civil servants are often key players in the knowledge–policy nexus, but they should not be privileged in analytical work or policy-influencing efforts at the expense of an understanding of the potential role of other actors, including think tanks, legislators, political parties, intermediaries, the media, private sector actors and networks.
  5. Innovative frameworks: Insights from Complexity and Innovation Systems frameworks highlight that any work with actors at the knowledge–policy interface should be embedded within an understanding of the broader system in which they work, and the relationship between the supply of and demand for knowledge on development policy issues.
  6. Knowledge translation: Knowledge translation and intermediaries play an important role in bringing together knowledge and policy processes. Knowledge translation goes beyond disseminating research and the isolated production of communication products to critically engaging with users of knowledge.

Our synthesis of recent research, as well as practical insights derived from our international partnerships, underscores the fact that the knowledge–policy interface is too complex to encapsulate in any single framework. While the RAPID framework remains a useful analytical entry-point, it is critical that those seeking to engage in evidence-informed development policy dialogues also use additional tools and frameworks to deepen their analysis.

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