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Academic-policy engagement in LMICs

Whilst there are numerous challenges and barriers to working with policy professionals in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs), this type of engagement shouldn’t be overlooked. But just how can you derive policy impact when the decision-makers are based overseas?

Definition 

International policy engagement can be understood through three lenses:

  1. The UN family includes the World Bank Group and World Trade Organization. Other intergovernmental organisations such as the OECD are classed as International agencies.
  2. International non-governmental organisations (INGOs) consist of humanitarian charities such as Oxfam, Action Aid, Doctors without Borders and Amnesty International.
  3. Core institutions at national, provincial, county or city level of foreign countries with a responsibility for implementing policy. These include Government officials, parliamentarians, civil servants, judges and those enforcing and adjudicating laws.

Many of the same basic principles of academic-policy engagement apply whether you are trying to strengthen engagement with UK policy professionals or governments and parliaments internationally. Yet, every engagement will have its own specific circumstances and it is therefore important to work with integrity, humility and sensitivity.  See an example of in country LMIC policy work hereFor further examples, please browse our Evidence Notes.

Top Tip 1: Maintain regular contact with policy stakeholders via virtual means and in person (where possible), follow debates and take incremental opportunities to engage (e.g., join events, present at conferences, comment on twitter).

Investing time in establishing trust is vital to achieving policy impact. Showing an appreciation of policy processes, current policy priorities, evidence needs, and policy windows can form the foundations for establishing trust and good working relationships with policy stakeholders in LMICs.

Top Tip 2: Involve policy stakeholders from the beginning, working through a process of co-design to help create alignment between research priorities and policy needs.

It is useful to involve policy professionals and community stakeholders as early as possible in your project. Working together through a process of co-design can help to create alignment between research priorities and policy needs. Within this process, you will need to be open to alternative viewpoints - and this can mean being prepared to adapt your approach, research questions and even the direction of your project overall. However, you will need to exercise judgement on how far you wish to go, as a change in minister or government can mean a shift in policy priorities.

Top Tip 3: Draw on your networks and utilise your institutions support functions to help you build connections and navigate engagement. 

Elected officials in national and sub-national governments move on. Working with civil servants, thinktanks and other policy intermediaries who often have considerable impact on national policies helps not only with brokering relationships with the policy community but can also provide continuity for your project. It is not always clear how to identify who the key policy stakeholders are - let alone form relationships; reaching out to your colleagues, and those in national institutions in LMICs who might already be working with policy stakeholders is a good first step on this journey. As is working through UCLs support functions (e.g UCL Public Policy, Research Coordination teams, and those who manage international funding schemes), the UCL Alumni Office and funders.

Top Tip 4: Don’t lose sight of the importance of citizens, and their voice and role in academic-policy engagement.

Understanding the local context is essential. Having partners on the ground, such as local NGOs or community groups, helps to build trust and provides a continuous and up-to-date picture of the in-country context. The sooner you can engage them the better.

Also, ‘successful’ policy engagement doesn’t have to be top-down, occurring only between Ministers and Professors. However, countries do have different approaches to how engagement occurs and who its between. Just as metro mayors and local authority council leaders might engage their citizens, some LMICs make extensive use of community engagement to test a community’s appetite for your research recommendations. Where this is the case, you might want to directly engage with communities, working with them to evidence the relevance of your research to their lives so they can decide whether they wish to speak for its value to decision makers. However, in some countries, very little community consultation occurs as part of the policy process. So, it’s important not to assume a one size fits all approach. Rather working out the processes and practice by which academic-policy engagement happens as early as possible is important; so too is challenging yourself to be as inclusive as possible, recognising that it is far from equal as to what counts as evidence and who’s voice forms part of the evidence base.

Top tip 5: Be sensitive to the context you are working in and be aware that research is not the only factor that contributes to policy making

Understanding the basis on which you are doing policy engagement is also important. Is it to provide advice, inform decision making, advocate for policy solutions? Be clear on this as it will affect how you structure your engagement. Policy professionals have to make choices and usually on the best available evidence. Whilst it is perfectly reasonable to leave the choice of ‘what to do’ to those who are fully embedded with in the country or community, you still might want to highlight best practice and show what has or has not worked in various contexts to support policy professionals to make the hard choices. But in doing so be mindful of the ethical considerations of the presentation of evidence. Research isn’t value free and nor is the uses it may be put into, so when collaborating with LMICs, it’s important to be aware of whose evidence it is, what purpose it has been acquired for and that policy solutions are never neutral.

Top Tip 6: Go beyond policy briefs and embrace the multiple communications tools available to gain the attention of policy stakeholders. But remember don’t just disseminate - actively engage.

One of the main outputs that researchers are encouraged to develop are some sort of policy briefing. Whilst it is highly unlikely that policy briefs alone will lead to policy impact in LMICs, a plain language summary of the key findings for policy will certainly trump sending an academic paper full of verbose prose. However, you may wish to consider whether a workshop, blog or consultation response might be just as impactful as disseminating a policy brief to share research findings.

Whatever method you chose, communications should be tailored - and so it will also be important to be aware of what the dominant language or languages are in the place you are targeting and to ensure your briefing and policy communications are translated/tailored accordingly.

Consider how to draw on the media in LMICs and the UK to raise your profile as an expert and to help build your in-country policy links. Some of the ways to do this is through being available for interviews or comments on current news stories around your area of expertise. Registering with UCL’s media database, writing for The Conversation and working with the media relations teams can help to build these links.

Top Tip 7: Don’t forget to consider the costs of engagement and make sure you factor these into your plans

Finally, establishing the networks needed for academic-policy engagement has cost implications – both in terms of time and money. Costing engagement properly within your grant proposal could include costs related to consulting potential users shaping the proposal, costs to support networks including policy professionals and their sustainability over time. The need to travel to build partnerships and establish long-term collaborations, should be tensioned against the need to reduce the burden of travel on the climate (see UCL’s Sustainability Strategy).