Blog: Research results from the first six months


Participants discuss our research project at the SURe Exchange meeting on 3 April at NWO, The Hague

The Unusual Suspect team took part in a one-day meeting on 3 April 2018 at the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), The Hague, where we presented our results. Given that the project started on 1 September 2017, we were effectively presenting results on the first six months of work.

The meeting in the morning involved staff of NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development, project teams of the Science for Using Research (SURe) programme, members of the NWO-WOTRO International Advisory Committee for SURe, and the advisor supporting the SURe project with their literature reviews. In the afternoon, there were additional participants including people involved in the Dutch knowledge platforms for global development, additional research programme coordinators from NWO-WOTRO, representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a restricted number of interested experts.

The team made two presentations during the day. The first, given in the morning, provided an overview of intermediate outputs and the methodology followed in the literature review.

The results on which we reported to NWO-WOTRO, other SURe project colleagues and other stakeholders relate to the initial findings of the systematic literature review and are summarized below. Possibly our most important conclusion to date is that there is indeed a dearth of scientific literature on the role of the private sector in knowledge brokering in international development with most literature focusing, on linking academia, policy and practice, consistent with the initial rationale of the project.

Private sector and knowledge brokering: the unusual suspect

The research project was based on two preconceptions: that there is not much research on the private sector in international development and, specifically, not much research on the private sector in combination with knowledge brokering. These are now clear observations that we can make, based on the literature search of multiple databases which has yielded 319 potentially relevant references of which 46 were found to be relevant in the initial screening process. However, even in these papers, we have found that the private sector is mentioned in passing rather than analysed closely.

The most interesting articles are recent, possibly an indication of the recent interest in the field of knowledge brokering and the private sector. The relevant literature includes a wide-range of topics, including health, nutrition, agriculture, disaster management, and development issues with less focus on extractive industries, government and civil society, human rights, sport, and water and sanitation. Private sector activities in knowledge brokering are broad including linking, information management, capacity building, funding, facilitating and evaluating. The private sector also appears to play an important role in advocacy which was not present in the typology of knowledge brokering activities which we used to underpin the analysis.

Types of partnerships

We identified both formal and informal knowledge brokering partnerships. Formal activities have a well-defined with Memoranda of Understanding (MOU), within the confines of policies; while informal ones were ad hoc, with poorly defined activities and no clear outputs. These activities could be characterised in three main ways: upward with higher levels of government and other international players especially funders;  downward with lower levels in which the private sector was carrying out implementation; and horizontal with other private sector players.

The partnerships forged tend to be fluid on the basis of the issue at hand, rather than more general agreements. They are flexible to work with those partners who are critical to involve, based on the issue being considered. We found that partnerships can be short term or long term.

Private sector practices

We found that knowledge brokering is taking place along a continuum with a spectrum of knowledge co-creation work with various partners to construct, clearly define the problem, and bring multiple perspectives to knowledge co-production which involves bringing resources, time, money expertise, conduct applicable research relevant to the problem, produce relevant well-packaged, adapted information, make it relevant to the problem, create linkages to get information where it is needed. Some partnerships begin with already produced and packaged evidence giving them the advantage. There also appears to be a continuum between collaboration and co-implementation which involves help with problem construction but also engaging through-out the continuum of the problem to the implementation of solutions.

Presentation by Han

Han van Dijk of NWO-WOTRO presents the SURe projects to participants of the Exchange Meeting

In terms of good practices, we found that the private sector is good at mobilizing resources to implement plans. It is also good at institutionalization with many private sector knowledge brokers having created and resourced focused points within organizations, offices, human resources, infrastructure to support this function. In most cases, the private sector focuses on intentional knowledge brokering, not accidental. In addition, the private sector actively seeks out engagements and partners who support the agenda and generates ideas. This can involve scanning the horizon, following up on
issues and striving to be ahead of the pack.

Private sector actors locate themselves strategically where they can get insider
information, whether this is geographically or inter-personally. Insider information allows them to be ahead of the pack with ready information carefully packaged for the right audiences. They are also good at creating a well-rounded team of experts in research, policy influence, IT, finances, establishing a reputation of expertise and demonstrate it by having broad and solid expertise on the team. This builds confidence. Indeed, private sector actors seek to become legitimate through building a solid reputation. The quality of evidence and their experience/gravitas, makes them trusted influencers in the policy process. They become ‘the go to’ people because of the quality of their work and cultivated influence.

The private sector usually has the advantage of having resources to produce good evidence with the expertise to build that reputation of being experts. On the whole, private sector invests in strategic communication to keep relevant and to continually engage through websites, newsletters etc. It establishes communication and dialogue platforms and it is generally good at interpreting research evidence into useable products and communicating well. Working with other private sector actors in knowledge brokering strengthens their voice and boosts impact. The work of the private sector is not based on pull or push actions, but is more multi-directional which makes it better adapted to the complexity of policy influencing.

Main challenges facing the private sector in knowledge brokering

The preliminary literature review found that the private sector generally has different timelines than government systems, making cooperation difficult. Funding is unpredictable with most initiatives being externally funded which gives questionable sustainability. We also identified a lack of trust across knowledge brokering horizontally with competition for resources limits the private sector’s ability to plan and implement long term strategic objectives in a coordinated collaborative manner. There was also a general lack of functional platforms and linkages, while turnover of staff within the private sector was found to disrupt established relationships and competence.

The second presentation below was concerned with preliminary findings of the research project.

Feedback from the participants

We received quite a lot of feedback on these preliminary results. This feedback came from colleagues from other SURe projects, from the adviser on the systematic literature review, from the members of the NWO-WOTRO International Advisory Committee SURe and from other invitees to the exchange meetings. We note these points in turn.

Colleagues from the other SURe projects had the following questions:

  • Why did you exclude social enterprises?
  • How did you manage to come to such rich preliminary findings based on very little literature?
  • Why do you describe context as a good practice while it can both enable and constrain?
  • Why did you not take a more critical approach as your preliminary results appear to be quite positive on the role of the private sector?

The advisors on the systematic literature review had the following comments and suggestions to further improve the review:

  • The project appears to be taking the correct approach in a situation when there is not much literature. That is an important finding in itself.
  • To cope with the fact that there is not much literature, you will now need to draw on literature from other fields, such as health and the environment.
  • Remember to document clearly inclusion and exclusion criteria, and to document what you are doing differently compared to the protocol.
  • During the critical appraisal phase, you will need to look at the evidence and discard further references because not all literature is of equal quality.
  • It is normal to use several other techniques like hand searching, and quotations searching. In this way, you can find more references.
  • Specific economic databases might give you access to additional literature. Access to these databases is often quite restricted but they often have literature which is not included in other databases so I would recommend that you try Business Source Premier.
  • The Africa Studies Centre might have additional references on the private sector and knowledge brokering.
  • It is not necessary to include literature in other languages.

Members of the NWO-WOTRO International Advisory Committee SURe had the following comments on the preliminary findings:

  • The project should also look at issues related to the political economy of change
  • It is an interesting finding that there is very little literature on the role of the private sector in knowledge brokering
  • Grey literature – reports, newsletters, documents on websites etc – might give the project interesting material for analysis in the literature review
  • Differentiation between the different kinds of actors will be important to your review. For example, the corporate sector will be different to other private sector actors
  • You may benefit from going back to the initial research proposal that refers to specifics of the different platforms and which may enable you to differentiate further between the private sector actors.
  • How are you planning to use social capital as the conceptual lens?
  • A lot of research has been done on barriers and enablers on the role of the private sector but the project should focus on the dynamics of transformation

The participants at the afternoon exchange meeting had the following comments and feedback:

  • The private sector is not a ‘magic bullet’ as it is referred to in the SDGs
  • Trust is important: under what conditions will sharing take place with private sector?
  • There are differences between sectors. For example, in the health sector research has to be very clear about conflicts of interest because of the role of the pharmaceuticals industry. There is also often an intellectual property conflict with the private sector.
  • Knowledge is not value free
  • How reliable is information/knowledge shared by the private sector?
  • Need to know how to work with different private sector parties
  • The private sector brings money and good practices
  • Does private sector involvement really help with sustainability?
  • Does the private sector value co-creation?
  • Knowledge brokerage is part of co-funded projects
  • Are public private partnerships (PPPs) more sustainable?
  • What drives the private sector in brokering and can this change through the life of a project?
  • When does the private sector share? This might depend on: clients, rather than competitors; maturity of the value chain; reputation and network
  • The private sector might be willing to share standard information/knowledge but want to keep the cutting-edge stuff to themselves
  • The private sector may have a different perspective on knowledge as an asset that you can trade
  • Different types of actors may find it difficult to publish together because of different expectations/requirements
  • Researchers can be included in partnerships between government/NGOs and the private sector as they are seen as neutral or as honest brokers, mediating between the two groups of interests. They can be seen as providing evidence synthesis with no axe to grind


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