During the recent NBDC science meeting, associate consultant – and former staff member of the International Water Management Institute – Doug Merrey took stock of a number of interviews carried out to map the Nile Basin’s ‘institutional history‘ (1). The presentation focused on what the NBDC has done to implement a research for development (R4D) approach that brings research activities out of the scientific silo and into communities’ landscapes, as well as the figurative landscape of development outcomes.

In his presentation ‘Is research for development a good investment? Reflections on lessons from NBDC’, Merrey pointed to a number of interesting aspects.

Historically, CGIAR is a collective of research institutes and its scientists have been assessed against the amount of peer-reviewed papers published every year, but the CGIAR reform is pushing CGIAR scientists to ensure their research brings about development outcomes. These scientists are increasingly involved in processes of facilitation of innovation and action-research activities verging on development work.

The question is whether these efforts are worthwhile. Such efforts are long-term, resource-intensive, require strong process skills that CGIAR scientists have not necessarily had to develop and nurture until now. In addition, the NBDC experience shows that R4D means different things to different people. In his presentation, Merrey noted that despite some shortcomings, the NBDC did promote one authentic innovation: to bring together a large and diverse group of partners, which gave more thrust to the collective capacity to innovate.

Merrey concluded with the four main recommendations from the Nile BDC’s experience with R4D:

  • Effective partnerships – empowered demand-side institutions;
  • Strong linkages to existing development investment programs;
  • Long-term commitment by funding agencies as well as scientists;
  • A foundation in excellent science.

As the project comes to an end and folds into the CGIAR Research Program on Water, land and ecosystems, these lessons are increasingly relevant.

Note:

(1) Institutional histories are a documentation and monitoring approach followed throughout the Challenge Program for Water and Food to better understand how the program’s dedicated R4D approach was implemented across the six basins (Andes, Ganges, Limpopo, Mekong, Nile and Volta).

ILAC brief 14 'Engaging scientists through institutional histories', inspiring this work

The Nile Basin Development Challenge (NBDC) is in its final phase and its various teams are poised to document the interesting aspects of the work completed in the past years.  These crucial documentation efforts include a keen look on the institutional environment in which the NBDC has tried to bring about technological and indeed institutional innovation.

After experimenting with ‘most significant change‘ stories in 2011 and 2012, in late 2013, the NBDC project dedicated to Catalyzing platforms for learning, communication and coordination will undertake the development of institutional histories, under the supervision of Pamela Pali, poverty gender and impact specialist. All NBDC project teams should contribute to these efforts that will aim at unraveling the institutional conditions that have affected the work of NBDC as a whole. Institutional histories are an element of monitoring and learning work in the program.

What do we mean by institutional histories?

Institutions are the rules, norms, conventions, incentives and sanctions that govern activities which assume particular importance when organizations with different histories, cultures and mandates work together as is the case with the partners whom the Nile basin project collaborates with.

Institutional histories are a narrative of the ways of working that stem from rules, conventions, and routines governing behaviour (see ILAC brief 14). New working practices of different organizations must be documented because strong technological narratives tend to ignore the role of institutional change in achieving progress.

Institutional innovations are crucial for research organisations to cope with changing development agendas which demand partnerships with non-research organisations in the innovation system. Institutional histories draw institutional lessons from what works or does not work and promote new working practices.

Different types of organisations must work together for an institutional innovation to emanate because the rules and norms of working together must change for an institutional innovation to occur.

In the Nile Basin Development Challenge (NBDC), the development of institutional histories shall start at a later date in 2013.

More information on our wiki

By Pamela Pali.