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Research as usual in humanitarian settings? Equalising power in academic-NGO research partnerships through co-production

Abstract Background Research partnerships in conflict-affected and humanitarian settings can reveal complex power hierarchies between academics and NGOs. During the process of research, decision-making may skew in favour of more powerful actors, who often direct the scope of the research, hold the budget and lead the analysis. Co-production is increasingly emerging as a helpful approach that attempts to equalise power dynamics during research. The aim of this paper is to draw attention to the main challenges associated with a “research as usual” approach to research partnerships in humanitarian settings, as power hierarchies may be particularly magnified in these settings. Methods This paper is based on a comprehensive literature review and 32 semi-structured interviews with academics and practitioners from non-government organisations. Participants were selected purposively based on their experience in co-producing research or working within research partnerships. Some participants had worked in humanitarian settings while others had experience co-producing research in non-humanitarian contexts. We used Nvivo to thematically code data. Results This paper documents the problems with “research as usual” partnerships in humanitarian settings, specifically: the burden on communities as merely sources of data, certain forms of knowledge being valued over others, lack of reflection on the power hierarchies structuring research partnerships, top-down decision-making and lack of transparency, one-way “capacity-building”, lack of mutual benefit, and rigid research processes and timeframes. Conclusion This paper highlights key challenges with standard research practices in humanitarian settings and identifies seven key principles of co-production that can be helpful in attempting to equalise power dynamics within research partnerships, specifically in conflict-affected and humanitarian settings.

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Journal Article
Lokot M
Wake C