Development-Africa: Putting Research Within the Grasp of Civil Society Inter Press Service  (Johannesburg)
Joshua Awuku-Apaw, Accra

In recent decades, the influence of civic groups has grown enormously. Organisations such as Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders and the like occupy prominent positions on the international stage, their views appearing alongside those of government in publications around the globe.
Civil society organisations (CSOs), which group bodies as diverse as religious institutions and trade unions, have proved adept at giving a voice to poor communities and others that often find themselves disregarded by governments.

But, says the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a British-based independent think tank, certain CSOs still lack access to research findings that could enable them to play a more active role in policy development - especially policies that deal with poverty reduction.

As noted on the ODI website, this situation is worsened by the fact that research departments of universities in developing countries have ceased to function properly, while "research institutes and think tanks that have replaced them are often financially insecure, (and) have poor capacity to provide policy advice".

This week, these matters came under the spotlight during a workshop held in the Ghanaian capital, Accra (Mar. 14 to 15).

Entitled 'CSOs and the Policy Process', the seminar was hosted by the ODI and Participatory Development Associates, a Ghanaian group that provides a variety of services, including training and research, to public and non-governmental organisations.

The workshop also aimed to shed light on whether the ODI's research on development issues was helping CSOs to influence policy debates, and on how the think-tank could otherwise assist civic groups in their work.

Several of the 26 delegates at the Accra meeting claimed that the drafting of the Ghana Poverty Reduction Strategy (GPRS) had been marred by inadequate consultation with civil society - no small matter, given that policies outlined in the strategy determine virtually every aspect of development in Ghana, from environmental management to industrial growth. Implementation of the GPRS began in 2002.

Patience Dapaah, an advocacy and communications officer, said the strategy did not properly address gender inequality - and should be reviewed.

Concern was further expressed about the extent to which government officials were themselves fully aware of all the provisions of the GPRS.

"It's unfortunate; even some government officials don't know much about the GPRS," said Mohammed Kassim, co-ordinator of the Human Rights Cities programme at the Legal Resources Centre, a non-profit organisation that promotes human rights in Ghana. Human Rights Cities is aimed at improving life in slum areas such as Nima and Mamobi in Accra, and Wa in western Ghana.

Discussions at the workshop also dealt with how the policies of foreign governments and donor agencies, and those of national governments, could affect the work of civic groups. In addition, delegates spoke about links between traditional leaders and CSOs, and how civic groups relate to the media.

The Accra workshop was one of several being organised by the ODI under the auspices of its Civil Society Partnerships Programme. To date, seminars have been held in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria.

"The focus of work," during these workshops, says the ODI, "will be on learning more about how CSOs use evidence to influence policy processes, identifying northern and southern organisations helping them to do this, and improving ODI's own information and communication activities".

As IPS reported earlier this month (Mar. 1), discussions at the Ugandan workshop showed that development research, even when it is available, often goes unused because findings are presented in a format ill-suited to policy makers.

While government officials who are pressed for time would prefer a brief analysis of the findings, these typically come in the form of lengthy reports.

Researchers and policy makers were shown to have different priorities in certain instances, with work being done on matters that were unrelated to the needs and preoccupations of officials.

It appeared the policy makers were also suspicious of research findings on occasion, and therefore unwilling to take these into account when coming up with programmes and policies.
Civil society groups, for their part, sometimes lacked the skills to make use of research in their work.