This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Canada, which closed in 2021.

The Ivory Tower And The Trenches: Finding Common Ground

By Emily McGiffin

In a new era of global cooperation and sustainable development goals, the effectiveness of Canada's participation rests more than ever before on the ability of various sectors to work productively together, sharing their knowledge and expertise and generating better evidence. When it comes to development and humanitarian assistance, Canadian civil society organizations (CSOs) and academic communities have much to learn from one another, and much to gain from successful collaborations.

Unfortunately, despite the rich potential benefits of collaboration and its very real potential to increase the success of development and humanitarian assistant efforts, collaboration between these two sectors is less frequent—and often less effective—than it could be. Divergent priorities, approaches, and organizational cultures can lead to misunderstandings on both sides and prevent long-term partnerships from emerging. Even worse, such divisions have often driven CSOs toward commercial consultants and away from the rich intellectual resource of Canada's academic community. This divisive trend can limit the scope and reach of much CSO research even as it drives academics towards research focused on theory and concepts, and divorced from policy and other practical applications. In fact, Canada stands out among Britain, the US and other G7 countries in terms of its gap between research and practice. Yet with shrinking funds to the international development and humanitarian assistance sectors (and particularly to their research-related projects), it only makes sense to seek ways to integrate the work of academic scholars and development practitioners.

Faced with this scenario, the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) and the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development (CASID) have partnered in a decisive step toward change. Their new three-year program, Next Generation: Collaboration for Development, aims to identify and promote new and existing ways in which practitioners, researchers, academics, students and policy developers can help create the right conditions for collaboration between academics and civil society organizations working in international development and humanitarian assistance.

As a first step, the program launched a literature review to discover what has been written on the topic of CSO/academic collaboration specific to international development and humanitarian assistance in Canada and to assess knowledge gaps. The review involved systematically searching research databases for key terms and concepts then assessing successes, trends, and lessons learned in the gathered resources.

One key finding of this review was that although many valuable lessons can be drawn from other sectors and from other country contexts, relatively little information exists specific to academic/practitioner collaboration in the development field in Canada. Despite this gap, existing information from both Canada and abroad points to several prominent trends. Most importantly, the success of collaborations generally hinges on the quality of the relationship between academic institutions and CSOs. Several writers described cultural or institutional challenges that worked against successful relationships, preventing successful collaboration. Such challenges include financial or resource inequalities, power dynamics, and the inability to overcome their differing orientations. Predictably, the role of good communication figures prominently in addressing these challenges. The nature and quality of relationships can also be influenced by the alignment of development studies programs or other academic departments undertaking the collaboration. Critical or theoretical approaches may be at odds with the practice-based approaches of CSOs, who may be further deterred by the critical nature of some academic writing that may not align with the upbeat tone of CSO communications that focus on solutions.

At the same time, a variety of effective strategies for addressing these challenges also emerged. Co-production, in which all parties are involved in developing research projects from the conceptualization and design stage onward, ensures that all parties are heard and have input into the research process. Gateways to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and expertise can take the form of resources, such as databases or "hotline" email addresses or phone numbers that can help link practitioners to relevant academic personnel. Such channels improve the accessibility of academic institutions and experts that may appear threatening or unapproachable to non-experts.

Collaboration can also take a variety of forms beyond research. It can involve student placements, volunteer postings, training opportunities, or visiting fellowships. CSOs can offer valuable opportunities for practice-based research with impact, while academics can provide avenues for publication and research resources. Given the importance of student placements as a form of academic/practitioner collaboration, increased professional training could help ensure that students arrive at their placements well-equipped with professional skills of value to partner CSOs.

As project funding continue to shrink and research funding increasingly calls for applied projects and/or collaborative project structures, demands on both academics and CSO practitioners to forge productive partnerships are likely to increase. While such collaborations can be win-win in many respects, they can also create headaches for both parties as they struggle to find common ground. More work is needed to identify specific barriers, issues and concerns as well as strategies for learning and sharing and pathways to success in a variety of Canadian situations. When it comes to collaborative approaches, documentation and sharing could help lead to partnerships that survive and flourish.

Emily McGiffin is a postdoctoral fellow at York University's Faculty of Environmental studies.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CCIC or its members.

Suggest a correction
This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Canada. Certain site features have been disabled. If you have questions or concerns, please check our FAQ or contact