Research and decision making in NGOs: some hypotheses and research agenda

A very interesting field that tests the relationship between research and decision making is the local sustainable development project (LSDPs). In order to clarify the subsequent argument, I characterise in the following table the LSDPs, against the politics and firms’ fields.

local sustainable development project politics industry
actors NGO, governmental agency, target group legislative,  executive,  judiciary body shareholders, directors, employees
target group target group and final beneficiaries the whole population, or a part of it customers
final result trained people, empowerment, gain for the participants, etc. law, policy, enforcement, etc. products, gain, etc.

In the same simple manner, I divide the kind of research, from one end (theoretic, wide scope) to another (aimed at a specific product, practical).

type A type A-B type B

.wide scope

.aimed at a specific product


basic research (done by the university or other research centres) applied research (done by the university or other research centres) applied research (done by organizations’ R&D sectors)

The hypothesis, elsewhere supported (cf., is that, in a general way, in the LSDPs sector, few NGOs and governmental agencies do type B research, and fewer (when they do it) use it; fewer, too, use type A or A-B research. On the other side, the universities or other research centres do type A or A-B research, based on the needs and constraints of the NGOs and governmental agencies, despite dealing with the same objects and/or peoples.

Of course, the matter is much more complicated and here I try to do the “devil’s advocate” against my own hypothesis, touching upon some interesting cases. In order to understand these cases, I want to present another conceptual scheme, based on tree indicators (related to the relationship between research and LDSPs):

  1. how much the research affects the decision making;
  2. how much the research arguments are used in order to justify the actions that take or will take place;
  3. how much the NGOs, government agencies, target groups and final beneficiaries’ needs and constraints affect the research agenda.

There are many NGOs that accumulated a great research body. Among the Brazilian ones, tree examples are: the Instituto Socioambiental – ISA [Socioenvironmental Institute], the Instituto de Pesquisas da Amazônia – IPAM [Amazonian Research Institute] and the Instituto Sociedade, População e Natureza – ISPN [Society, Population and Nature Institute]. We chose in purpose NGOs that, while doing or promoting research, are implementing relevant projects aimed at sustainable development, human rights advocacy or environmental and cultural conservation. In a first outlook of the research of each one of these organizations, published or announced on their website, we can say that ISA favours type A and A-B research, while IPAM and ISPN type A-B and B. More in-depth research is needed in order to understand:

  1. who did the research (an external consultant, some of the internal team or others);
  2. whether the research is inserted in a project or not;
  3. if the NGO has stable relationships with universities and of what kind. And, above all:
  4. how much the research agenda is influenced by the need and constraints of the project beneficiaries, and, vice-versa,
  5. how much the research is used by the project team or by the beneficiaries themselves?

Another facet that would be fruitful to investigate is how indicators are used in the project document submitted to funding agencies, or in texts presenting the NGO. Most funding agencies ask the NGOs for a filled form, and one of the form fields is, usually, about the relevance of the action (see, for example, the form for the EuropeAid/129492/C/ACT/TPS call for proposal). It is common, among project makers, to base this section on indicators, mainly of large agencies, such as UNCTAD, FAO, WHO, and so on. But,

  1. to what extent are these indicators used?
  2. which are the most used indicators, and from which source/ agency?
  3. how much are fresh research indicators also used? And, most important:
  4. the overall analysis of the source/ agency is kept, or somehow distorted in order to promote the project, and
  5. are these indicators used only to justify something, or do they really orient the NGOs’ strategic choices?

Finally, a light on this matter may be shed by an issue that gained the stage in recent times: climate change. Without a doubt, the relationship between research and decision making is in this field deeper than in many others: it is no accident that the criticism aimed at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change findings reached the mass media, a not-so-common thing for the research world. My feeling is that it is the case also within the NGO mean: probably, here, many project makers are looking for university researchers, in order to collect arguments to build some climate change-related programme. Is that a driving force, promoting a new and wider co-operation of the two worlds?

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