Karolina Kluczewska, University of St Andrews
This policy brief analyses how International Organisations (IOs) produce research in and on aid-receiving countries. Its key conclusion is that despite these actors’ claims to implement evidence-based projects, the research they produce and rely on is never neutral. Rather, institutional and operational features of IOs profoundly influence research findings. By looking at the case of IOs in Tajikistan, this paper shows how the geopolitical interests of donors, a project management logic and power asymmetries between these organisations and local actors shape the research process and affect its outcomes. This has implications for how we should approach knowledge claims made by IOs.
Today more than ever, IOs claim to use an evidence-based approach to design their projects and other capacity-building interventions in aid-receiving countries, while at the same time relying on research that they themselves produced and/or commissioned. This emphasis on research-based programmes comes as a reaction to an increasing criticism raised against IOs and other development actors worldwide, for proposing inadequate interventions which lead to exacerbating local problems rather than solving them. At the same time, it needs to be recognised that this new knowledge, which most often appears in the form of situational analyses, policy briefs, field assessment reports or even handbooks, and is used to design better interventions on the ground, does not appear in a vacuum and is never neutral. The context in which this knowledge is produced, namely that about development aid, profoundly influences the choice of which research questions are asked, how are they asked, the methods employed for the collection of data on the ground, as well as the analysis and editing of the material collected. In sum, the context in which knowledge is produced influences research findings.
In the next pages I outline what impacts the knowledge produced by IOs – or the modalities in which certain research is conducted by IOs. This is not to say that these organisations rely on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ knowledge, but rather that we should recognise that knowledge is never neutral, and never captures the entire complexity of a situation on the ground. We need to understand how exactly institutional and operational features of IOs affect research outcomes.
I draw upon my working experience in the predominantly western-funded development sector in Tajikistan, a post-Soviet Central Asian country which received significant international attention starting from the Tajik civil war (1992-1997). I also rely on my doctoral field research in which I explored the interactions between international and local actors within the development aid system in this country. While I refer primarily to the context of Tajikistan, these observations are relevant to other aid-receiving countries in the region, because the modalities in which aid is delivery across the world remain similar.
What impacts on knowledge production in IOs?
Geopolitical interests and priorities of donors
To continue their operations in aid-receiving contexts, IOs rely on funding from wealthy member states and external donors, such as national donor agencies. This means that besides their own mandates and operating principles, which also impose certain thinking frames, IOs must account for the priorities and interests of the actors that fund them. As a result, to obtain funding, including those for research – which will be used by the IOs to draft new projects and attract new funding – IOs need to present their ideas to potential donors in a way that resonates with the priorities of the donors – their actual political and foreign policy priorities as well as security concerns – more than the actual needs of the population on the ground. Often, projects are solicited by potential donors themselves, who offer funding for specific projects in areas of their interest.
For over twenty years in Tajikistan, democratisation – or more recently governance – and security were the two main issues of interest of Western donors in the country. Democracy acquired salience after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Western states were presented with the opportunity to expand their area of influence in the former Soviet Union. Security, instead, dominated Western concerns in the region since the the 9/11 terrorist attack and a consequent war in Afghanistan. In this context, donors were concerned about a possible spill over of the Afghan conflict to neighbourhood countries. What was the impact of these events on the research that IOs produced about Tajikistan? The main effect was that the research questions that the IOs working on the ground asked about Tajikistan were being framed through the lenses of (weak) governance and (in)security. This was true also for those questions asked in areas that remained unrelated to issues of governance and security, and it was done by IOs to attract the attention of external donors and secure funding.
Managerialism and reliance on project circles
In addition to being dependent on donors, the work of IOs is increasingly characterised by managerial attitudes and a reliance on predominantly short-term projects, one to three years long. This implies that the everyday work of IOs has become highly bureaucratic and subordinated to the logics of logframes and cost-time effectiveness. This demands IOs to allocate the lowest amount possible of money to research while attempting to cover the largest amount possible of respondents and data collection. This, in turn, influences how research is produced, regardless on whether the research is carried out by IOs directly or commissioned to external agencies. The same principles influence the amount of time that is allocated to researchers to prepare their findings – in most cases just a few weeks to prepare a research design, collect and analyse data. These times constrains also negatively affect the degree of researchers’ proximity to the field, due to IOs having to obtain security approvals before carrying out their work, a time-consuming process in itself.
In Tajikistan, for example, with more than 85 Western-funded organisations in the country and a slowly declining interest in Afghanistan, there is a big competition for funding among IOs. This makes IOs release research at a fast pace to differentiate themselves from other IOs which are seen as competitors, rather than partners. Additionally, IOs clearly prefer to hire international consultants rather than local academics who are more familiar with the country. As a result, research is often produced without a deep engagement with the communities which are supposed to be at the centre of the process of data collection and programmes.
Negative power relations and perceptions by local actors
Another feature of IOs that influences knowledge production concerns the power asymmetries arising between IOs and various actors on the ground, including government officials, local expert communities and the broader population. One needs to take into account that IOs often dispose of project budgets which are comparable with annual budgets of particular ministries in aid-receiving countries. This fuels resentment among local actors and cements a perception of IOs as disconnected from local realities. Such negative mutual perceptions emerging between international and local actors influence research because various local actors who are involved with IOs in data collection often either exaggerate local problems or depict local life through the prism of vulnerabilities to keep funding flowing in.
In the context of Tajikistan, for example, IOs offer lucrative working places which boost the perception of IOs as desired project partners. This makes local research participants tell researchers affiliated with IOs what they imagine that the researchers want to hear, rather than share their actual account of the situation. In particular, this is the case of donor-funded non-governmental local organisations, for which cooperation with IOs is a matter of financial survival. In a situation where donors withdraw their funding from local organisations, these are left with no alternative income and inevitably try to manipulate IOs.
The case of IOM’s research on labour migrants
The report below presents an exemplary case of how the combination of the three aforementioned features interplays in knowledge production. In 2016, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) released a report titled Migrant vulnerabilities and integration needs in Central Asia. Root causes, social and economic impact of return migration. Regional field assessment in Central Asia. The report proposed a strong argument about a radicalisation potential of migrants returning home from Russia following the 2014 economic crisis in this country. The report argued that upon their return to Tajikistan, migrants faced shocks due to lack of jobs and weak reintegration mechanisms. This, as the report further argued, made Tajik migrants, who are mostly Muslims, predisposed to religious radicalism. This report thus depicted Tajik migrants as posing serious security threats both domestically and internationally.
First, as for donors’ influence on research, it is important to point out that the report was not written out of the IOM’s own initiative but was commissioned by the United National Agency of International Development (USAID). The American donor was not so much interested in labour migration, as in discovering whether Muslim labour migrants from Central Asia could potentially join the Islamic State and in turn threaten the security of the United States. It is also relevant that the IOM accepted the funding for this controversial research because of its worsening financial situation in the region, which resulted from a growing competition for funding with other IOs working in the area.
Second, a project management approach significantly influenced the trajectories of knowledge production. Given time pressure, the research was conducted by a small team of researchers in only two months. However, during such a short period of time, IOM’s researchers interviewed an impressive number of 214 migrants and 91 experts. Researchers, with no prior research experience in Tajikistan or little knowledge about the country, found themselves hectically conducting several interviews per day, extracting all possible information from their respondents.
Third, the research was marked by negative power relations between the organisation and local actors, which in turn had an impact on findings. While conducting field research, IOM’s researchers noticed that many times during meetings with local partners, local partners were insisting on how many ‘radicalised migrants’ were there in rural areas in Tajikistan. By saying that they tried to convince IOM that more funding was needed for ‘de-radicalisation,’ and that they would be perfect project implementing partners for IOM. As a result of these interlinked dynamics, IOM released a report with a strong thesis about a radicalisation potential of labour migrants – which stigmatises migrants and de facto justifies social control and expansion of security measures by governments in the region.
A push towards more evidence-based programming is definitely a positive development within Western development aid, because it indicates that more attention is being paid to the reality on the ground, as opposed to international actors’ visions of the ‘right’ development. At the same time, however, these intentions do not automatically translate in an actual understanding of the local context. This happens because the designing of better interventions is not the only aim of research done by IOs. Research is one commodity in the marketplace of development aid – it aims to boost the legitimacy of actors who commission and conduct research. Several features of contemporary development aid, such as the geopolitical interests of donors funding, behind the humanitarian movement; the managerialism of research; and the negative power relations with local actors, influence the research process and findings. While there is no easy remedy to this situation, one needs to realise these nuances and approach the ‘research-based evidence’ with caution.
 Easterly W. and Easterly W. R. (2006) The white man’s burden: why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good (Penguin Books). For an overview of the Great Aid Debate see: Engel, S. (2014) ‘The not-so-great aid debate’, Third World Quarterly 35(8): pp. 1374-1389.
 For an overview of peacebuilding dynamics in Tajikistan see: Heathershaw J. (2009). Post-conflict Tajikistan: the politics of peacebuilding and the emergence of legitimate order (Routledge Publications).
 See: Dar S. and Cooke B. (Eds.) (2013) The new development management: critiquing the dual modernization (Zed Books); Krause M. (2014) The good project: humanitarian relief NGOs and the fragmentation of reason (University of Chicago Press).
 This section draws on Chapter 5 of my PhD thesis: Kluczewska, K. (2018). Development aid in Tajikistan: Six global paradigms and practice on the ground. University of St Andrews. Unpublished PhD manuscript.
The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of CASPIAN or the universities affiliated to the project.