There is no escaping the 'post-truth' tidal wave. The rise of populist politics that has swept the US and Europe and the language of 'post-truth' along with all its connotations, represents an era where evidence and experts are often accused of being irrelevant and detached from reality. Whether this analysis is a true reflection or not, there are a set of assumptions that are being made about 'evidence' that pits it as homogenous, technical and disconnected that cannot and should not be ignored. Evidence, in its many forms, is diverse and complex but we need to make sure that it is accessible and relevant.
There appears to be an easy and flippant dismissal of the important role that evidence should play in shaping the decisions of our leading political figures and many others, driving some towards simpler, more technocratic, definitions of what improves lives and has a positive impact on development.
Evidence is not simply about 'cold, hard facts', which on their own can often ignore or dismiss the reality of the human situation, the political context and social dynamics. We need to appreciate and share evidence in all its forms. So, as we navigate these choppy waters, we need to find a way to genuinely and meaningfully engage without falling into the trap of implying that there is a 'single truth', or indeed that the 'impact' of evidence on policy and practice is, or should be, direct and linear. In fact, this is where the challenge truly lies. Understanding that evidence is plural, complex and fluid is one thing, but how to make it matter is another point entirely. In this context, there is a role for us all to play, whether you are a researcher, donor or practitioner.
In responding to the 'post-truth' narrative, we should steer away from the notion that evidence simply constitutes academic research, or of presenting the narrow view of evidence-to-impact that has sometimes dominated in recent years, and which has often privileged certain sorts of evidence (technical, quantitative, randomised control trials), as was debated by policymakers, researchers and practitioners at the recent 'research impact symposium: If evidence really matters what can we do about it?' co-hosted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), International Institute for Environmental Development (IIED) and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and supported by The Impact Initiative for International Development Research and the ESRC-DFID Strategic Partnership.
In recognition of this, IDS and the Impact Initiative have published an edited collection of case studies which reinforces the need to appreciate that all evidence, and links between evidence and action, happen in a social context. We do not sit at a desk, alone, and generate numbers and facts without seeking to understand the context and the reality of what we are talking about. 'The Social Realities of Knowledge for Development', clearly identifies the need to understand the connections between research knowledge and policy and practice. This is key to understanding how to make evidence matter.
Yet even in understanding the complex nature of research and evidence, who defines good quality research? How, why and with whom should we work with to build knowledge and partnerships? The articles in this IDS Bulletin aim to answer these questions based on IDS' approach of 'engaged excellence'. IDS prides itself on delivering research that is built on solid evidence, acknowledging plural perspectives. Our approach is dependent upon it linking to and involving those who are at the heart of the change we, and those we work with, wish to see. Engaged excellence combines conceptually and empirically innovative research with deep and extensive engagement with actors in society, global partners and students.
At the heart of all this is trust. This can be trust within your institution, or trust between partners, trust between policymakers and academics - the list goes on. At the symposium there was a broad consensus between the researcher, donor and practitioner cohort that power relations and politics pervade the whole knowledge-policy 'ecosystem'. It is vital that we understand both the politics of knowledge itself, affecting how problems are framed and whose knowledge counts, and a more material political economy of resources and interests that affect how policy processes unfold, and whether or not which kinds of evidence are taken up and used (or not). This applies in all fora and at all levels. A task for us all is to be more explicit about politics and power relations, so we can be more strategic in how we navigate them. Building trust can and should be a part of this.
There is no type of evidence that on its own, can present the entire picture. We have to respect different forms of evidence and work closely with partners to produce and share it with those who need it. So whilst these may be challenging times for everyone, now more than ever, we need to build trust and pushback. And, most importantly, we must find and tell stories of impact and change in ways that will make sense and appeal to different audiences - from the person in the village or street to the politician or global policymaker.