Constructing transnational action research networks

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Action Research Volume 8(1): 5–28 Copyright© 2009

Constructing transnational action research networks Reflections on the Citizenship Development Research Centre L. David Brown Harvard University, USA John Gaventa University of Sussex, UK

abstract This article examines the construction of transnational action research networks that bridge local and global, practice and research, North and South, and many disciplines. Using an ­‘insider–outsider’ approach the article examines the emergence of the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability as a network of partners from seven countries concerned with research, capacity building and policy influence. The article examines how this network constructed shared goals and values, developed relationships and trust, and created network architectures to support action research, policy influence and capacity building. It also explores implications of the network’s evolution for change processes, bridging leadership, mutual accountability and institutional embeddedness. Key words • capacity


• insider–outsider

research • network

development • transnational

action research

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Introduction Many contemporary issues of development and governance are complex beyond the capacities of single institutions. This article is concerned with the development of interorganizational learning and research networks that use diverse resources and perspectives to generate new knowledge and innovative action on development issues across national boundaries. We are particularly interested in constructing transnational action research networks that bridge the differences that separate local from global, practice from research, North from South, and many relevant disciplines from one another. Such networks must span inequalities in power and resources as well as differences in cultural and intellectual traditions. In essence this article seeks to build theory and practice for constructing transnational action research networks. It begins with an overview of existing theory and research to identify issues involved in constructing knowledge networks. While such networks are increasingly seen as critical for solving many problems, our knowledge about constructing them remains limited (Brown, 1999; Maxwell & Stone, 2005). The third section discusses the methods of insider–outsider research and reflexive praxis that we have employed. Then we describe the evolution of the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability (Citizenship DRC), a network of seven partners – from the UK, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, South Africa, Mexico and Brazil – concerned with research, capacity building and policy influence. This network was launched and coordinated by a team at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex with support from the UK Department for International Development (DFID). We briefly describe its first 5 years and explore its evolution as a transnational action research network. The sixth section discusses implications of this case for constructing future transnational learning and action research networks. This case is interesting for several reasons. Research on long-term collaboration among research institutions is very limited. Studies of such networks are more often snapshots rather than longitudinal investigations across significant time periods. This research also offers unusual opportunities to look at the challenges of building transnational networks across several levels. These areas are not well developed in existing research on interorganizational networks (Brass, Galaskiewicz, Grave, & Tsa, 2004). More generally, networks are emerging as critical organizational forms for knowledge-based societies (Adler, 2001; Castells, 2000), so understanding how they can evolve across chasms of culture, wealth and power is important for an increasingly interdependent world.

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Background and review Networks have emerged as important organizational forms for many purposes. They have been hailed as central in the formation of individual identity (Castells, 2000), as critical for global governance (Reinicke & Deng, 2000), and as key actors in a range of public and private contexts (Brass et al., 2004; Powell, 1990). In the transnational arena network organizations have been seen as fundamental to international problem solving and governance (Reinicke & Deng, 2000; Rischard, 2002; Slaughter, 1997, 2004). Investigators have identified trans­national networks that deliver relief and services (Lindenberg & Bryant, 2001), advocate on global institutions and policies (Fox & Brown, 1998; Keck & Sikkink, 1998), and catalyze transnational generation of new knowledge and practices (Brown, 1999; Gaventa, 1999; Maxwell & Stone, 2005). There has been considerable interest in the evolution of ‘epistemic communities’ (Haas, 1992) of researchers and ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002) that create knowledge and shape policy and practice across national boundaries. But those networks typically bring together actors who share conceptual frames and social positions that facilitate communication and mutual influence. We are interested in the construction of action research networks that span the North/South and research/practice chasms to produce knowledge and action by very diverse participants whose engagement could ­easily produce misunderstanding and conflict. Existing literatures suggest attention to several issues as a basis for understanding network evolution. First, networks are organized around shared values and purposes that advance the interests of their members (Castells, 2000; Powell, 1990). How can transnational action research networks composed of diverse members articulate shared values and purposes for generating and disseminating knowledge across national boundaries? When networks span large differences in resources and perspectives, discussions of values and purposes often catalyze misunderstanding, contestation, and polarization. The evolution of those discussions and contests shape the viability and effectiveness of the network. Second, network effectiveness depends on building relationships and trust among members, particularly when they have few other tools, such as binding contracts or enforceable rules, with which to influence each other (Church et al., 2003; Newell & Swan, 2000; Powell, 1996). Trust may be based on deterrence, where parties can reward or punish each other; on knowledge, where they have the information to predict each other’s actions; or on identity, where the parties are committed to shared values and purposes (Sheppard & Tuchinsky, 1996). Identity-based trust is particularly important for enabling the open and flexible communications required for creative transnational action research networks, but it may be difficult to create across large differences in power, resources and culture.

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Third, network construction involves the creation of network architectures that enable and constrain joint action. Architectures combine formal structures and systems, informal norms and expectations, task definitions and human resources that work together to guide collective action (Nadler & Tushman, 1992). Networks vary in how much their architectures are formally developed (Clark, 2003; Young, Koenig, Najam, & Fischer, 1999): New networks often rely on informal arrangements and relationships while older networks may develop formal systems and shared norms to manage critical choices and activities (Fox & Brown, 1998; Young et al., 1999). Formal and informal distributions of power are critical to these architectures: They vary from flat alliances that accord equal say to all members to more centralized federations organized around powerful coordinating offices (Clark, 2003; Young et al., 1999). Transnational research initiatives are often dominated by affluent northern researchers with access to donors and policy makers (Brown, 1999; McNeill, 2005), but empowering Southern participants can be critical to making use of their diverse perspectives, special talents and access to realities on the ground. Purposes, relationships, and architectures interact to shape network, activi­ ties, capacities and results. Members invest their resources according to their assessments of past and expectations for future results. Members continue and expand their engagements when they believe participation advances their own values and goals; when they develop relations of trust and mutual influence; and when network architectures evolve that promise more capacity and enhanced impacts in the future.

Method: Insider–outsider action research Understanding the dynamics of an evolving action research network is a complex task. We use a longitudinal case study to examine the network’s evolution over a 5-year period. This approach offers an opportunity to explore in some depth the factors involved in this evolution (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Yin, 1984). We have used an ‘insider–outsider approach’ that combines the access of network insiders with the perspective and independence of outsiders (Bartunek & Louis, 1996). More specifically, the second author has been the coordinator of the Citizenship DRC since its inception, and so has extensive data on its evolution but he also comes equipped with biases about the program. The first author had nothing to do with the Citizenship DRC until he participated in its mid-term review in 2004. In that review he interviewed partner representatives, participated in a week of DRC meetings, met with the Steering Committee to discuss initial findings, and met with DRC and DFID staff to discuss the draft report. This insider–outsider approach potentially combines insider information with outsider perspective.

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We have also conceived of this action research initiative as a ‘reflexive praxis’ that engages the Citizenship DRC itself in developing new knowledge and practice. Preliminary findings and draft reports of the mid-term review have been discussed with network members to improve our understanding of its evolution and to enable member and network action on problems. Member discussions at a reflective workshop on research methods have shaped future investigations and understandings of research possibilities. This article has also been discussed at a Synthesis Conference at the end of the first 5 years, and it has contributed to planning for the network’s continuation, in a sense thus playing a formative evaluation role as well. So opportunities for reflection on DRC experience have been used to enhance the network as well as to develop ideas about the evolution of action research networks in general. We have taken different roles in writing this article. Following extensive conversations about the overall frame, the first author drafted the first three ­sections and the second author drafted sections 4 and 4, drawing extensively from the Mid Term Review. Then we each read and revised the other’s drafts. The implications and conclusions in section 6 have been written together. Quotes from the Mid Term Review are mainly from the first author’s perspective. In other places, quotes from the second author’s perspective are cited.

The case: The Citizenship Development Research Centre Development research is a large-scale enterprise. In the UK alone, the Department for International Development (DFID) deploys millions of pounds annually to generate knowledge about development processes and policies. In the past, much of that research used a centralized approach, in which research institutions ­contracted to do research on specific issues. Those institutions, usually Northern, often subcontracted Southern researchers to gather information in the field. In this approach, as pointed out by the Mid Term Review (2004, p. 2), ‘the central unit frames research questions, chooses methods, selects and sometimes trains data collectors, does comparative analysis of data from the field, interprets and draws analytic conclusions from those data, and disseminates new knowledge to consumers or policy makers’. Control remains with the central coordinator. This centralized model of research has also been long criticized, especially by those concerned with more participatory and collaborative forms of research, for reinforcing hierarchies of knowledge and for being neither accountable nor beneficial to the populations being studied. Moreover, from the perspective of the reviewers, ‘the centralized model is less effective in learning from unexpected differences across settings, using diverse resources to articulate new concepts, building capacity across participants, or adapting findings to local concerns’ (Mid

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Centralized research approach

Networked research approach

Figure 1  Centre and Network Research Organizations

Term Review, 2004, p. 3). Central research control may come at a high price to innovation and new perspectives. In 2000 DFID issued a call for ‘Development Research Centres’ that offered long-term funding to explore key themes. The programme required work with Southern institutions and linked research to processes of capacity building, dissemination and policy influence. Because of this large scale, long-term, relatively flexible approach, such centres had the potential to create more participatory research networks and to link action research projects across local, national and global levels. Figure 1 contrasts the research centre model with a participatory network model. The centre model subcontracts to partners and holds them accountable to standards set by the central contractor. The network model involves ongoing multiway negotiations and mutual accountabilities among partners as well as with the central coordinating body. An IDS team organized the Citizenship DRC with the idea of exploring a different model of international development research. Drawing from existing contacts, they recruited seven partner organizations from different regions of the world, which, like the members of the IDS team, were very diverse. These institutional members included:

• Bangladesh: the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), a research oriented NGO largely engaged in economic and demographic research; • Brazil: the Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento (CEBRAP), also an independent ‘think tank’ NGO, made up of researchers with ties to various Brazilian universities; • India: the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA, an activist NGO with broad links to grassroots organizations and a history of action ­research;

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• Mexico: Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, Universidad Nacional Autó­ noma de México/Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana – Xochimilco (IIS), two universities with a history of action research in southern Mexico; • Nigeria: Theatre for Development Center, Ahmadu Bello University (TDC), a university-based program strongly linked to community-based theatre and popular action groups; • South Africa: The Centre for Southern African Studies/School of Government, University of the Western Cape (CSAS), an academic university-based program located in one of the traditionally black universities; • United Kingdom: Institute for Development Studies, University of Sussex (IDS), a global research centre, with a long history of development research. In 2000 DFID funded the proposed Citizenship DRC for 5 years as 1 of 6 such Centres. In 2005, it was awarded funding for a second 5 years. In its first 5 years, working through these institutional members, the Citizenship DRC evolved into a partnership that involved over 60 researchers and NGO activists in research, dissemination and policy influence, and mutual capacity-building activities. The DRC has created country programmes coordinated by partner institutions. It has also organized working groups across partners to explore common research questions and meet at regular intervals to share results. The DRC has used 2-year cycles of activity and reflection, each preceded by a 6-month planning and inception phase. The organization of the working groups has evolved in each phase. Overall coordination remained at the IDS, under the guidance of a Steering Committee of country partners and research group convenors. The network has carried out multicountry investigations of several research themes, each of which was developed through participatory planning processes within the network. These themes include:

• How poor people understand their roles and identities as citizens; • Spaces and dynamics in which poor people engage and articulate their interests; • Relationships of accountability that emerge among non-state actors, the state and the market as citizens mobilize to claim their rights; and • Relationship of citizenship to issues of science, technology and policy. The Citizenship DRC’s work has been disseminated through a series of internationally published books, other books produced by partners, working paper series by IDS and by several partners, multimedia productions, and a web page which has received more than 200,000 hits since February 2003. The partners have shared results in international, national and local policy fora through special workshops, events and training programmes. The emphasis on collaboration among partners has contributed to innovative dissemination and policy influence

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initiatives by partners in their own countries, such as PRIA’s multi­stakeholder conferences on ‘Participation and Governance’ in India. The DRC has also undertaken mutual capacity building for researchers, their institutions, and their colleagues. Capacity-building activities have ­included South–South visits and exchanges, student internships, author ‘write-shops’, development of research libraries, and workshops with local civil society organizations and government officials. The DRC has spawned other partnerships and leveraged additional funding in several countries. By a number of indicators, the Citizenship DRC has been a ‘successful’ international action research network. There have been tensions and varying perceptions of its success, but at the end of the first 5 years all the partners wanted to continue their memberships and others wanted to join the network. From the vantage point of this article, the key question is how did the transnational action research network evolve? How and to what extent did it contribute to results that would not have been achieved by other approaches? Participants in network workshops on methods and on the mid-term review explored the costs and gains of their participation. They agreed on the value of linking practitioners to academics, the chance to learn about different approaches to research, and the opportunities to participate in wider intellectual debates. They pointed out that learning from other contexts sometimes opened their eyes to issues in their own settings: ‘The stories from Chiapas make me see similar things in the (Nigerian) Delta. They make you feel that the issues you are researching are not confined to your country but in others too’ (Methods Workshop April 2005). Others talked about applying CDRC debates to their work with local partners. As one said, ‘it helped us scale up. We can build research capacity in our own country with activists, academics, students . . . We have built the capacity of local partners, which is essential because we need the partners to do the work’ (Methods Workshop April 2005). Reflections on their joint experience stimulated frank exchanges and insights into similarities as well as differences. The DRC created vertical linkages to bridge knowledge and perspective from the local to the national to the global. Partner influence in setting agendas defined research that was relevant to their contexts and local ownership of results. As a result, partners were positioned to link DRC research to local and national policy debates in ways not possible for researchers based at IDS. Discussions revealed scores of ways in which research was being utilized by citizens and officials at national and local levels. The routes to influence were varied: From local feedback sessions and workshops to national policy forums; from training exercises with civil society organizations to new university curricula and teaching programmes; from newspaper articles and pamphlets to national policy briefs and books; and from participatory videos to national television interviews. These innovations communicated to Southern audiences in ways that Northern researchers could not. Links to international networks enabled Southern

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researchers to communicate to international audiences. South-to-South links between partners in Nigeria and India opened space at the Commonwealth meetings for Nigerian teams to share their results with international audiences. The Claiming Citizenship series of Zed Books and the IDS website gave international visibility and legitimacy to local and national actors. International meetings held in the partners’ countries created space for dialogue with otherwise inaccessible global policy actors as well as opportunities for national policy influence (for a further review of how the CDRC linked research to policy see Wheeler, 2007). The DRC case illustrates how vertically and horizontally integrated transnational action research networks can link research and policy. By involving partners at multiple levels, channels of influence emerged across levels that could not have been created by any single actor. For example, participation in the CDRC stimulated grassroots and international participation in an initiative to influence debates at a meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in Nigeria. Moreover, as participants reflected on methods, learning across the network catalyzed new intellectual perspectives and altered participants’ views of themselves as influential actors. Academics who had rarely talked to policy makers, for example, discovered they could influence policy discussions. Transnational action research networks can produce both new knowledge and new strategies for using that knowledge at multiple levels. The research themes of the CDRC, as well as its participatory ways of working, also generated a need and opportunity for reflexivity and learning about its own ways of working, a challenge reiterated by its Advisory Review Group, who urged its members to documents its own development as a case study of the broader themes on which it was working. For instance, its work on ‘inclusive ­citizenship’ (Kabeer, 2005) had implications for how membership in the CDRC itself should be constructed. Its work on ‘spaces for change’ (Cornwall & Schattan Coelho, 2006) held within it lessons for creating its own deliberations across differences. Its work on accountability (Newell & Wheeler, 2006), which focused not only on rules-based and technical approaches but also on formal and informal systems of power, could be applied to its own work. And its work on ­science and citizenship (Leach, Scoones & Wynn, 2005) had links to its own internal challenges of linking various ways of knowing for what forms of knowledge are considered legitimate for global policy outputs (for a review of the methodological tensions experienced in research on these themes see Mehta, 2008).

Constructing the Citizenship DRC Each of these research themes were both reflected in and reflected upon during the Citizenship DRC’s complicated and sometimes turbulent history. We focus now on that evolution, with special attention to the articulation of shared values

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and purposes, the construction of relationships and trust, and the creation of network architecture to support its work.

Articulating shared values and purposes Articulating shared values and purposes across diverse actors is a critical starting point for transnational action research networks. The Citizenship DRC included researchers from different groups at IDS as well as representatives of six partners from different countries and institutional settings – universities, advocacy NGOs and independent research centres. The partnership included many disciplines, including sociology, theatre, political science, anthropology, planning, environmental studies, international relations, political philosophy, adult education, demography, economics and organizational development. While each partner had a relationship with at least one IDS member at the outset, few had worked with one another or with others in IDS. From the vantage point of the Director, Looking back, the first meeting reflected the tensions from such diversity . . . we spent a great deal of time discussing the overall purpose of the Centre . . . and ways of working together . . . Almost four years later that first meeting . . . was still remembered as a place of a great deal of suspicion, jockeying and contestation.

Diverse capacities and expectations offered potential for synergies but also potential for mistrust and conflict. The DRC has worked since then to link research, policy influence and dissemination around core themes. Not all members agree on all the details of what the DRC is or should be. There are many views about the right balance of DRC activities across research, policy influence and capacity building but members have agreed to a broad consensus about central values and aspirations. What has been learned about developing and maintaining collective visions and values? First, constructing shared values and purposes demands that partners articulate interests, confront differences and negotiate agreements rather than accept centralized leadership definitions. Each partner brought expectations about research roles and responsibilities from prior experience. They were somewhat suspicious about the DRC emphasis on ‘partnership’: In the centralized model, research questions and methods are set by the lead organization. Strategy formulation in the partnership model must be negotiated across the partners, giving at least some recognition to the interests and concerns of each. Many early meetings were devoted to discussing the topics to be investigated and the roles different partners would play. (Mid Term Review, 2004, p. 4)

Partners with prior research in the centralized model were particularly sceptical about how much they would be allowed to influence critical decisions. Building shared goals and common ownership of joint research required extensive negotiations to articulate and integrate very diverse interests. For exam-

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ple, some partners were focused on impacts on grassroots groups; others were committed to shaping national policies; still others were primarily concerned with influencing academic fields or disciplines. Building consensus about research that could affect multiple constituencies was not simple, particularly given limited resources to achieve any of those diverse goals. Partners were sensitive to indicators that IDS might be taking too much control of decisions; IDS members wanted to share ownership but were very aware that DFID and IDS would hold them accountable for DRC performance and products. So a process that enabled participation in defining DRC values and expectations was essential to building shared ownership, but it also required considerable time and willingness to negotiate about a wide variety of interests. Second, the DRC experience demonstrated that formulating collective visions and values is an ongoing process. Working groups constantly revisited what they were trying to do and how they wanted to do it, especially when they had very diverse memberships. As the Mid Term Review (2004) pointed out, it has been important for the dynamism of the programmes that the ‘original objectives’ defined at the inception phase were not taken as carved in stone but could be revisited and revised. Frequent discussions among partners have led to a growing coherence…in terms of sharing conceptual and analytical vocabularies, experiences with different methodologies and priorities given to different research topics and areas. (p. 10)

As relationships developed and mutual understanding increased over time, the possibility of negotiating more integrated research initiatives increased. At each meeting the groups had to take time to reform and rearticulate their goals. As one person said, ‘we feel like we are part of the DRC only when we come together’. The 2-year iterative cycle of planning, working, reflecting and replanning allowed reconsideration of basic purposes and emergence of new priorities. But it also contributed to the feeling for some that ‘everything is always negotiable’ for some members. Third, setting and maintaining shared visions and values involves constant negotiation with external institutions as well. The broad goals of the DRC were set in initial negotiations with DFID. But personnel and mission changes within DFID altered its priorities for DRC, increasing its concern with applied policy research and with influencing national and local policy processes. Similarly, each partner had to navigate changing pressures and opportunities within their own institutions: Universities expect academic research from their researchers; local development NGOs put a premium on grassroots effects; advocacy organizations value policy impacts – and these priorities are not always easily reconciled. Shared DRC purposes and values have become clearer over time, as its research groups evolved from loosely coordinated collections of individual projects to more focused comparative research programs. Yet, tensions remained. Though

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there is broad network agreement about using research to catalyze change, partners have very diverse approaches to creating and using knowledge. Some use participatory approaches to enhance the capacities of local actors; others carry out academic research and target international audiences. As one participant reflected in the methods workshop, ‘engaging with other disciplines was exciting at one level, but also was frustrating at another level. The methodological conversation continues, and it is still difficult’ (Methods Workshop, 2005). While relations with home institutions offer opportunities for catalyzing wider impacts, they may also undermine the purposes and priorities being set by the network.

Developing relationships and trust The evolution of transnational action research networks depends on developing relationships and trust – particularly identity-based trust grounded in shared values and goals – among individuals and the organizational partners they ­represent. Southern partners for the DRC were initially recruited in part on the basis of previous relationships with IDS members. But the DRC quickly learned that trust between individuals does not automatically translate into group or collective trust. Prior experiences with research centres contributed to initial deficits of trust. As one partner reflected, I came to the DRC very sceptical, because I had had a bad experience with [northern research institutions] before . . . [where] everything was predetermined. It was colonial. After we submitted [our research], we did not know what happened. But when you came to these meetings, you do not get a feeling that everything is predetermined. Everybody is contributing. I am now glad I took the plunge. (Methods Workshop, 2005)

Another partner noted that the subcontractor model contributed to ‘internalized inferiority’ for southern researchers. Learning new ways of working together was initially an unsettling experience for partners who expected to work as subcontractors: Even with prior relationships, potential partners were sceptical about the DRC’s commitment to genuinely collaborative research. Many had prior experience . . . that led them to expect that the initiative would exploit Southern ‘partners’ to provide data to Northern researchers. The initial planning meetings at IDS and at PRIA were full of scepticism and distrust about the DRC’s allocation of resources and power. (Mid Term Review, 2004, p. 4)

While the partners had some initial relationships on which to base a decision to join the DRC, their experience also led them to be quite challenging about how resources and authority would be allocated in the proposed ‘partnership’. By the mid term review, however, participants agreed that the DRC had

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built substantial levels of trust among partners. A key factor in increasing trust was willingness to have frank and explicit discussions of critical issues, such as research priorities, accepted research methods, and budget allocations. Initial discussions of research priorities recognized and accepted partner research agendas and priorities in formulating network research programs. Those discussions also produced agreements to develop multimethod approaches to inquiry, rather than privilege the preferred methods of certain members of the network. Perhaps most important, initial discussions encouraged wide participation in decisions about how to allocate financial resources among partners and the IDS coordination team, and ultimately produced allocations and processes for future changes in allocations widely seen as fair by all the partners. Many partners in the mid term review commented on how unusual such open discussions of financial matters had been in their prior experience. A second factor in building relationships and trust in the Citizenship DRC was providing space and time for partners to engage each other in personal learning and development. Partners brought very diverse backgrounds and perspectives, including diverse disciplines, varied facility with academic discourse, and wide differences in concerns with practice or research impacts. Discussions of research initiatives, for example, tended to marginalize southern participants focused on practice rather than abstract research, and many participants in ‘write-shops’ were uncomfortable with frank criticism of their research papers. But working groups gradually created more inclusive and deliberative ­approaches for working on shared research and the network developed a shared culture of peer feedback that many partners credited with significant contributions to their personal learning and development. A policy on locating workshops in partner countries and encouraging systematic reflection on how to improve them enhanced relationships and trust. One participant observed, ‘What is valuable about the relationships? We get support and challenges. It is stimulating, seeing things done in different contexts. It is more of a catalyst than an idea’ (Methods Workshop, 2005). Over time research engagements created a climate for mutual learning that was valued by very diverse members of the network. Later reflections identified workshops and field trips in each others’ countries as vital to relationship building across diverse partners. Members referred to retreats where they had time to develop more rapport with each other. Several participants talked about the value of results other than research outputs: ‘If I hadn’t stayed in the field trip, I would be a diminished individual. It allowed me an understanding of what accountability really is in Nigeria’ (Methods Workshop, 2005). The personal relationships developed in working and living together also supported joint learning. Some partners emphasized the importance of enabling direct criticism and challenge of each other and the DRC as a whole. Many partners suggested that the meetings created spaces for intensive sharing and learning that did not exist

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in their home institutions. One partner noted that writeshops were ‘interesting and stimulating’ spaces that did not exist in his own university. Some partners commented that the mid term review itself helped to build trust by encouraging partners to raise issues and critiques of the DRC. As one described it to others at her university, [It] allowed us to share . . . on a number of different levels . . . I personally found that absolutely amazing. So many of our partnerships would not have wanted . . . to open the Pandora’s box, would not be able to handle the criticism. But by this time trust had been built, we could feed in anything we wanted. It was an entirely constructive process. (Transcript, partner presentation, 2005)

Once relationships and trust have been developed, they enable kinds of criticism and challenge that facilitate learning that would otherwise not be possible. But trust among such diverse partners is constantly being constructed and reconstructed. Partners pointed out that critical decisions, such as deciding how to reallocate resources or whose papers would be published in DRC books or working paper series, could easily undermine relationships and trust. The coordination team was particularly aware of how elusive and fragile network relationships could be, and how easily trust built over long periods might be undermined: ‘As director I have learned this the hard way. When shortcuts to consultation and transparency have been taken, on the assumption that trust would give them legitimacy, trust was sometimes weakened.’ Trust across such diversity is easier to destroy than create. The experience of the DRC also demonstrates that transnational networks must build relationships and trust with multiple constituencies, some inside and some outside the network. DRC partners struggled to build effective relationships among partners, between partners and their institutions, and between researchers and the communities they research. The experience of building trust in one setting can contribute to building it in others. Yet trust between institutions remains elusive and can quickly be undermined by institutional procedures or representatives who fail to reflect values central to the network.

Creating network architecture Transnational networks evolve architectures that combine informal norms and expectations, formal structures and systems, and human resources to carry out key tasks. The Citizenship DRC, like many other network start-ups, began with little in the way of shared architecture other than the informal links among partners with some IDS staff. Indeed, given partner prior experiences and the ­history of DFID funding of IDS, the ‘default’ expectation for the DRC architecture was the centralized subcontractor model portrayed in Figure 1. Networks often begin with architectures based on shared values and informal relationships. The DRC

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Central Advisory and Review Group



Steering Committee Partner

Partner Coord’n Team


Partner Research Group

Research Group Partner


Representative on Steering Committee Participants in Research Groups Outside Resource Inputs Coordination Services

Figure 2  Citizen DRC Architecture

partnership was based initially on informal ties among IDS faculty and the partners, and more specific systems and expectations had to be negotiated in the course of initial research and capacity-building activities. These informal linkages gradually evolved in response to a variety of challenges. Figure 2 portrays the overall architecture of the Citizenship DRC at the end of its first 5 years. This architecture was created to deal with problems of governance and strategy implementation that exceeded the capacities of the initial less formal arrangements. Over that time the DRC created (a) a Coordination Team based at IDS; (b) partner programs led by country convenors; (c) research groups led by research convenors; (d) a Steering Committee composed of coordination staff, country convenors and working group convenors; and (e) a Central

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Advisory and Review Group (CARG) composed of key academic, policy and donor stakeholders. The large arrows indicate external inputs into the DRC from DFID and the CARG. The dashed arrows indicate country and research convenor membership on the Steering Committee. The dotted lines indicate members from different partners in Research Groups, which do not include all partners. The solid arrows reflect Coordination Team support to all the country partners and research groups. The DRC created the Steering Committee to provide a mechanism by which many key actors can participate in governance of the network. The Steering Committee includes country convenors and research convenors as well as the coordination team. This arrangement gives partners a role in governance decisions as country convenors, though the preponderance of IDS staff as research convenors gave IDS considerable influence in the Steering Committee in its early years. Partnership governance requires architecture that distributes formal and informal power to partners rather than centralizes it. As other partners have taken on working group convenor roles, the governance power has shifted away from IDS. On the other hand, IDS continues to be the primary link to DFID and its resources, so it continues to wield considerable influence in the partnership. As one partner described the IDS role, ‘Part of the reason IDS is in the centre is how DFID sees things. But everybody in the partnership is equal. We are not research assistants to IDS’ (Methods Workshop, 2005). The IDS team is recognized as the administrator of the DFID grant rather than the controller of the research – a critical distinction in terms of power relations. Over time the DRC has created a variety of architectural elements to solve problems that emerged as it sought to carry out its work. Partnership strategy implementation required architectures for coordinating key activities and managing recurring challenges. At the DRC, for example, the partners developed architectures for allocating scarce resources, for internal peer review, for managing the DRC ‘brand’, and for partner reporting and accountability. From the beginning, the Citizenship DRC sought to discuss openly how to work together and to build shared expectations about key roles and responsibilities. For example, the thorny question of allocating financial resources led to equal initial allocations for each partner; later these allocations were amended to match differences in partner productivity and needs on various agreed dimensions. The early equal distribution discussions helped build initial relationships; the later unequal reallocations were based on growing agreement about performance standards, needs and expectations. The architecture for research activities in particular evolved dramatically. In the early phases, working group convenors brought projects together under broad themes but they had little influence on defining them, so the working groups were loose collections that represented diverse partner interests. As pressure mounted for more research coherence, loose working groups became research programmes

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and convenors became research leaders. This evolution was reinforced by the agreement to publish a series of books on DRC research; responsibility for these books encouraged working groups and convenors to develop more systematic peer review and capacity building. The research groups, for example, began using ‘writeshops’ to enhance researcher skills through joint reading and critique of each others’ research – an innovation that initially generated anxiety among participants but became recognized as an extraordinary resource for researcher capacity building. The writeshops both reflected and benefited from the growing focus on research quality and the increasing trust among partners. Networks can also create architecture to enhance legitimacy and support or to deal with pressures from external stakeholders. For example, the DRC recognized that its effectiveness required feedback from external constituencies like donors such as DFID, policy-makers, and other academics. The Central Advisory and Review Group (CARG) brought together representatives of key legitimacy and support constituents in occasional meetings to review progress and future plans, and its input has been central to strengthening DRC programs. Another thorny issue of external relations has been managing the DRC ‘brand’. Partners produced a wide range of materials and programs from joint research, some disseminated by the DRC and others by their home institutions. After some discussion, the partnership agreed that materials to be disseminated as DRC products should be reviewed by a DRC committee prior to publication. Architecture has also emerged to deal with the DRC’s links to other institutions and networks. Each DRC partner is embedded in institutional contexts that include home organizations as well as other networks. The DRC has sought to create mutual accountability within the immediate network, so that the coordination team can be held accountable by country partners and vice versa. For example, it was agreed that budget allocations would be based in part on research productivity and partners that did not meet those expectations would receive less funding in later years. Research groups negotiated expectations about quality standards to be met for DRC publications and authorized research coordinators to apply those standards. But partners are constantly challenged by pressures from external stakeholders, including expectations from DFID; from IDS; from partner universities and other institutional bases; and from stakeholders in particular research projects. Responding to these pressures was sometimes very challenging: The coordinating committee, for example, found it had to create a new financial tracking system to respond to the emerging needs of the network as well as the demands of IDS. The DRC began as a largely centralized system funded by DFID through IDS, and its initial governance structure was dominated by IDS in spite of its commitment to the partnership concept. But formal and informal power shifted to partners as the network evolved. Commitment to power sharing does not necessarily insure equal influence among partners since power interacts with levels of

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responsibility, relationships to key resources and issues of accountability. Despite attempts to share and disperse power and to create mutual accountability, the DRC is ultimately accountable to DFID as the donor and to IDS as the contract holder. In addition, informal relations and patterns of communication create influence even when formal structures dictate otherwise. As the Director pointed out, It is convenient for those of us at IDS to pop down the hall to consult and reach quick decisions. We must find other ways of communicating when formal power is more dispersed across the network. Many of us have close personal relationships that may influence formal processes of decision making as the network becomes more diverse and less IDS-based.

As the DRC entered its new round of funding in 2005, partners took up more formal power as convenors of working groups and as members of the Steering Committee, which became dominated by partners rather than IDS members. The DRC partnership, begun with informal relationships and negotiated values and purposes, was buttressed by formal and informal architectural choices that enabled shared power, mutual accountability, and effective use of partners’ resources in spite of their differences in interest and perspective.

Lessons and implications What does reflection on the Citizenship DRC contribute to broader knowledge about the construction of transnational action research networks? The case illustrates how such networks can span diverse resources to produce results that would not have been possible without the network. This network bridged many differences – diverse disciplines, North and South, practice and research, local and global – to create new knowledge and to catalyze innovations in policy and practice. The Citizenship DRC in this sense represents the emerging phenomenon of global knowledge networks and their potential for influence in an increasingly interdependent and knowledge-based global society. The case illustrates the significance of the articulation of shared values and purposes, the development of relationships and trust among members, and the creation of appropriate network architectures. Table 1 summarizes lessons related to these themes. Shared values, relationships of trust, and network architectures can interact to enable outcomes beyond the powers of network partners operating alone. The DRC case illustrates themes found in existing literature on transnational knowledge networks. It also suggests the importance of several lessrecognized issues. First, the DRC case highlights the dynamic nature of action research networks. DRC research has argued that citizenship is always under construction in processes of contestation, not simply established as a status. Action research net-

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Brown & Gaventa  Transnational action research networks • 23 Table 1  Lessons from Evolution of the Citizenship DRC Articulating shared values and purposes • Constructing shared values and purposes demands that partners articulate interests, confront differences and negotiate agreements across differences and expectations. • Shared purposes are created and maintained through ongoing reflection and debate. • Shared values and purposes must be negotiated and renegotiated with external institutions, such as donors and host organizations. Developing relationships and trust • Trust among individuals does not easily become trust among institutions, particularly if partners have negative prior experience. • Frank discussion of critical issues, such as priority setting, research approaches and budget allocation, are central to building trust. • Providing space and time for partners to engage each other in personal learning and development can be central to building relationships, capacities and network learning. • Trust among diverse partners is constantly being reconstructed and is easily destroyed. • Transnational networks must build relationships with multiple constituencies, including other partners, host organizations, and the communities they research. Creating network architecture • Networks often begin with architectures based on general values and goals and informal relationships rather than formal structures and systems. • Network architectures evolve in response to handle problems of governance and strategy implementation beyond the capacities of informal coordination. • Partnership governance requires architectures that redistribute formal and informal power from initially centralized arrangements. • Partnership strategy implementation requires architectures for managing recurring challenges, such as resource allocation, quality control and brand protection. • Architectures can be created to enhance partnership legitimacy and support or to manage pressures from external stakeholders. • Network architecture can redistribute formal and informal power to support network evolution.

works which link diverse partners from demanding contexts cannot be imposed by formula. Effective action research networks are the result of ongoing social and political construction processes, in which negotiating purposes, creating relationships, defining architectures, implementing initiatives and producing results interact to support and constrain future initiatives. Previously constructed architectures and expectations provide both constraints and backdrops against which new purposes, relationships, architectures and activities may be created or old ones reinforced. (Berger & Luckmann, 1971; Powell, 1990). Second, we have been impressed with the importance of leaders in building this network. Understanding the network as an ongoing process of negotiation and construction means that roles and expectations constantly evolve. It also

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means that bridging differences, building trust, catalyzing mutual influence and creating space for reflective internal learning are vital to network development. Bridging leadership emerged as pivotal to constructing and maintaining the network, especially at the start. The DRC benefited from sophisticated leadership from the IDS team that sought to build a partnership rather than a centre and who set expectations and relationships for joint rather than centralized research. Without that leadership it seems very likely that the default subcontracting research centre model would have prevailed. Bridging leaders among the partners were also willing to accept the risks and responsibilities of mutual influence and partnership. In retrospect all the partners agreed that collaborative leadership, combining participation and willingness to confront difficult issues, was essential to the network’s evolution. Third, the evolving relationship enabled growing recognition that members would deliver on promises. While the DRC began in a welter of scepticism about the possibility of genuine partnership, it gradually built shared values, goals and expectations about member contributions. Members developed a stronger sense of mutual accountability that pressed them to live up to each others’ performance expectations. This evolution has required that members negotiate accountabilities with each other as well as with other stakeholders. Over time members agreed to increasingly specific and interdependent goals, accepted more rigorous performance standards, and engaged the challenges of meeting them. Fourth, action research networks evolve in the context of many other actors. The DRC is a complex web of mutual relationships that is quite different from the more common centre-and-periphery model. But each member of the network is embedded in other networks and institutional relationships which affect their time, resources, and interactions. Embeddedness in other networks and institutions creates both obstacles to and opportunities for network evolution and impacts. If external expectations run counter to network values and pro­cesses, creativity and trust can be diminished and constrained. For example, the procedures of contracting, fund transfers and incentives within IDS seriously ­limited network actions in the early days of the DRC. On the other hand, network impacts may be enhanced by their institutional embeddedness. Action research networks can be ‘victims of’ or ‘change agents for’ their institutional contexts. The Citizenship DRC has contributed to the evolving debates about IDS conceptions of research partnerships and how to support them. Other partners have reported that the DRC has catalyzed change in their institutions – contributing to formation of new centres, disseminating new ways of doing research, enabling new strategies for policy influence, or building broader networks within countries. DRC members have used their positions in broader networks to communicate about network initiatives. Institutional embeddedness can create constraints, tensions and transaction costs, but it can also multiply paths and possibilities for influence and leverage for change.

Brown & Gaventa  Transnational action research networks • 25

The Citizenship DRC has certainly not been universally successful or efficient but it has been a productive experiment. Some tensions are always present, and its members would describe its successes differently. At the same time, most agree that it has catalyzed the development of new knowledge grounded in southern and grassroots experience which could not have been created by more ­centralized networks. Northern and Southern partners agree that it has built the capacities of its members. It has contributed to many initiatives to affect policy and practices, from DFID grant-making policies to Nigerian understandings of citizenship to Indian conferences on democratic governance. More generally, in a world of expanding problems of transnational governance and escalating needs for knowledge and practice innovations, transnational action research and learning networks can play increasingly vital roles. As ­national and global societies become increasingly knowledge based, such networks offer opportunities for constructing knowledge, practices and policies that respond to a global constellation of stakeholders. Such networks can construct the knowledge and relationships required to solve transnational problems beyond the capacities of current transnational institutions (Rischard, 2002; Slaughter, 2004) and they can enable the evolution of transnational discourses that provide the bases for institutional innovation (Khagram, 2005; Maguire & Hardy, 2006). And, as citizenship is increasingly taking on global dimensions, constructing learning networks which learn from and help to strengthen transnational citizen alliances will be critical if these new forms of citizen action are to deal effectively with the challenges of a rapidly changing and globalizing world.

Acknowledgment We thank Dr Davydd Greenwood for leading the review process for the authors of this paper. Should you have comments/reactions you wish to share, please bring them to the interactive portion of our website:

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L. David Brown is Senior Research Fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University. For the last 10 years he has co-ordinated international programs at the Hauser Center and taught at the Kennedy School of Government. Prior to coming to Harvard he was President of the Institute for Development Research, a nonprofit center for development research and consultation, and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Boston University. His research and consulting focus on institution development and social change, with special emphasis on the roles of civil society organizations and networks that foster sustainable development and social transformation. John Gaventa is Professor and Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change team at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. He also serves as Director of the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability. A political sociologist by training, he has written widely on issues of power, citizen action, participation and democracy. He also has been active with a number of NGOs and civil society organizations internationally, including the Highlander Centre in the United States and Oxfam in the UK.

28 • Action Research 8(1) Correspondence to: L. David Brown, Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, Harvard University, 79 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. [Email:]