Research in an INGO: Oxfam's new series of research guidelines

Interested in how an international NGO supports research? A couple of weeks ago Oxfam launched a series of online research guidelines, originally intended for its own staff and research partners, but now being made public for the first time. The following is a slightly edited version of a blog post I wrote to accompany the launch. The original is here:

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Do you recognize any of the following situations? You've commissioned an academic, who sends back a draft paper completely different to the one you thought you were asking for. You turn up to interview a farmer and her husband butts in and asks, "What about the promises that the last research team made?" It's Friday afternoon and you're about to go home when the media team tell you that they need killer facts and juicy quotes for next week's press briefing.

If so, then we may be able to help...

This week we're launching a series of guidelines for development workers and researchers who want to brush up their skills and learn more about the practicalities of applied research that are so important but rarely written about and taught. We can't promise to change the behaviour of short-sighted consultants, interfering spouses, and last-minute colleagues, but we can make working with them much easier!

Oxfam's research guidelines provide concise introductions to a wide variety of topics and are oozing with handy tips on how to plan and undertake research and get the most out of different approaches and methods. They're based on first-hand experiences of Oxfam staff working in advocacy, development and humanitarian programmes worldwide. And the good news is that we're now making the fruits of this experience available to everyone - via a dedicated page on Oxfam's Policy & Practice website. You can find it easily at

So how did these guidelines come about?

We've actually been sitting on some of these guidelines for a long time. In 2006, our senior researcher, Kate Raworth, took six months out from writing campaign briefs to explore how research might be best supported across Oxfam. The production of a series of 'how to' guidelines for staff was just one of the positive outcomes of this, together with the beginnings of a programme of research training, and the recognition that building research capacity is a full-time job.   

Kate's brainwave (she keeps on having them: read about her latest here) was to realise that there was both an internal demand for research guidelines and that our own staff were the best people to write them.  As she recalls thinking at the time:

"[Firstly,] there are loads of books [about research methods] out there, but books aren't accessible to everybody; and secondly, we actually know a lot, people who are doing the research learn a lot and have a lot of really good tips that you don't get in the books, so let's capture that."

We've been distributing the resulting staff-authored guidelines by email and through our intranet ever since.  For some time we've wanted to make them even more accessible by posting them on the internet, and the development of our Policy and Practice website  has now made this possible. So, with a fresh lick of paint, the self-explanatory titles now available on our research guidelines page are: 

This is only the beginning. We've got more guidelines in the pipeline, including some that were originally produced by our monitoring and evaluation folks, and others that we're going to commission and write from scratch (like the guideline on Writing for Impact  - which was written by my colleague John Magrath  especially for the launch).

Moreover, we'd like to get the guidelines translated into the major languages that we use, and will encourage colleagues to draft new guidelines in their own languages. And we plan to regularly update the guidelines that we've already posted, taking account of users' comments, incorporating new ideas and information, and adding links to research reports and case studies that illustrate their use- so please do let us know if you find them useful and suggest improvements.

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Comment by Martin Walsh on December 10, 2012 at 10:58pm

Thanks John for your encouraging comments and excellent suggestions -- we'll certainly look at incorporating them when we next revise the guidelines.

Re your first suggestion: our framework for research training (dubbed 'Research for Advocacy', R4A) is built around similar questions about the audiences for research and the kinds of evidence and research process that are most likely to influence them as well as produce high quality results. I'm planning to write a guideline that summarises this and other aspects of our approach to R4A. The same lesson is readily applied to writing, as you suggest. We also have a training module about writing up research results, and I'm thinking of turning that into another guideline to complement the 'Writing for Impact' one that you've seen. Its first part is headed 'Know who you are writing for and why' -- so I think we're on the same page there.

Re your second suggestion: I agree completely and will revise that part of the guideline accordingly. In my mind this connects to a strategy for applied research that I often recommend: selecting positive exceptions / instances of success as the subjects of case studies, especially when the reasons for failure are already well know. Coincidentally I've recently been involved in some cross-country research on Women's Collective Action (WCA) in agricultural markets in Africa in which we followed just this strategy when designing the qualitative component of the study (investigating apparent cases of success, so that we could draw lessons from the ways in which women engaged in different kinds of WCA had escaped the usual constraints and/or been able to secure greater economic and other benefits than other women smallholders). Moreover we've included personal stories of success in some of our write-ups of this research (currently in draft). Oxfam does this in a lot of its publications, and the guideline about Human Interest Stories should reflect this.

Last but not least, that's a great anecdote from Vietnam and the Harvard Business Review. As one of my colleagues quickly observed, it could actually illustrate a number of quite different things, and not just the value of investigating exceptional cases!


Comment by John McCreery on December 10, 2012 at 9:19am

An excellent set of materials, with wide applicability (anyone who wants to write persuasive prose). I wish they had been around when I was a student and, later, a novice copywriter. Just a couple of points that could use strengthening. First, start by asking yourself three key questions: Who am I writing to? What do I want them to do? Why will communicating your proposition to them achieve that goal? If you can answer these three questions in no more than a paragraph each, you are well on your way. The discipline of always asking them will make you a more persuasive writer.

Second, yes, it is important to determine if a person is typical—but extraordinary, atypical people may have more important things to say. Yes, you have to be careful and consider bias and unintended consequence, but human interest stories, in particular, often benefit if the teller/protagonist is someone out of the ordinary.

I recall a piece I saw a few years back in Harvard Business Review. The place was Vietnam. The people running what turned out to be mainly unsuccessful programs to improve children's diet had noticed that, while many children remained malnourished, there were, in every village, some who seemed to be thriving, even though their mothers were no better off economically than other mothers in the village. Someone had the bright idea of finding out what these mothers were doing and promoting them as role models for the other mothers. In one, particularly vivid case, one mother had increased her children's protein and vitamin intake by harvesting snails and edible weeds from the village's rice paddies. The problem was that, when everyone starting doing the same, the snails became extinct. Then all the children were malnourished. 


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