BLOG | Speak on research, using the Global Goals

By Bruce Currie-Alder, Program Leader, CARIAA

CARIAA’s annual learning review, held in May 2017, was a success in many ways. Participants gained insights from more than 26 research papers and posters, identified ways of enhancing collaboration, and made progress on cross-consortium work including migration, gender, and contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet the event was perhaps overly ambitious in aspiring to use CARIAA research to link the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to national adaptation planning. The purpose of this blog is to reflect on that aspect of learning review, and the implication for our program moving forward.

CARIAA sought to challenge researchers to identify how elements of their research shed light on one of the global goals: water, women, equality, or climate action. Using a format of four-minute speed talks, researchers had to quickly introduce their work, highlight one or two findings, and identify implications for society as it seeks to realize one of these goals. Ahead of the event, Isobel McConnan and Pete Cranston assisted participants to rehearse their presentations in thematic sessions. In this way, each of us came to appreciate synergies across different consortia.

Yet this format could not fully address the richness and detail of the research performed over years. At best, it imparted insight and generated interest in the audience to learn more. In this regard, the format worked and small group discussions following each thematic plenary were full of energy as people connected, critiqued, and came to appreciate each other’s work. 


“I learned to listen to people, so that I could speak to them, in ways that they could understand” – Nokwanele Mamkeli.

With these words of wisdom, Georgina Cundill Kemp, reminded participants that dialogue begins with an appreciation of the other. In order to be heard, we must first know our audience: the ideas they are interested in, and the language they use to describe those ideas.

Sustainable Development Goals offer one language for engaging audiences attentive to the discourse of international development and the ongoing drive to address the needs of poor and vulnerable people. The goals are a means of framing messages from our research: SDG 5, 6, 10, or 13 are numeric shorthands that signal how our work might contribute to a better future. The trick is to step beyond the narrow conclusions of the research and identify insights for public and private action: whether described as SDGs, Africa’s Agenda 2063, country-specific National Determined Contributions and National Adaptation Plans, or simply the livelihood strategies of families and firms.

Our science needs to listen to the needs of society, in order to speak in a way that enhances society’s understanding of the options before it.

The Sustainable Development Goals cannot offer solid ground upon which to design scientific research. Agreed to in 2015, the goals emerged when our four consortia were already well underway. Timing aside, the goals are the result of a political compromise, seizing on the common elements of how diverse societies envisioned the future they want. As with the Millennium Development Goals that preceded them, the post-2015 agenda is epistemically incomplete: strong on aspiration yet lacking in conceptual and analytical rigor. Any effort to measure and account for progress will be partial and somewhat subjective, privileging certain indicators over others while ignoring interlinkages and interdependencies among the goals.

From a research perspective, these Global Goals are also devoid of theory: they describe what to achieve, but not how to do so. For explanation and causation, one must rely on a breadth and depth of natural and social sciences, as well as the emergent practice created as communities and individuals struggle to survive and thrive in a changing world.

SDGs 13-1-10-5-8

Knowledge and learning generated within across ASSAR, DECCMA, HI-AWARE and PRISE is particularly salient to five of the 169 targets that define the seventeen Global Goals.

Clearly, our research informs climate action and efforts to eradicate poverty. At the learning review, Divya Nazareth (Watershed Organization Trust - WOTR) spoke on integrating climate science into watershed planning; an example that strengthens resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards (target 13.1). Meanwhile Prince Ansah (University of Ghana) described adaptation planning that enhances water and food security in Ghana, an example that integrates climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning (13.2). Multiple presentations spoke to coping with heat waves and droughts, examples that build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate-related extreme events (1.5).

CARIAA results also provide insight on how adaptation contributes to migration and mobility, gender equality, and economic growth.  Research by Ayesha Qaisrani (Sustainable Development Policy Institute - SDPI), Cheikh Wade (Innovation, Environnement, Développement Afrique - IED-Afrique), and others speak to facilitating orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people (10.7) in South Asia and West Africa. Work by Swati Pillai (WOTR) and Anjal Prakash (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development- ICIMOD) speak to undertaking reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources (5.A). Meanwhile work by Elizabeth Carabine (Overseas Development Institute - ODI) and Tuhin Ghosh (Jadavpur University) on value chains in livestock and agricultural livelihoods speak to achieving higher levels of economic productivity through diversification (8.2).

So our program does speak to the Global Goals, yet can go further to distilling these insights. CARIAA must identify key messages, the audiences that can learn from them, and engagement opportunities to inform future policy & practice.

Excitingly, this task is already underway within each consortium and across the program. Leadership within each consortium, supported by team deliberation and planning for the year ahead, is distilling our key messages and headline outcomes. We count on a talented and enthusiastic community of Research-into-Use (RiU) specialists eager to help us reach the audiences and enable change. We are prioritizing which events and processes to engage into 2018, ranging from national adaptation plans and regional policy fora, to IPCC reports and Adaptation Futures 2018.

Some audiences are receptive to hearing about the Global Goals, where we have the beginning of a strong narrative. Other audiences have different aspirations… In all cases, we will do well to understand our audiences, their interests and motivations. Only then can we speak in ways that help to increase the resilience of vulnerable people and make a difference in their lives.