The Root Change “Pracademic” – What We’ve Learned from Bridging the Academic-Practitioner Divide in Partnership with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI)

Rachel Dickinson Reimagining Projects

As an INGO whose staff works to design, implement, and iterate programs, projects, and initiatives around the world, by most accounts Root Change is a practitioner. But sometimes we dip our toes into the academic side of the international development field. This is evident in our mission to “question assumptions” and “think deeply” but tends to be our behind-the-scenes work.

While Root Change never reaches the total opposite side of the spectrum, we find a lot of value in partnering with those who are in academia and, like us, are looking to venture into and learn from those on the other side.

A recent partnership of this sort has been with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), a research center working to develop evidence-based approaches to humanitarian assistance. As part of Harvard University, HHI is first and foremost an academic center. However, like Root Change, they also venture into the world of “pracademics,” spanning the divide between practitioners and academics. Along with research initiatives, HHI jointly implements programs with INGOs and local entities to enhance climate change adaptation and disaster resilience around the world.

Program on Resilient Communities, Bangladesh

One example of this is their recent work under the Program on Resilient Communities, where HHI along with Concern Worldwide and Jagrata Juba Shangha (JJS) have been supporting climate change adaptation and disaster resilience of local communities through leadership development and disaster mitigation trainings. The program is focused in Bagerhat District, Bangladesh, located in a low-elevation coastal zone especially vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change. It aims to improve local collaboration between a range of stakeholders and strengthen local capacity to plan, implement, and finance efforts to keep communities at the center of disaster preparedness and response.

Under this initiative, HHI partnered with Root Change to complete a network analysis study to understand the local connections and determine how to strengthen coordination and collaboration among those local actors. From this study, we found that those working on climate change adaptation and disaster resilience in Bagerhat district represent a network made up primarily of local (district and national level) organizations. The majority of relationships between local actors have existed for more than a decade and include frequent interactions. However, these relationships were predominantly unidirectional, meaning that an organization reported collaborating with a peer, but the peer did not report collaborating with them. Given the long-standing relationships among local actors, we would have expected there to be more joint collaboration and exchange of ideas and support. This may suggest that relationships in this system were more transactional then trust based. We also found preferential attachment towards international organizations, with many local actors going to international actors for a range of services, resources, and expertise. Over half of relationships disappeared from the local system when international actors were removed, even though international actors made up less than a quarter of the actors in the system. The main recommendation from this study was to increase mutual collaboration between local actors to support greater resilience and reduce dependency on international actors.

Key Learnings

This partnership between HHI and Root Change was a unique opportunity for us to learn from being pracademics. These are a few valuable lessons we learned along the way:

  • Create a two-way street: Our partnership with HHI is particularly interesting to us because of their unique position as an academic center supporting practitioners and ours as a practitioner organization supporting an academic center. From this, Root Change has been able to draw from our years of experience using social network analysis (SNA) to make meaning of systems where programs and initiatives are taking place, and HHI has been able to draw from their research experience to design and implement effective disaster preparedness and resiliency programs. We each bring unique knowledge and skills but are able to meet each other in the middle when collaborating. For example, together we have been able to create an approach that answers common calls within the humanitarian sector for “better coordination” by assessing relationship structures and quantifying coordination. This, in turn, provides concrete evidence of strengths and weaknesses in the system that can be used to target interventions towards improved coordination.
  • Combining research and programs can be powerful: From the perspective of the practitioner, the world of the pracademic provides those much-needed (and very hard to find) pause moments. Venturing into the more academic Research and Evaluation aspects of MERL allows us to revisit, re-imagine, and refine the theories behind our field work. It also leads to adjustments in the way that we engage with partners, monitor progress, or measure success. Partnerships with academics, who often have more time, resources, and skills to integrate studies, learning agendas, or research can take practitioners’ M&E to the next level, going beyond just monitoring and reporting to intentional and planned learning through high-level questions around the impact and effectiveness of our programs.
  • Don’t be afraid to iterate: Pracademic partnerships also lead to new insights and ways of doing the same things you’ve always done. For example, at Root Change we have iterated on our network measures through our collaborations with HHI. We worked alongside HHI in 2018 to create a network analysis methodology and metric suite for measuring localization of a system that was included in a larger evaluation of the Disasters and Emergency Preparedness Programme (DEPP). We then expanded on these measures in 2019 under a USAID award to create a new approach for measuring local ownership of international development projects. This year, we adapted the metrics used in DEPP and re-incorporated some of the new localization metrics into the Bangladesh analysis for the Program on Resilient Communities.

The full publication that came from this work, Network Analysis of Climate Change & Disaster Resilience Actors Working in Bagerhat District, Bangladesh, is available on the HHI website, along with the evaluation of the Disasters and Emergency Preparedness Programme (DEPP) from 2018. Root Change looks forward to completing a second study under the Program for Resilient Communities in the Philippines, which will be available later this year.