Message From the Executive Director

Reflection on Our Approach to Changemaking

ED_Imran Matin

As a university-based social science research institute working on improving development and governance outcomes, BIGD aspires to contribute to sustainable and equitable socioeconomic changes in society—a just and prosperous Bangladesh. But I know a fundamental challenge in our line of work is the wide gap between research and how changes happen in the extremely complex real world.

Social science research often fails to strike a balance between maintaining theoretical rigour and adapting to reality, both in terms of doing the research and contextualising the learning. It is true that real changes are difficult to come by and often not under our control. But, to begin with, too many research studies fail to gain any traction in the desired direction.

I have found that organising our thinking around a simple framework of Research-Learning-Change has been helpful for us to focus our energy on closing this gap. This way of thinking in BIGD has gained some real thrust in 2020, which I would like to reflect on.

“Organising our thinking around a simple framework of Research-Learning-Change has been helpful for us to focus our energy on closing the gap between our research and how changes happen in the complex real world.”

I believe high-quality research is our foundation. We are striving to adopt cutting-edge methods as well as quality control and analytical tools in our research in two ways. First, we are collaborating with reputed international researchers and research institutions, particularly those who are interested in long-term partnership and our capacity building. For example, we have significantly expanded our engagement with the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex and started new relationships with many others like the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Second, we are heavily investing in our researchers. In 2020, we recruited two research fellows, trained in advanced experimental research methods, and are in the process of recruiting more, both in the areas of quantitative and qualitative research. We are also providing a stimulating environment for young Bangladeshi researchers to learn and grow.

“In our framework, learning involves making sure that our research is relevant and actionable.”

We have been trying several strategies towards this end. I will discuss a few. First, strengthening our multidisciplinary understanding of an issue by creating a better alignment across different strands of research. Multidisciplinary research is challenging, but there is an increasing realisation of its need in solving the complex, real problems of society. It is a work-in-progress. But as a tightly knit organisation, we are trying to foster a sense of mutual respect and identify projects where a multidisciplinary angle would add real value. One example is our study on how RMG factories are ensuring workers’ health and safety in the COVID-19 context. In this study, we are integrating econometric methods—to understand the impact of physical measures on health and safety outcomes—with qualitative methods—to understand how gender comes into play here; after all, 65% of the RMG workers are women. In another study, our qualitative process evaluation has helped design different packages of an intervention targeting handwashing behaviour change during the pandemic, implemented by BRAC. Now, in collaboration with Behavioural Insight Team (BIT), our researchers are evaluating the relative effectiveness of the standard intervention and the two different packages involving two types of behavioural nudges.

“We are always challenging ourselves to take a thoughtful and intentional approach in mixing methods to enrich our research insights and evidence base with a focus on improving practice.”

Second, we are actively engaging with our stakeholders, trying to create an alignment between what we can offer and what they need. We are fortunate to have BRAC as our key strategic partner—the world’s biggest development lab, reputed for bringing innovation with scale—which allows us to be at the forefront of actionable research.

With colleagues, I have recently taken part in several field visits with BRAC to learn about how people are coping with the post-COVID socioeconomic realities and to brainstorm ideas about how they could be supported. The insights are going to be valuable in informing our COVID-19 recovery research agenda.

We are also increasing our collaboration with government partners. This year, we have signed an MoU with the Access to Information (a2i) program of the Government of Bangladesh to collaborate on the digital agenda of the government.

We have also organised a short course, titled Pandemic and Public Policy, for the senior officials in the government as well as NGOs and the private sector. The purpose was to equip senior decisionmakers with knowledge and skills to respond effectively to the COVID-19 crisis, by bringing in the existing and emerging concepts, research, and experiences in Bangladesh and other countries. Because of high demand, we organised a second short course with additional topics. Resource persons came from the world of policy, practice, and research, like the secretaries of finance and health and Dr Shahaduz Zaman, a leading expert in Medical Anthropology, who brought his research insights on communication during the pandemic

“Change, the last and the most important component in our Research-Learning-Change framework, involves intentional and strategic action to create a sustaining momentum.”

As a relatively small research institute, we realise that we must focus on a few most important agenda to become a credible source of insight and remain committed to taking them forward. Digital innovations— specifically how they can be scaled effectively to benefit everyone equally—emerged as a critical cross-thematic agenda for BIGD across our thematic work on development economics, gender, and governance, where we want to create a body of knowledge around digital equity and effective scale-up of digital innovations. In 2020, we have taken several strategically important initiatives on this agenda, which we would like to grow in the coming years with a hope to create a real momentum.

BIGD takes the responsibility of building a cadre of promising, early-career social science researchers very seriously. We expose young researchers with the world of rigorous social science research, provide them with intensive on-the-job training, and mentor them to start academic publishing as soon as possible. We expect many of them to become motivated to pursue advanced training and a career in high-impact research, inspiring, in turn, future generations of researchers, eventually bringing a cultural shift in forming virtuous interlinkages between research, policy, and governance and development outcomes. I am glad to find that promising young researchers are finding BIGD an exciting place to work.

“Nurturing young researchers is our key strategy for promoting a long-term shift towards a culture of research-informed scrutiny of and support to policies and interventions.”

But ultimately, change is a collective endeavour. We took the Rapid Research Response (RRR) initiative soon after the pandemic hit Bangladesh, and we managed to deliver and disseminate about 20 studies on diverse issues within a short time to ensure that the studies did not lose relevance. It would have been impossible if we did not have partnerships like the one we forged with the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC). Researchers from BIGD and PPRC joined forces to implement and disseminate the most significant RRR survey on the livelihoods and the coping mechanisms of the vulnerable people during the pandemic. We managed to leverage our unique values—BIGD’s capability to conduct large-scale surveys in a quick turnaround time and PPRC’s strength in the policy engagement arena—to bring the attention of the right stakeholders in time on this important issue.

The governance and development challenges of emerging Bangladesh are much more complex and global. This will require the knowledge actors to craft new forms of alliances and platforms that have deep local relevance and use strong global leverages.

As the old African proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”. We need to go far, but fast too. We need to find ways to come together quickly.

Imran Matin