by Selbi Hanova, Marie Curie Fellow at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews.
Studying the change in development assistance is largely quantitative undertaking that requires relevant methodologies and skilled researchers that could dissect the necessary trends to showcase the impact. Largely, Post-Soviet States remain the recipients of donor funding in various areas that span from good governance to economic diversification and rule of law and enlist donors ranging from UN agencies and EU to various bilateral frameworks. But how do we know that there is (a) a need for any assistance (b) type of assistance (c) duration of assistance and, most importantly, (d) the change that it brought. This is where the link to research is key. Although most of the international organizations do research before and after their interventions to show the results, there is an emerging market of research institutes and organizations that have spurred in some countries of former Soviet Union. Central Asia is not an exception in this case and Kazakhstan and Kyrgzystan have been championing in this market with their own local centres that allow other donors to outsource those research services.
As matter of fact, this is where that ideal “policy+academia” or, as they term in the UK academic institutions, “industry+academia” link should make itself visible proving that this connection is possible and relevant. Without making swift generalizations about the market in general, I would like to draw the attention to the fact that while there are complications that relate to the novelty of these entities (indeed, they all need continuous and rigorous training in research methodologies and analysis), their staffing and financing challenges, the main issues is that research methodology that is in use remains to be largely quantitative. Certainly, in the development assistance world we live by figures hoping that they are accurate reflections, while very little of qualitative data is collected. And this is the problem!
These new research centres/firms/consultancies rely on surveys, statistical analysis, polls that speak NUMBERS and POSITIVISM. However, what very little is known about the qualitative data. A simple example suffices to describe it. I recall observing the design of a monitoring survey that would analyze the impact of a large-scale project that grouped women from different ethnic backgrounds working together on various small-scale business projects with a larger aim of ensuring peace in their region. The survey contained questions on the aims of the project and the knowledge (received through the trainings and study visits) as well as on potential challenges. The questionnaire looked like a sheet with multiple-choice answers that was shared with the entire group and based on which the data referred to the overall positive result. No other additional focus group discussion or semi-structured interview or any other additional method of research that would delve deeper into the answers was provided. This trend is pervasive. On one hand, it is understandable that the qualitative research would require additional finances and it needs to be carried out in the longer temporal framework requiring desk analysis. On the other hand, if one is genuinely concerned about the need for change, then qualitative data is a must.
The rigorous research technique, be it either quantitative or qualitative, would require much work in the region. The pervasive skeptical image of Central Asia in the academic, or I would rather prefer to call them semi-academic, as well as policy circles has recurring themes of slow development and high ranking in corruption. Yet very little qualitative research exists to show how this development assistance has been channeled since 1991 and how it impacted the local lives. In that sense, Central Asian research is yet to benefit from the quality research and real narrative of development is yet to emerge…