The power of the collective: Lessons for research partnerships


In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated massive upheaval, what enabled research findings to influence policy in real-time? What kind of funding and partnership model could support the rapid generation of evidence such as the research that informed the South Africa National AIDS Council’s (SANAC) new National Strategic Plan (NSP)? Or put in place mechanisms for reporting feedback from marginalised communities and findings and trends from data analytics and infographics to inform policy makers in Bangladesh to better plan pandemic responses?

As the pandemic took hold, with ever widening impacts, there was no blue-print or off-the-shelf model for a collaborative research programme to position itself to undertake this kind of rapid, quality research, and to facilitate active engagement with different stakeholders bringing evidence into use, so, it was necessary to create one.

The resulting Covid Collective research platform was launched in 2020 with support from the UK’s FCDO. It aimed from the outset to approach research partnerships and engagement in ways that were adaptive, agile, and equitable. The basic premise was that transformations in perspective, worldview, and practice could only be achieved through a genuine integration of social science alongside other scientific approaches being adopted to address the global crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. In order to address this shared challenge, the Collective brought together the expertise of its multi-country, trans-disciplinary partnership base, coordinated by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), which ultimately consisted of 35 partners, undertaking 65 projects in 39 countries with a diversity of both methodological approaches and research focus.

The Covid Collective ended formally in mid-2023, but engagement around the wealth of evidence generated by its partners is continuing, as is learning from the experience of establishing and delivering this form of responsive social science research. A learning report has now been published, and demonstrates the diversity of change and impact that has been observed and reflects on some of the key lessons from the Covid Collective, as well as many insights that can be of use in future project programming.

A range of impacts

As the examples at the start of this blog indicate, the Covid Collective’s work led to numerous impacts on policy and practice. Evidence generated across the Collective, often involving participation of citizens and community members, drove influence and uptake alongside more formal engagement channels to reach decision makers. Active engagement with civil society provided important pathways to impact. The development of training materials on SRHR for disability gained huge traction across Southern Africa, providing both practical and policy solutions to support inclusion. In the Indo Pacific region, work from the Covid Collective to engage communities in research processes helped empower communities to drive their own change processes through positive cycles of action and innovation.

Covid Collective research also supported the processing and sharing of data in accessible formats that supported decision making. For example, the Center for Peace and Justice (CPJ) developed a public facing web-based dashboard – Voices from the Margins: Covid-19 Experiences in Bangladesh – to report feedback from marginalised communities and findings and trends from data analytics and infographics to inform policy makers to better plan responses. The Covid-19 Ceasefires Tracker from PeaceRep’s project informed experts doing vital work on peacebuilding processes, enabling UN agencies, governments and research institutes to rapidly assess the response to the UN call for a global ceasefire.

Many Covid Collective researchers worked closely with policy makers throughout the research process, where partners developed innovative approaches for ongoing engagement. For example, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) research strengthened a new network working on disability research with relevant policy makers. The University of Edinburgh established the Community Researchers Network in Myanmar to undertake research on the nexus between climate change and political crises. CGD collaborations have informed knowledge relating to crisis preparedness and the operation of school feeding programmes.

The nature of collaboration within the Covid Collective also offered multiple opportunities for mutual learning and knowledge exchange amongst partners. Covid Collective partners in Ghana benefited from close engagement on all conceptual and technical aspects of the project which provided opportunities for capacity strengthening. Training was also provided to community researchers and early career researchers in field data collection, analysis, report writing, community engagement, and dissemination. A Covid Collective partner in Laos provided training to governance actors in socio-protection rights, mentoring of counselling skill development, health, and wellbeing, in order to provide good quality services to the returnee and internal migrants.

Much of this learning has found its way into shared outputs, offering further opportunities for engagement and knowledge exchange. The Covid Collective produced  two special issues of the IDS Bulletin (Pandemic Perspectives: Why Different Voices and Views MatterHumanitarianism and Covid-19: Structural Dilemmas, Fault Lines, and New Perspectives), a brochure detailing all projects and highlighting key outputs, and a series of helpdesk reports produced in real time as the pandemic raged. All of these outputs can be found on the Covid Collective website.

What were the ingredients for success?

Needless to say there were many challenges encountered as the IDS team and partners around the world all grappled with uncertainties, constraints and restrictions, changing working practices, and different forms of communication. Reflecting back, it seems remarkable that so much was achieved in a relatively short time. We now see several ingredients of what we believe, ultimately, was a successful venture.

  1. Diverse research teams with central coordination: IDS worked intentionally to ensure that a disparate set of projects operated overall as a collective, and that outputs and outcomes were translated efficiently for greater impact. A good working relationship with the funder, FCDO, allowed for frank conversations and trust to be built. Strong, regular internal communications between IDS and the research teams, combined with engaged and enthusiastic partners, facilitated the valuable cross-project learning and ensured the efficiency of the project management which was vital to success.
  2. Agility and adaptability: At the beginning of the pandemic, IDS and many research partners pivoted their focus, both for new and existing projects, to focus on Covid-19 research. The flexible funding opportunity from FCDO enabled IDS to direct resources quickly to pressing needs with a relatively loose, adaptable but robust, structure. Throughout the project, significant challenges arose in carrying out research due to Covid-related restrictions on movement, and changing, dynamic situations that in some countries included outbreaks of conflict. Researchers reflected on these challenges (for example in an IDS Bulletin special issue) and shared their key lessons on research methodologies and approaches, as well as on the findings from their work, through ‘Fireside Chats’.
  3. Valuing diversity, relationships, and equity: IDS harnessed its established networks of research organisations worldwide to grow the Covid Collective from an initial core group to a widely dispersed array of partners, offering a diverse evidence base across different regions. New areas of focus became possible, such as a renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific region. This diversity of evidence and breadth of study sites allowed large amounts of data to be gathered quickly. Although the Covid Collective modelled a rapid-response approach, the need to establish research and engagement rapidly was not at the expense of ensuring its partnerships were equitable and inclusive. This participatory approach was appreciated by many of its collaborators who frequently commented positively on the underlying relationships that the Collective established, and ensured that the resulting outputs from the project would resonate across diverse settings and communities.
  4. Creating spaces for peer-to-peer learning: The Covid Collective organised ‘Fireside Chat’ webinars across sectors, disciplines, and geographies to facilitate peer-to-peer support and reflection on the research evidence and outputs as they emerged, to add value to the research process. These exchanges provided a space to explore synergies and divergences, identify key policy messages and solutions, and develop collaborative outputs that synthesised evidence across multiple partners. These spaces, which also included an advisory group, identified emerging needs, interests and requests of both partners and decision maker audiences, and helped to inform and guide adaptations based on emerging opportunities, feedback and learning.

Looking ahead

Overall, the Covid Collective brought a sense of collective urgency in fostering collaborative and comparative learning across the experience of different countries and localities; and in finding ways to avoid returning (via recovery) to conditions that do not serve well in the future. It supported the expansion of ideas, partnerships, and research agendas, creating an open platform for idea exchanges and peer learning. It laid the foundation for ongoing strengthening of a network of researchers which can strengthen capacity to generate useful, timely evidence and data, and to achieve increased reach to policy and decision makers. All of this will remain important as part of preparedness for the inevitability of the next pandemic, or indeed for other crises. In any case, the spirit of the Covid Collective will continue in terms of aspirations for social sciences and co-created knowledge to be an ongoing catalyst for progressive change and societal transformation.

Joe Taylor
Peter Taylor
Director of Research