I consider myself a Pracademic- an academic who is also a practitioner. I enjoy learning and knowledge but also want to actually have a hand in helping the causes which I study. Even though I write publications and reports, I also enjoy my NGO work going to the climate negotiations and working on the practical understanding and solutions for those being displaced by climate processes. In the academic world one moves to the top of this field by publishing in the best journals, doing field research and writing books about it. These publications are read within the field by other academics and then cited and re-cited in circles; the number of citations one receives also weighs on their importance. Alternatively, in the NGO world, what one does in that work includes acting for a cause not simply writing about it. Both require different skills and tend to live in two different worlds.
A hard working practitioner and acquaintance of mine posted an interesting article about researchers working in a Palestinian refugee camp. It explains the desperation of a woman who needed help for her wounded son and thus thought speaking with a Harvard research team would somehow get her story help. Unfortunately, the research team- as good academics- kept to their script of questions and did not allow her to take them off track. They also did not offer to help her with her severely injured son.
Now, it would be easy to criticize these researchers for being uncaring, but they were doing what they were trained to do: observe and write. This fact can be very difficult for NGO practitioners to understand. They are the boots on the ground in humanitarian crises, the first responders to war and disasters. They purposefully put themselves in harms way in order to help while researchers tend to report rather than intervene. Kinda like reporters but with less reach.
The NGO folks need information that can assist in decision making with supplies and workers; the academics have TONS of data but do not always know what is helpful. The issue seems to be What do we do with all of the information we have? Studies on Palestinian refugees are certainly not new, but their situation persists. How to we act? Action, that is the verb. It’s like as academics, we assume policymakers are going to read our work at someone will eventually do something with our information. Here’s a little tip from my previous life as a politico: They’re not unless you make them. It may be tough to take off that data-driven, peer-reviewed hat from time to time, but simply providing information is not enough to make a difference. Policy makers also need to know what to do with it.
This interviewee had an urgent need and by stopping short in that arena we lose our influence. We can do the same thing on this side. We’ve just got to stop being afraid that it will hurt our credibility. Sometimes academics have the amazing opportunity to be in places when others aren’t. If we can learn to better partner with our NGO friends, we will be better able to bridge that gap.