Knowledge translation in international public health NGOs

Author: Catherine Malla

Malla, Catherine, 2021 Knowledge translation in international public health NGOs, Flinders University, College of Medicine and Public Health

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This thesis explored how knowledge translation occurs within international non-government organisations (INGOs). The development work of INGOs relies on multiple knowledges, ranging from local to global, and from highly technical to tacit and contextual. Knowledge in the international development sector is not a neutral concept. It is bound up with the hierarchies of development and debates around ‘whose knowledge counts’. INGOs, as key actors in the sector, need to navigate these complexities and are, therefore, important sites for exploring knowledge translation in development.

This research set out to examine the dynamics of knowledge translation in a single public health-focused INGO with a head office in Australia and country offices around the globe. It took the form of a qualitative, in-depth case study including 24 interviews with country office staff and technical advisors, across nine countries. The research explored what types of knowledge were valued within the INGO and how these knowledges were used, with a focus on the details of the ‘work’ of knowledge translation. It examined the organisational and broader factors that influence this work, and considered how knowledge translation processes may be improved within the INGO.

The findings revealed that country office staff play a crucial role as ‘middle figures’ in the knowledge translation work of the INGO, working at the boundaries of different knowledge cultures, such as between in-country partners and head office. In this role, they conduct two specific, interlinked, forms of knowledge translation work. First, they contribute to the merging of heterogenous knowledges, transforming them into something that can be effectively utilised for practice. Secondly, they conduct vital social and relational work at these knowledge boundaries. Importantly, both components of this knowledge translation work were crucial to the INGO’s ability to access and use local, contextual knowledge, a key element of adaptive development practice.

However, it emerged that this work was largely unseen and under-valued within the broader INGO. The nature of this work, particularly its social and relational elements, meant it did not fit into a rationalised model of work, and was therefore easily overlooked. This supports previous research showing the invisibility of the work of local staff within INGOs. This research also found that managerialism within the INGO stifled and complicated knowledge translation work at boundaries, and eroded the social and relational elements of this work. There was tension between a ‘development’ and a ‘corporate’ mindset amongst staff, with the latter further contributing to the invisibility of the knowledge translation work of country office staff.

Finally, this research found that staff at various levels of the INGO were searching for better ways to facilitate knowledge across boundaries. They desired knowledge translation approaches that are social and relational, counter the managerialist mindset, and draw on participatory and decolonising approaches.

This research contributes to better understandings of the complex and varied work of local staff of INGOs, and provides deeper insights into how the work of knowledge translation is conducted. It adds to the current literature around managerialism in the international development sector, with a focus on the ways in which knowledge translation is affected. This research has the potential to inform guidance for INGOs on their knowledge to action practice.

Keywords: knowledge translation, INGO, international development

Subject: Public Health thesis

Thesis type: Professional Doctorate
Completed: 2021
School: College of Medicine and Public Health
Supervisor: Emeritus Professor Colin MacDougall