The three ps of impact - people, partnerships & politics

Jyotiraj Patra, Regional Advisor, Asia
March 21, 2016

Our Regional advisor for Asia Jyotiraj Patra gives us his overview and take on ESPA's first ever Impact workshop which took place in Dehli on 9th and 10th March 2016.

  • Impact is collective and collaborative, requiring proactive and continuous engagement and assessment
  • The needs of policy makers and planners constantly change depending on development priorities and investment opportunities at any given time
  • Our Eco-Poor project in Bangladesh and Tanzania has been instrumental in engaging poor and marginalised communities in Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania)
  • The Mountain-EVO (Environmental Virtual Observatories) project in the Kaligandaki watershed in Northern Nepal has been using citizen science to help small farmers minimise weather related risk
  • The benefits of working with environmental action and citizen groups was demonstrated by the Political Economy of Water Security project in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand
  • The Risk and Responses to Urban Futures project in India Nepal has been making significant contribution to better and improved understanding on the linkages between ecosystem services and poverty in this area


ESPA’s strong, systematic and sustained focus on impact since its inception has been instrumental in helping projects better plan and practice impact as part of the overall research process. The programme has successfully demonstrated the value of robust and credible research evidence in informing plans and policies for sustainable management of ecosystem services. Such plans and polices are context specific and hence the evidence needs are varied and emerging. Understanding and addressing these needs is central to ESPA’s design and operation. In recent times, there has been a significant increase in the demand for research-based evidence to effectively address complex and integrated challenges of environment, development and human well-being.  We, as a global research programme, have been supporting research projects which study these multiple linkages and identify the opportunities for improved management of ecosystem services for poverty alleviation in many developing countries.

South Asia, although home to more than 40% of the world’s poor, is one of the fastest growing economic regions in the world. This offers unique opportunities, as well as challenges, to better design and align economic growth and development trajectories which are inclusive, pro-poor, equitable and sustainable in the long-run. With an overall objective to identify some of the opportunities through which a global research programme like ESPA can contribute to process, we organised the Building Impact and Partnerships in South Asia workshop in New Delhi, 9-10 March 2016.

This workshop was part of ESPA’s renewed focus to develop a common and shared understanding on impact and to facilitate meaningful and long-term partnerships for collective and coherent impact-oriented action in the region. Our new ESPA Impact Strategy, which was launched at the workshop, provided an overall framework to organise the discussions. This was also an opportunity for many of the ESPA researchers in the region to share their research with a wider group of stakeholders and learn from experiences of similar research programmes and other organisations.

Experiences and insights shared at the workshop helped de-mystify impact and offered fresh perspectives. The Key Note Presentation by Dr Jim Jarvie (Network Founder for the Rockefeller Foundation initiated Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network), aptly titled Research, Impact and Political Economy, clearly demonstrated that impact is context-specific, dynamic and an inherently political process.

Follow-up discussions drove home the point that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to impact and the need, or rather urgency, to move away from the traditional supply-driven processed to more demand-based approaches strongly resonated. More importantly, cases of research impact presented categorically underscored that the drivers and enablers for research impact are in constant flux and are primarily influenced by the political economic forces at various levels. And hence, research-evidence needs of policy makers and planners change depending on the development priority and investment opportunity at a given point in time.

Three elements of people, partnerships and political economy emerged as central to any impact agenda. Both ESPA and ESPA-like research programmes shared demonstrated ways impact could be enhanced and amplified by better integrating these elements into research processes.

A brief discussion of these elements and the relevant cases are presented below:

a. People: Improvements in poor people’s lives is central to ESPA research and we strongly support and facilitate such impact-oriented research and impact plans. This impact could be direct or indirect. Some of our demonstration projects engage directly with the communities, where they actively participate in the research process and thereby inform and shape the outputs. The Eco-Poor project in Bangladesh and Tanzania has been instrumental in mobilizing engagement of poor and marginalised communities in informal settlements of Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania) and co-producing affirmative and constructive actions to better access and benefit from the ecosystem services.  Similarly, the Mountain-EVO (Environmental Virtual Observatories) project in the data-deficit and climate vulnerable Kaligandaki watershed in Northern Nepal has been promoting citizen science to better manage the ecosystem services and helping small and marginal farmers minimise the risks from weather-and climate-related uncertainties and extremes such as flash-floods and droughts. We are one of the many research projects in operation and we strongly believe in the power and potential of established government institutions in effectively and sustainability mobilising positive changes in society. Our engagement strategy encourages researchers to work closely with governance institutions at various levels from the very beginning and not to completely rely on end-of-project dissemination activities. This pro-active and demand-driven approach to research impact was further corroborated by insights from two key policy makers from the provincial and federal governments in India.

b. Partnerships: Impact is a collective and collaborative enterprise and requires proactive and continuous engagement across the research-policy-practice continuum. For this to happen, we need result-oriented partnership mechanisms with a cross-section of researchers, research users and knowledge translators. Partnership with the private sectors emerged as a key opportunity for research impact. The representative from the ITC Limited, one of India’s leading corporates, elaborated ways through which research-evidence is used in the company’s flourishing agri-business programming and investment decisions. Partnership dividend accruing from engagement with environmental action and citizen groups was demonstrated by the Political Economy of Water Security project in one of their research sites in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Improved understanding on the geo-physical and ecological linkages between two lakes of  Sukhatal and Nainital has enriched the knowledge and evidence base of citizen action groups actively pursuing a and engaged in negotiations to better protect and manage these ecosystem services linkages through sound lake development and land use planning and decisions. Similarly, the ESPA Deltas project has been working closely with the General Economic Division (GED) in the Bangladeshi Planning Commission and helping them better design, implement and monitor the plans and investments for country’s Delta Plan 2100. The Delta Dynamic Integrated Emulator Model (ΔDIEM) is a unique and applied decision-support and management tool  developed through jointly by a cross-section of planners,  policy-makers, scientists, community groups, decision makers at the Unions level in Bangladesh (Unions are the smallest governance units of rural and local administration in Bangladesh). This was also an opportunity for our researchers to share and present their research to representatives from similar research programmes, practitioners and think tanks.

c. Political economy: Power and power-relations are central to the production, use of and demand for research evidence in a given context. Being aware of some of the key political economy drivers and the power dynamics is helpful. Through this researchers not only remain abreast with the emerging development agenda and policy processes at the national and global scales but also ways through which these broad and mega agendas could become more inclusive and equitable in real sense through local and community level engagements. The interdisciplinary team of researchers in the Risk and Responses to Urban Futures research project in India Nepal has been making significant contribution to better and improved understanding on the linkages between ecosystem services and poverty in peri-urban zones and ways these influence and in turn are influenced by larger processes and policies of urban development and regional planning in India. The project has successfully designed and implemented an innovative participatory mapping to better engage with communities in such highly dynamic and transition contexts. Based on these research evidence, the research team aims to inform some of India’s ongoing urban development policies and investment decisions like the ambitious Smart Cities Mission ( and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (

Building on these understandings, we aim to collectively work with a cross-section of impact-oriented research programmes, communities, research organizations, think tanks, media and the private sector to strengthen evidence-informed plans and policies on ecosystem services and poverty alleviation in the region and beyond.

For global research programmes like ESPA, Impact is both incremental and transformational. Time and scale are key for impact. Impact can happen well beyond the life span of a research project and hence partnership is essential to ensure the research evidence and new knowledge is available and accessible as and when required. In addition, impact could also be transformational when unexpected windows of opportunity emerge because of an event or critical moments in policy and practice (Kingdon, 2003). For example, natural disasters like the devastating Gorkha Earthquake (April 2015) in Nepal and the unprecedented Chennai Floods (November 2015) in southern India provided enough windows of opportunity to support the concerned agencies better integrate suitable ecosystem services-based measures into the overall disaster recovery and risk reduction processes  and plans. ESPA and ESPA-like research programmes could capitalise on such opportunities by being pro-active and ready-to-engage. Mr Kamal Kishore, Member, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Government of India highlighted this as : “New research-based understanding on ecosystem services help us unpack the underlying risk factors and also look at the creation of potential new risks in a given context.”

We are not only ambitious and passionate about impact but also practical and strategic in our approach. We are extremely careful while trying to attribute any significant change in policy or practice to research evidence only and strongly believe in the strength of collective actions. As mentioned, partnerships are key to impact, and we are willing to learn from - and work with - other stakeholders to achieve positive and sustainable improvements in the lives of the poor people.


John W. (2003). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.