Working at the confluence of research and implementation to support girls’ education: Reflections on the REAL Centre – CAMFED partnership

This blog was written by Dr Luisa Ciampi, Research Associate at the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge; and Lilla Oliver, Evaluation and Learning Adviser, CAMFED.

Aerial photo of the confluence of two rivers in the Italian Alps
Photo by Marco Canepa on Unsplash

This blog highlights key lessons from our partnership working at the confluence of research and implementation with the aim of supporting girls’ education. The partnership between the Research of Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre and the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) is centred around our mutual commitment to gender equality in and through education. Through working with in-country research partners and CAMFED’s in-country offices, our hope is that our combined expertise enables the development of interventions that are contextually relevant and informed by evidence which is, at the same time, responsive to the needs of the intervention.

With funding from the Global Partnership for Education’s Knowledge and Innovation Exchange programme, CAMFED and REAL have been working together under the lead of the University of Dar es Salaam to understand if and how it is possible to scale up the gender transformative model of the CAMFED Learner Guide programme into the national education systems of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Learner Guide programme was established as a response to evidence which highlights that adolescent girls continue to face multiple disadvantages in accessing resources, opportunities and support when they reach secondary school. With the aim of addressing the barriers that girls face, it involves recent graduates becoming mentors to adolescent girls in government schools. In their role as a Learner Guide, the young women act as role models and support students in developing life skills and self-worth, and so encourage them to stay in school and improve their learning. The CAMFED-REAL Centre partnership has led to further collaboration with the University of Dar es Salaam on a new research project funded by the Allan and Gill Gray Foundation to identify if and how the Learner Guide programme is altering gender norms within their schools and communities.

As the collaboration between CAMFED and the REAL Centre has been developing, we have been continuously reflecting on how our partnership is progressing. Drawing on these reflections, this blog extends on our presentation at the BAICE 2022 conference, which delved into some of the advantages and challenges of our research-implementation partnership. Our reflections are framed around three qualities for effective research–policy partnerships (figure 1).

Figure 1: Three qualities for effective research and policy partnership

Basing the collaboration on our mutual agenda of a need for evidence-based reform to achieve gender equality in and through education

The starting point for our collaboration is our common understanding of the problems that need addressing in relation to gender equality in and through education. This ‘bounded mutuality’, has enabled us to exploit our different expertise (in research and implementation of girls’ education programming) and networks (both global and local). We ensured that we worked together from the outset to design the research as part of the implementation process, not as a tag on of research once the implementation has already been decided. At the same time, working in tandem has ensured the questions being asked by the research are relevant to the needs of the programme rather than being driven by the interests of researchers. Our similar understandings of the importance of contextual relevance and buy-in have also meant our partnership has been able to create and support a team of in-country researchers and implementers who ensure that both the research and implementing activities are appropriate, targeted, and adaptive to differences on the ground. 

Negotiation between the parties in this process is inevitable. We have found that acknowledging each of our priorities, openly discussing them, and importantly remembering the central goal of improving girls’ education, has helped us successfully navigate challenges that arise.

Drawing on each of our strengths has been important for the success of the work, and openly acknowledging and agreeing on each of our roles. Because CAMFED is a well-connected and locally-based NGO, the REAL Centre has benefited from their local expertise and their ability to mobilise research activities in ways which research-only projects may find resource-heavy and time consuming. CAMFED provides the REAL Centre with access to local networks and links into ministries which would not have been easily navigated otherwise, making the research more robust and relevant in the local context. This has also meant the data collection processes have been smooth.

Sustained interactivity and adaptability between researchers and implementors to maintain integrity and usefulness of the findings

Trust and mutual respect through valuing each of our strengths that has developed between CAMFED and the REAL Centre has been vital in the design and implementation of this work. This can be important when critical issues might emerge through the research process. For example, a government could push back on aspects of the reform that CAMFED considers to be vital. As an impartial research organisation, the REAL Centre’s role in the project is to identify whether and how national governments can replicate CAMFED’s interventions, and needs to maintain its integrity in sharing the findings. This is possible thanks to our ‘sustained interactivity’, as the REAL Centre and CAMFED can discuss openly when critical findings emerge. It also means that CAMFED can question the relevance of the research design to the reality of the context, or push back if the timing of the research will be counter-productive for the implementation. Through this engagement, both parties benefit.

A vital part of our sustained interactivity and consequential adaptability has been the direct, independent links between the in-country national researchers who work directly with the local CAMFED office. This design has meant that the on-the-ground logistical processes have been managed in situ, and the activities in each country have had the ability to adapt in real time to unexpected contextual difference. Regular and rapid communication between the research team members has been essential to make sure that, whilst we are adapting to contextual differences, from a research perspective, the same protocol and data collection techniques are being followed so that ultimately, the data is comparable, and the research integrity is unquestionable.

Adaptability to identify opportunities for policy engagement in research findings

By combining our networks, not only has the research and intervention both been strengthened, but we will also help ensure that the evidence has the desired effect of informing the design and implementation by governments of relevant interventions related to the Learner Guide programme for each of the contexts in Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We also hope that our approach will also help ensure lessons are shared globally on approaches to evidence to inform scaling up and replicating successful programmes.

The challenge can be that different audiences need different information, presented in different ways. This is where the advantages of equal partnership really come to the fore. In a partnership like ours, we have a plethora of different skills, expertise and local knowledge at our fingertips to allow for ‘policy adaptability’ – and can be ready to be responsive when opportunities to sharing the findings arise. The active engagement of the in-country researchers and implementers is a key mechanism to ensure this can be done as effectively as possible in each context

Key take-away points

Our presentation at the BAICE conference resulted in some interesting and important challenges with questions such as “how ‘unbiased’ can a research partner actually be?”, and “is this partnership truly promoting the much-needed decolonisation of development?”. These questions are essential for critical and meaningful progress, not only in partnerships, but also in how we ‘do’ international development. It is essential to acknowledge the need to reflect on our role in perpetuating or (preferably) dismantling inherent issues of the ‘North-South binary’, and the issues of sustainability and power this brings to the fore. Closely connected, operating in a space where ‘co-production’ and ‘partnership’ are often buzzwords of the day, it is important to reflect on, and share what works and what doesn’t openly.

In the spirit of honest, open discussion, it is fair to say we don’t have all the answers. But we can say that our partnership does benefit both our institutions’ work, and more importantly, does support the long-term change needed to support girls’ education and life trajectories.

‘Partnership’ in its fullness offers us a pathway to do research in a more meaningful and applied manner and make sure that we are operating as effectively as possible in navigating the confluence between evidence and implementation.  By ensuring that our partnership is underpinned by foundational qualities of bounded mutuality, sustained interactivity and policy adaptability, we hope to:

  • ensure the relevance of evidence to the context and to the desired audiences
  • work together to improve the interpretation and use of evidence
  • broaden the potential for evidence uptake.

We hope these outcomes will ultimately result in improved outcomes for girls’ education and gender equality.  


  • Luisa Ciampi

    Dr Luisa Ciampi is an experienced Zimbabwean social researcher currently working as a post-doctoral research associate at The University of Cambridge, with research expertise in gender and knowledge transfer. Luisa has worked on several interdisciplinary projects, particularly focusing on supporting gender equity and climate resilience through shifting policy to overcome inequality and poverty across Africa. She is currently working on two projects in the REAL centre which focus on scaling education initiatives in Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and on assessing the effect of education initiatives on altering gender norms in Tanzania.

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  • Lilla Oliver

    Lilla works for CAMFED International as their Evaluation and Learning Advisor. Lilla is responsible for ensuring that evaluations of CAMFED’s work are designed and delivered to the highest standards providing high-level technical, strategic and management support and oversight to evaluations, including the recruitment, commissioning, and management of external evaluators. Lilla supports the collation and dissemination of learning from evaluations across the organisation, and additionally provides expert advice and input with we gendered lens on strategies to improve teaching and learning in CAMFED’s education programmes.

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