School of Global Studies

Impact Case Studies – REF 2021

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a national assessment of research quality conducted across all UK higher education institutions (HEIs). It takes place roughly every 7 years. HEIs submit research outputs (journal articles, books, practice-based), cases studies of research impact and a description of the supporting environment for research in the institution.

In the REF, impact is defined as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”.

The School of Global Studies submitted 9 impact case studies in 2021, summaries of which are found below. This is just a snapshot of our ongoing engagement and impact beyond academia.
Confronting dominant narratives and powerful interests on water and climate security

Professor Jan Selby

The issue: Most research on water and climate security views over–population and natural resource scarcities as the key drivers of environment–related conflicts and insecurities; and most of it is also aligned with the interests of the powerful, whether powerful individual states, or Northern actors and institutions.

The research: Jan Selby and colleagues’ political ecology–informed research contests the overly–simplified and dominant narratives, by revealing the fundamentally political causes and character of water and climate–related conflicts and insecurities. It analyses and exposes patterns of water and climate–related domination, and in doing so advances alternative – and explicitly political – frameworks for understanding and responding to water and climate security crises.

The impact: Research by Jan Selby and collaborators on issues of water and climate security has advanced alternative analytical and policy frameworks at a range of sites and scales. The research had impact in five specific areas: (1) the Israeli–Palestinian Joint Water Committee; (2) the role of climate change in the Syrian civil war; (3) challenging a UN study of Middle East waters; (4) supporting the transformation of the Palestinian water sector; and (5) the global security implications of water scarcities and climate change. Across these areas, the research has: enriched public and policy understandings; generated debate, critique and dissent; contributed to holding governments and international organisations to account; prompted policy changes and institutional reforms; affected international aid and negotiation priorities; and influenced patterns of water infrastructure development and water supply.  

For example, by 2015, the thesis that climate change–induced migration in Syria had been a decisive spark for the country’s civil war had become paradigmatic to climate security discourse, and a global policy and media orthodoxy. Jan Selby and colleagues, however, found this thesis to be without merit revealing that there was no robust evidence of ‘climate migrants’ contributing to civil war onset in Syria; that north–east Syria’s pre–civil war ecological crisis was essentially political rather than climatic in its causes; and that the standard ‘climate conflict’ narrative was largely a product of Assad regime and donor interests in blaming the climate for this politically–induced crisis. Jan Selby also analysed and critiqued a high–profile UN study of Middle East water issues for its pro–Israeli and anti–Arab biases, and has made various proposals for the transformation of the Palestinian water sector. At a more general level he has sought to rethink and advance new frameworks for understanding the global security implications of water scarcities and climate change. He has done this by critiquing the dominant narrative, by analysing the interests behind them, by drawing attention instead to the political and economic causes of water and climate insecurities, and by highlighting the profound security implications of climate change adaptation and mitigation. 

Embedding religious engagement and freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) into foreign policy

Dr Fabio Petito

The issue:
Until recently, religion has either been neglected, or viewed as the ultimate threat to security by foreign policy makers.

The research: Leading the first ever research project on ‘Religion and IR Theory’ (1999–2004), Fabio Petito has contributed to setting up a new reflexive research agenda that challenges the secularist bias of International Relations and the assumption that the politicisation of religion is an inescapable threat to security and detrimental to modernity. Challenging secularisation as the master narrative of modernity and highlighting the ‘secular’ as a site of exclusion, Fabio’s work has advanced the post–secular as a normative plea for new models of global politics which include religious views. He has demonstrated the need to develop a post–secular sensibility in understanding international politics and in shaping foreign policy by removing what the diplomatic community has been increasingly acknowledging as ‘secular blind spots’ and creating new forms of secular–religious partnerships to respond to global challenges.

The impact: Fabio Petito’s research on post–secularism has contributed to a change in the policy mind–set and practices of the Italian, UK and other Western governments by questioning foreign policy makers’ secular blind spots and by developing proposals that enable policymakers to better integrate religion into foreign policy. In particular, Fabio Petito’s work on religious engagement has significantly impacted on Italian foreign policy strategic planning, while his innovative approach to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) promotion has influenced European governments, as well as international organisations such as the EU & OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), leading them to develop new initiatives.

Fabio Petito’s research has enabled Western policymakers to: 1) integrate religious literacy and engagement in foreign policy, and 2) design and implement innovative strategies to promote FoRB through foreign policy. These two areas of impact were respectively developed through two major programmes and platforms for engagement that he has led: The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) initiative on ‘Religions and International Relations’ (2012–2017), institutionalised in 2018 as a programme based at the leading Italian think tank Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI); and the FoRB & Foreign Policy Initiative at the University of Sussex, started as a British Council/Luce Foundation funded project (2014–16) with a transatlantic focus. This was officially launched in 2017 as a research and policy programme partnered with the FCO, the UK Parliament, the EU and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). 

Anthropological insights improve the humanitarian response to Ebola

Professor James Fairhead

The issue: 
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa that began in 2014 was the largest outbreak of this severe and often fatal disease. At the time the public health response faltered for a variety of reasons, many of which were social and cultural (such as those associated with mortuary and burial practices), but which were also political and economic.

The research: James Fairhead had conducted anthropological fieldwork over two decades, living among communities in the Forest Region of the Republic of Guinea where, in December 2013, the Ebola epidemic began. His book Vaccine Anxieties documented how existing ideas about the causes of health and disease affect attitudes towards vaccination, but it showed too how other factors shape attendance and ‘compliance’ linked to politics, poverty and structural violence. In particular, he revealed how international health interventions – such as vaccination campaigns that are disconnected from nationally administered routine services – invite suspicions. Many people in this region can attribute the causes of illness to improper or immoral conduct or to ancestral and spiritual forces, and the men’s and women’s initiation institutions that order political life, also oversee social conduct, including burial and relations with the dead. Deeply–felt social and political tensions and misunderstandings emerged when the national and international Ebola response sought to exert control over the critically ill and the burial of the dead, and imposed their version of what was a ‘safe and dignified burial’. Social practices around burial thus became critical to understanding local reactions to the humanitarian Ebola response.

James Fairhead’s research also provided insights concerning local understandings in West Africa of medical research trials into immunization which explained sensitivities to medical practices, such as blood taking, and how this can often be interpreted locally as stealing. These were important issues in the roll–out of Ebola vaccine trials during the epidemic and became central to understanding how to develop securitised burials for Ebola to avoid ‘super spreading’ events.

The impact: James Fairhead’s existing research showed why many aspects of the humanitarian response were being perceived locally as a threat, and how better community relations could inflect the humanitarian response to make it more efficient and effective.  In September 2014 Fairhead united leading anthropologists of the region and together initiated a collaborative ‘Ebola Response Anthropology Platform’ (ERAP) that could focus wider global expertise on this problem. Through solicited rapid response briefings ERAP became a focal point to feed social analysis proactively into the escalating medical response and offered real–time advice to the needs raised by medical and humanitarian responders as the unprecedented and uncertain events unfolded. Drawing on previous research James Fairhead contributed reports and briefings on Social Resistance to the Humanitarian Response; Safe and Dignified Burials; Community Engagement and Behaviour Change; Stigma and Survivors and the social logics of the healthcare and mortuary practices. ERAP questioned the initial parallel institutionalization of Ebola response separate from existing trusted health and community structures, and showed why Ebola could only be contained with the explicit involvement and active participation of local communities, what this might involve, and how this could be achieved.

Working across disciplines and with policymakers and practitioners, it generated the atmosphere of a moving workshop, brainstorming the unprecedented challenges that the unfolding Ebola crisis posed, feeding into the highest–level fora. ERAP was adopted as a social science sub–group of the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and altered community engagement practices that resolved social stand–offs on the ground (e.g. in Guinea). Three UK Parliamentary Inquiries into the Ebola response highlighted ERAP’s contributions. The ERAP model brought anthropology and wider social sciences into epidemic and wider emergency preparedness. Now renamed the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP), James Fairhead has since supported its briefings addressing the Ebola epidemic in Eastern DRC (2018–20), and this platform model has informed the COVID–19 response.

Holding the UK government to account over arms export policy

Professor Anna Stavrianakis

The issue
: The UK is one of the world’s largest arms exporters and a supporter of states that abuse human rights and violate international humanitarian law, such as Saudi Arabia. Simultaneously, the UK has also been a key champion of the UN Arms Trade Treaty, both during its negotiation and as a State Party. The UK thus claims to promote the highest standards of international regulation, whilst authorising exports that violate those standards. 

The research: This research scrutinises the often secretive policy and practices of UK arms exports. Anna Stavrianakis’ analysis of UK arms export policy towards Saudi Arabia demonstrates that the UK government is failing to implement its publicly–stated policy and legal obligations that restrict arms exports where there is a clear risk that they might be used in a violation of international humanitarian law. Instead it is primarily concerned with managing domestic criticism and maintaining good relations with the Saudi government. Through strategies of creating doubt and ambiguity about the risks of arms exports, the UK government demonstrates an unwillingness to pay adequate attention to potential civilian harm, and an indifference to the consequences of its policy, continuing to issue export licences despite overwhelming evidence of the misuse of weapons in Yemen.

The research found the UK licensing process to be characterised by ritualized activity that functions to create the appearance of control and an image of benevolence and restraint, rather than to meaningfully restrict arms exports. Anna Stavrianakis’ research exposes the fundamental causes – in UK bureaucratic and governmental practice – of the reckless flow of UK arms that has exacerbated key civilian harms in the Yemen conflict since 2015. Her findings also cast doubt on the UK government’s compliance with obligations under domestic law and the UN Arms Trade Treaty to assess the risks of the misuse of UK–supplied weapons.   

The impact: Anna Stavrianakis’ research has had impact in two principal areas: 1) exposing the operation of unlawful export policy and practice, through FOI requests and media commentary; and 2) supporting key beneficiary groups including UK Parliamentary Select Committees and other MPs; NGOs and campaign groups; and members of the Opposition and Shadow Cabinet to hold the UK government to account and advocate for proper implementation and enforcement of the UK’s foreign policy and legal obligations. 

Improving development programming and policy to prevent gender–based violence and empower women and girls in Africa

Dr Lyndsay McLean

The issue: Gender–based violence and discrimination against women and girls is pervasive, yet the knowledge, skills and experiences of women and girls in the Global South are often insufficiently considered in the design of development programmes and policies intended to benefit them.

The research: Research on gender equality, women’s empowerment and preventing gender–based violence led by Lyndsay McLean, includes the development and application of innovative participatory research methods that allow women and girls to engage in and narrate their experiences on their own terms. These methods generate unique insights into how they see their own lives; the attitudes, behaviours and norms that underpin their exclusion and experiences of violence; and how development programmes have impacted on them.

In Ghana, research examined the impacts of development projects that used community approaches to prevent violence against women and girls. Lyndsay co–designed an innovative visual story–mapping process, which enabled women with limited literacy to narrate their experiences of violence in a safe, supportive environment, and trained local researchers to co–facilitate the participatory workshops. Key insights include identifying the critical role of local women’s rights organisations, the importance of working with traditional leaders and the positive impacts of training community members (rather than outsiders) to address violence against women and girls.

Women in Kumasi, Ghana, with their visual story maps about violenceWomen in Kumasi, Ghana, with their visual story maps about violence © Lyndsay McLean

Working with local partners in DRC, Lyndsay established a ‘Girl–Led Research Unit’ comprising fifteen Congolese young women aged 16–24 from different socio–economic backgrounds who undertook peer research with girls, young women and adults in Kinshasa, and participated in data analysis, writing and dissemination. Placing girl researchers at the heart of the research process generated unique insights into sensitive issues such as intimate relationships and transactional sex, less possible with adult researchers.

‘Girl Researchers’ in DRC doing a role play as part of their trainingGirl Researchers in DRC doing a role play as part of their training © Lyndsay McLean 


In Rwanda, she deployed innovative story–based methods in interactive workshops with community members as part of a research study to guide the design and evaluate the impacts of a programme to prevent intimate partner violence. The methods allowed a nuanced understanding of the complexity of social norms and sanctions around gender roles and the acceptability of violence in the communities.

The impact: 
The research has led to: (1) Integration of adolescent girls’ and young women’s priorities in the national policy on women, peace and security of the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – the first in Africa to include such priorities; (2) new approaches in UK–funded programmes by local NGOs which reduced violence experienced by women and girls; the indashyikirwa programme (Rwanda) and CPOMBAT programme (Ghana) now feature in World Health Organisation and UN Women ‘RESPECT Women’ implementation package that supports programming to prevent violence against women; (3) attitude change among key local and international stakeholders in DRC to see girls and young women as capable and skilled and involve them more fully in their work; (4) development of personal and professional skills and capacities for individual young women researchers, practitioners and participants in DRC. For example, the 15 ‘girl researchers’ have now established their own organisation, and continue to offer advice to key Congolese and international actors on programmes and policies for girls and young women.

Tackling negative perceptions of Afghan traders to enhance policy, services and collective action

Professor Magnus Marsden

NOTE: This Impact Case Study is based on relationships established with the former Afghan Government up to December 2020.  It does not reflect engagement with or impact on the current Taliban government programmes or strategies.

Image from Yiwu research project

Image from Yiwu research project

The issue: The global media and influential international policy–making organisations depict transnational Afghan traders as Islamic militants or criminals. This caricature influences policy–makers and others negatively.

The research: Four decades of militarised international intervention in Afghanistan led to the [former] Afghan Government emphasising the need for Afghan solutions to the problems facing the country. Magnus Marsden’s research demonstrates the commercial and diplomatic skills of Afghan traders and contributed to unfolding policy discussions with Afghan policy–makers, influential civil society actors and the country’s business communities.

Magnus has conducted research relating to Afghan traders for over twenty years. Since 2015 his research has explored the dynamics of the Chinese international trading city of Yiwu; a commercial hub to which traders from across the world travel in order to procure commodities for export. The conflict in Afghanistan made foreign markets desirable for Afghan traders and their presence in Yiwu linked them to markets in Central Asia, West Asia, Europe, and Australasia.

Over the course of repeat visits, Magnus Marsden built relationships with traders, documented their wide–ranging commercial activities and developed a layered analysis of the traders’ practices and the dynamics of the networks through which they operate. The research demonstrates that traders from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds are skilled in building business relations across religious, ethnic and political divisions (e.g. between Sunni and Shi’i, Muslim and Hindu, Pashtun and Tajik), and recognise and valorise their ability to act flexibly, calling themselves ‘diplomats’. This recognition of the traders’ ‘informal diplomacy’ is a key reason why the [former] Afghan Government paid attention to this work.

The impact: The research influenced the policies of the [former] Afghan Government, the EU and the UK Government and created recognition within civil society of the multi–faceted economic and diplomatic roles played by Afghan traders in Afghanistan.

In raising the profile and understanding of the role of traders in international diplomacy and the economy, the research enabled civil society networks in Afghanistan to lobby for better consular support and enabling policies for traders.  Alongside direct engagement with government officials this subsequently strengthened the government relationship with traders and their networks, leading to their needs and roles becoming recognised in national and international diplomatic strategy.

Magnus Marsden’s work played an active role in shaping policies of significance for Afghan traders in the context of the EUs strategy towards Central Asia and has been active in influencing UK Government policy affecting Afghan trading communities, particularly those from its religious minorities.

Through media, public and stakeholder engagement the research is also having a transformative effect on public perceptions of Afghan traders at home and abroad, including those held by the traders themselves. This enables collective action and facilitates improved dialogue between traders and policy–makers in multiple countries.

Changing global political, humanitarian, media and public understanding and actions on political violence

Professor Clionadh Raleigh

The issue: 
Lack of access to timely, accurate and quality evidence on incidents of violence and conflict worldwide can lead to under or mis–representation in journalism and to poorly evidenced strategy and policy for resource allocation within conflict–affected states.

The research: Raleigh designed and implemented a state–of–the–art conflict measurement and collection system via the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) project. ACLED is a disaggregated data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project that collects the dates, actors, types of violence, locations, and the number of fatalities of all reported political violence and protest events across the globe. Political violence and protests include events that occur within civil wars and periods of instability, public protest and regime breakdown. Through summarising, examining and testing conflict scenarios, ACLED’s data and analysis are made publicly available for use by a wide range of governments, development practitioners, media, academics and civil society. ACLED is a ‘living data project’ that integrates the best research to alter how, where and what conflict to capture. Raleigh continues to draw on the methodologies and findings of her academic work to direct, shape and lead ACLED’s approaches and outputs. This includes: improving geographical information; integrating political representation and levels into analysis of active conflict groups; and introducing ‘interaction’ codes to track how conflict agents engage with each other in specific events.

The impact: Through its unique integration of cutting–edge conflict research – and its adaptive flexibility to accommodate emerging data, trends and areas of conflict – the ACLED data project facilitates diverse and meaningful use of Raleigh’s research by policy makers, practitioners and the media. ACLED is the most comprehensive, authoritative and independent database of conflict and violence, and thus the standard data resource for conflict reporting, mitigation, resolution and prevention. Evidence of its impact and use is widespread across governments, international institutions, media and practitioners.

ACLED data has been used to inform and support the decision–making capacity of governments and governmental bodies and by INGOs involved in crisis response and mitigation of conflicts and violence. These include: the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Austrian Red Cross, Darfur Women Action, Save the Children, Search for Common Ground, the World Bank, the Myanmar Development Institute, the Centre for Social Change, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, ACAPS and Action on Armed Violence.

The use of ACLED data by the media serves to ensure its insights reach both specialist audiences (including politicians and humanitarian organisations) and the broader public. In particular it opened new avenues to expose and respond to the growing conflict in the Sahel and the real cost of the war in Yemen.

Building climate resilience in Africa by enhancing anticipatory risk management

Professor Martin ToddProfessor Dominic KnivetonDr Pedram RowhaniDr Mohammed Shamsudduha (UCL)

The issue: Much of sub–Saharan Africa is extremely vulnerable to present and future climate shocks, which jeopardise development gains as it continues its rapid socio–economic transformation. Anticipating and preparing for tomorrow’s weather and the emerging climate changes is central to Africa’s sustainable and climate–resilient future.

The research: Moving from reactive to anticipatory disaster risk management is a major challenge. Over the last 15 years Sussex research has addressed well–recognised barriers to effective anticipatory climate risk management, namely: the salience, credibility and legitimacy of weather/climate information; and the methods and capacities to use this inherently uncertain forecast information in decision–making.

The body of strongly interdisciplinary research includes fundamental science on how African climate/environment systems operate and their predictability over multiple timescales. And it has quantified climate impacts on resources and the interaction with societal processes. On this basis, Sussex researchers developed new weather/climate forecast and scenario products and novel approaches and tools for ‘decision–making under uncertainty’, that are applied in a wide range of risk management contexts.

This body of work emerged through taking a leading role in a series of major international research projects aimed at building climate resilience in Africa. In these projects, Sussex pioneered methods for interdisciplinary, participatory, and engaged research on ‘co–production’ in climate risk management. Their work brought together different stakeholders, knowledge and experiences to jointly co–produce new climate information that is better able to support specific decision–making contexts. These advances in co–production focussed on two decision–making time horizons: preparing for ‘near term’ weather/climate hazards and planning for the longer–term impacts of climate change.

The impact: Sussex research has changed the way weather and climate forecast information is produced and used. This has resulted in forecasts and information on weather/climate risk that is useful, usable and used in practice by government agencies, national and international NGOs and populations at risk. This has supported a shift to anticipatory approaches, in both near–term disaster risk management and in planning long–term development investments across the nexus of water, energy and food production. Sussex research has changed operational practices and guiding policies for climate resilience in a range of contexts in Africa:

(i) Near–term disaster risk management. Sussex research has led to recognition across the Disaster Risk Management community that: “mainstreaming the anticipatory approach… into national systems [is] the key to sustainably scaling up”. Particularly in East Africa, a region identified as a ‘sweet spot’ of predictability, where new co–produced forecast products are being operationally produced and incorporated into risk management. This opens the door for a new approach of forecasts over continuous lead–times (from days to months) to support evolving preparedness action.

(ii) Long–term, climate–resilient development decisions. Sussex research projects have influenced policies and practices towards climate–resilient development, focussing on major development decisions across the Water–Energy–Food nexus and urban planning in contexts across Africa, and piloting the use of tools to support ‘decision–making under uncertainty’.

Redesigning global climate technology policy and funding to meet the needs of low – and middle income – countries

Professor David Ockwell

The issue: Global climate technology policies and funding are widely viewed as having historically failed to meet the needs of low- and middle-income countries.

The research: Facilitating the transfer of climate technologies (technologies that assist in mitigating or adapting to climate change, like low-carbon energy technologies, or drought-resistant farming technologies) to developing countries has been a core aim of global climate policy for the last three decades. It is, however, widely viewed to have failed in practice, benefiting only richer developing countries and international companies who supply technologies to them. Based on a combination of long-term empirical analyses in Sub-Saharan Africa, India and China and inter-disciplinary conceptual work, Sussex research has both demonstrated how climate technologies can be successfully transferred and/or developed, and designed a new policy approach that can make this happen. The key research insights that underpin this policy approach are:

1. Traditional climate technology policy only addresses two dimensions of the problem, namely technology and finance, reflected in a past dominance of engineering and economics in the climate technology and development literature.

2. The research highlighted the relevance of insights from the body of literature on national systems of innovation and applied this to show that where climate technologies are successfully transferred, it is due to long-term processes of building indigenous technological capabilities and strengthening the systemic contexts through which sustained uptake of new technologies can be nurtured.

3. Importantly, by combining a ‘national systems of innovation’ theory perspective with conceptual insights from the strategic niche management literature, the research demonstrated that the ‘national systems of innovation’ perspective needed to be extended to also attend to the social contexts within which new technologies are adopted, and the political impediments to new technology uptake.

The impact: Building on collaborative work with partners in the Global South David Ockwell’s research (with Rob Byrne in SPRU, Sussex) led to a new policy approach - CRIBs (Climate Rel¬evant Innovation-system Builders) - which has had significant impacts on policy and funding at global, continental and national levels.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Technology Executive Committee – the political body responsible for implementing climate technology policy under the UNFCCC and the Paris Climate Agreement – used the CRIBs approach to evaluate their existing climate technology policy and inform their agreed way forward to improving it. The Green Climate Fund (GCF - a £10.3 billion fund charged with making a significant and ambitious contribution to global efforts towards attaining the goals set by the international community in response to climate change) used the CRIBs approach to frame how they fund collaborative research and development – a key way in which the fund seeks to facilitate climate technology development and transfer. David Ockwell and Rob Byrnes CRIBs work was also used to inform a change in direction in the World Bank’s Climate Technology Programme.

In the light of difficulties African countries have had in leveraging international climate finance, the African Union (AU) recognised the CRIBs approach as an opportunity for African countries to improve access to GCF funding. They commissioned David Ockwell’s key research partners in Africa (the African Centre for Technology Studies, ACTS) to provide CRIBs training to 41 African and international climate policymakers from 18 different countries. As a result of the AU-commissioned CRIBs training, and two further focussed training and capacity-building programmes run by Sussex with ACTS, the policy approach is being implemented at a national level by 16 policy organisations from 9 different African Countries, framing national policy and practice, and underpinning proposals for GCF funding. To date, these GCF proposals have resulted in USD 9,994,500 of GCF funding being awarded to Burundi (leveraging USD 21,727,000 in match funding, with an estimated 573,500 beneficiaries). Kenya also had two proposals at advanced stages of GCF approval, worth a total of USD 20,000,000.