At our summer event to celebrate the University’s collaborative effort in our submission to REF2021, Professor Rosa Freedman talked about her work and how she engages with a wide range of stakeholders which enables her to get the message about her work to the right person at the right time. 


I am always a little nervous when asked to talk about what I do in terms of impact and engagement. Why am I nervous? Because at the heart of my research and work is networks, and it is difficult to explain network creation. There is no precise science to how I create and maintain networks, nor is there a formula I use or could advise others to follow. But in this blog – like in the talks I am invited to deliver to academics and research students on this topic – I will explain a little about what I do and how I do it; and I will provide some general advice as to what has worked, how, and why.

The impact case study that has been submitted to REF2021 focuses on our work safeguarding people from sexual exploitation and abuse in conflict and crisis zones. This includes peacekeeping operations and the humanitarian sector. Together with my project partner, Keeping Children Safe, and a core group of academic colleagues we have conducted significant research on safeguarding in conflict and crisis zones. This includes field research in countries where peacekeeping operations are conducted and others from which peacekeepers are deployed, countries where humanitarian operations are in place and others which are headquarters to large humanitarian organisations. This in-depth work enabled us better to understand the contexts in which safeguarding needs to occur, and to design a toolkit for safeguarding that upholds international standards and meets the needs of the contexts of conflict and crisis zones. We have worked with a broad range of stakeholders to design and then implement these safeguarding approaches. This includes the African Union, peacekeeping training centres in Africa and in Europe, national governments, national militaries, troop-contributing countries (from around the world), the United Nations headquarters and field missions, and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

As may have become obvious, we were only able to conduct the research and to design and implement the safeguarding toolkit because of the networks we created and the access they gave us. Our work is built on a grounded theory approach. Our research and impact inform our network creation, and our network creation informs our research and impact. Throughout the lifecycle of the work to date (over the past 5 years) we have developed those networks and utilised them to ensure that we can implement safeguarding across many of the key stakeholders with which we were working.

But how do we do this? Throughout my career everything I have done includes or rests upon building good professional relationships with academics and practitioners working in the field of the United Nations and human rights. There is no science to what I have done – it is simply about talking to people, following up with them, seizing every opportunity, not being afraid to ask people to go for coffee or to give advice or even to help. People like to be interviewed; people like it if you show an interest in their work; people like to be able to help. And it is also about not being disheartened about having gone down dead ends.

One word of warning, doing this type of work does involve going down dead ends or wrong avenues that are either frustrating or you end up working with organisations that you later realise are not aligned with your principles or research. But those are risks worth taking for your own research and for the opportunities to have an impact within the world outside of academia.

I tend to go to meetings physically, even if it means spending time travelling to other cities or countries (there usually is a pot of university money you can find if you haven’t got external research funding – although external funding gives you a lot more flexibility and autonomy, so do apply for it!). This gives me a chance to meet face-to-face with people with whom I work, and I always arrange to have coffee in the margins of those meetings or events. I keep in contact with people, sending them articles or news items I think will be of interest, and engaging with them on topics of interest. I apply for advisory roles or to give evidence to Select Committees or the other things that the Research Comms team circulates to us. The worst that will happen when I apply is that they turn down or ignore my application or evidence. But generally doing these things opens up all sorts of other avenues to explore.

I also make sure that I’m always working with a civil society partner because they have their own expertise and networks. They are as keen to work with us as we are with them. We bring the research that provides an evidence base and we bring the expertise to underpin policy changes. And we quite often forget, because we work among other brilliant academics, that the outside world sees us as experts and that they want to work with us.

By doing these things and by building up those networks over time, I now sit on the UN Secretary General’s Civil Society Advisory Board on Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. I am a specialist advisor for the UK Government International Development Select Committee. I sit on Advisory Boards of NGOs. And I am frequently invited to deliver evidence to multilateral organisations, regional institutions, and national governments. There is no answer as to how that happened other than that I continuously develop my networks, stay in touch with my networks, follow-up with my networks, and crucially share my networks with others like others did and do with me because networks are crucial for good work to be done.

It sounds simple because it is. There is a time-consuming element to it, but it is rewarding and stimulating to work with others who are interested and passionate about the areas in which you research, and it allows you to be a small part of making changes (in my case policy and practical ones) that go a little way to helping to make the world a better place.

Professor Rosa Freedman holds the inaugural Chair of Law, Conflict and Global Development at the Law School, University or Reading.