Who benefits?

Last week it was a vaccination programme disrupting my fieldwork, this week it’s the 50th anniversary of the independence of Burundi. It seems that for four days everyone is very busy with the celebrations so rather than doing interviews, I’m watching endless parades and traditional drumming. The sound of drumming is incessant and very loud but it is pretty incredible.

I’ve been doing fieldwork for a month or so now and this has mainly involved visiting the villages where the projects are taking place and talking to people in the communities. To do this, I’m using a variety of research techniques with a focus on participatory research. Participatory research, as the name suggests, involves people’s active participation in generating knowledge through research. There are many different ways of doing this, such as asking a community group to draw the structure of their community or doing a group analysis of a problem they are facing. To encourage people to discuss problems together and to think about how they can overcome them, I’m using research tools such as spider-web diagrams, Venn diagrams, problem trees and community mapping. Spider-web diagrams, for example, require the participants to identify their group’s key activities and to evaluate how well they do them, while to make a problem tree, participants discuss the causes of a shared problem and what solutions there could be. These activities show me how the different community organisations work and how they perceive their power to solve problems. More importantly perhaps, these activities also provide a way for people to reflect on their own situation and power and to formulate solutions to problems they face.

Participatory research is not, of course, appropriate for all types of research and a few focus groups will not transform a community but it is really encouraging when people tell me that they’ve learnt something from doing a research exercise. This might be deciding how to improve their group’s work or noticing which people are excluded from community associations. I’m therefore finding that participatory research really can generate knowledge for the participants as well as increase my own understanding of how community groups work.

I am conscious that research in international development has been criticised for not sharing the knowledge developed with the people who gave their time to participate. Therefore, I hope that by using participatory methods, the people I work with can benefit directly from my research activities. Finally, when my fieldwork is finished, I hope that by providing clear, concrete recommendations to the NGOs I’m working for, the communities will also benefit from projects which are better targeted at their needs.

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Power relations and community organisations

It’s a quiet week for me in Gitega as every village in the province is taking part in a vaccination programme so my field visits are write-off. Still, it’s a chance to catch up and reflect on what I’ve learnt so far.

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing lots of focus group discussions with community-based organisations in different parts of the province. I’m using participatory methods to encourage the groups to discuss what their strengths are and how they can overcome problems in their community. It has been really interesting to see how some groups are more effective than others in changing their community and some of the results are quite inspirational. At the centre of it all is the question of social structures and power relations. While some groups really include people from the most marginalised social groups, such as widows and repatriated people, others groups are dominated by the local leaders and offer little hope for raising the status of the most vulnerable people.

The groups which include people from a range of social positions and which have been well-trained in advocacy and conflict resolution have shown that they really raise the voices of their members. Women, who said they never used to speak out, now say that they challenge injustice and that local leaders are afraid of them because they know that they speak the truth. Such community groups have managed to reduce the elite’s monopoly on power and have increased their own power through their collective action which has gained them greater respect from the community too. Other groups, however, are led by the existing male leaders who do not give the women and young people in the group a chance to speak. Despite being encouraged to respect women’s rights and advocate for the most vulnerable, I saw the leaders ridiculing women as they tried to participate in discussions. It’s hugely frustrating to see this but it underlines the importance of recognising the power structures in a community and making sure that any intervention addresses the imbalance of power which is reproducing inequalities in the community.

Changing power relations and social structures is, of course, not an easy thing to do or something that is easily measured and documented but I’m convinced that this is essential for reducing poverty and increasing social justice.

Visiting the collines

I’m settling into life in Gitega and the daily chorus of “mzungu! mzungu!” as I walk to work is becoming normal.  Day-to-day life here is calm and people are friendly, especially if you greet them in Kirundi.  I began my fieldwork last week by visiting several ‘collines’ (villages) and conducting focus groups and interviews with people there.  The collines consist of small houses, mostly made of mud, which are nestled into the hillsides amongst the small holdings.  There are a few central buildings in each colline, such as a school and there are unmade roads connecting the collines together.

I was struck by how isolated people are from the main towns.  The distances between the collines and the towns are not that great but there are only public buses on the main roads and most people live from their own small holding, only selling their crops if the harvest is good.  This means that the ‘commune’ (district) administration, never mind national government, seems very distant to most people and so it’s local governance which matters to them most.  For this reason, researching local governance structures in Burundi is important for finding ways for small communities to better manage their basic public services.

Each colline has an elected council which raises local problems with the commune council and oversees local development activities such as planting trees and protecting water sources.  Local communities are largely expected to develop their villages themselves through ‘community works’.  For example, if the school needs a new classroom, the colline inhabitants must come together to buy the building materials and construct the classroom and then the district council may provide the roof.  While this means that people take responsibility for public services in their village, it also means that those who cannot contribute, such as handicapped people and the very poor, may not be valued by the rest of the community.  Even though it is the very poor who need the most support from their community and local leaders, their inability to participate in community works means they are often marginalised, with no-one to advocate for their needs.  This is why I am researching how NGO projects can ensure that the most vulnerable people can participate in local governance and have their needs recognised by the rest of the community.

No easy answers yet though so here are some more photos instead.