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.