Community engagement: vital for researchers and research

Prof. Julia Jones
May 27, 2016
Key Highlights:
  • Community engagement vital to say thank you, to avoid research fatigue, to inform decisions at a local level, and to empower communities to influence decisions that are made elsewhere
  • Some villages are more than a days walk away, and infrastructure is very poor (transport, technology etc), so forward and detailed planning is vital 
  • When preparing literature, think about your audience and produce it for them, not you. When an 8 year old girl rushes to read the leaflet, cover to cover, out loud to the other school children as soon as the team arrive at the village, you know you’ve got it right!
  • Confidentiality must be assured and guaranteed to get meaningful results
  • Be prepared, able and willing to do more than your job description requires – you need to be more more than just a researcher 
  • Prepare for all eventualities – cyclones, power cuts, field worker illness
  • Researcher Rina Mandibiniaina: “I think it is something quite particular about this project and this team that we work so well together, we always discuss everything so we learn from each other and local people and always improve things”.

Following on from the first community stakeholder engagement meeting for the P4ges team, principal investigator Professor Julia Jones gives her personal insight in to the challenges and the rewards of such an exercise. An accompanying video can be found here.

After two years of intensive field work, the p4ges project have finished our intensive data collection. Although some data cleaning and analysis is still ongoing (and most papers are some way away), we have our preliminary results and have started the vitally important process of sharing these with the communities where we worked. 
The logistics of our study site in eastern Madagascar are pretty difficult. Most of our sites are not reachable by vehicle, and some are more than a day’s walk from the nearest place you can drive to. Reaching everyone to share results has therefore needed a lot of planning. We have two main teams (one led by the University of Antananarivo and one led by the NGO Madagasikara Voakajy) who will return to all our sites between now and the end of September.
There are a number of reasons to share the results of the research locally. Firstly, it feels wrong to ask people to help with the research and then not make the effort to ensure they understand what we found (sadly too many projects in the past have done this and it adds to the very real problem of researcher fatigue). However we also have results which are relevant to land use decisions people are making (particularly our hydrological research). It is vital that people on the ground who make decisions about land use and who live with the consequences have access to information relevant to their decision making. 
Finally, a significant part of our research concerns decisions that are made a long way from their village. We feel it is important to empower communities by helping them to understand the context in which conservation is happening (explaining the role of forests in climate change and how this influences global decisions to invest in reducing deforestation in Madagascar for example) and the thinking behind why they receive the livelihood projects they receive. 
We produced a booklet which summarises the whole project, reminds people of our objectives and what we did, and presents our findings and conclusions. We worked with the Malagasy cartoonist Eric Andriantsialonina (also known as Dwa) to try to communicate quite complex ideas in an attractive and accessible way. We also have reports for each site we work in, giving the details of the particular data collected at that site (for example the detailed summary data from questionnaires done in a particular area-giving information on food security of households, numbers of children in school etc). The detailed reports go to the local authorities from the commune mayor (in the nearby town), president of fokontany and village chiefs.
I was lucky enough to be able to join the team on the first of these community feedback events in Ampahitra fokontany, Ambohibary commune in the district of Moramanga. We drove a few hours south of Moramanga on a pretty terrible road before starting the couple of hours walk to the first village (Tsaramitety). The people in Tsaramitety were very welcoming and it was remarkable how they remembered the names of so many of the team. Having the pictures of everyone on the p4ges project in the leaflet is really great as people really like making the connections with the various people they have seen from p4ges over the years.
We met with the chief of the village and planned the feedback event for the school. The chief wrote letters to all the hamlets to call people (most people are in their field houses-protecting their ripening rice from crop pests at this time of year rather than in the village centre). He told them to come for a 10:00am start but explained to us it would start somewhat later (maybe 12:00).
The day dawned, cold and drizzly. I worried this may mean fewer people would come but Nilsen from our team reassured me that bad weather meant people couldn’t harvest rice and so we would get better attendance. Sure enough, just 2 hours after the advertised start time we had about 50 people gathered. While waiting for the start we gave out the booklets and people sat around reading them to each other with great interest and asking us questions. The logistics of using a projector in a place like Ampahitra were not easy. We had to charge it (and the tablet giving the information source) with battery packs (we were very unsure how long they’d last, and how we could recharge them when they ran out - we had 4 events to do before getting back to somewhere with any power). We also had issues with blocking out light as the school has large windows. We ended up borrowing the woven mats which every villager has on their floor. 
We had loads of great questions from the audience. One particular issue which was concerning some people was confidentiality. Of course we had explained this concept during our interviews but we mentioned during community feedback that we would be holding a regional event to talk to stakeholders in Moramanga in July. Some of the audience were concerned that we would be giving them details of who does tavy (the controversial local swidden agriculture practice) and who owns what land. We reassured them that this information would never be shared outside our team and the detail we would be passing on was no more detail than we were presenting here. 
People found the results interesting and mostly agreed that our conclusions were correct (especially about the impacts of conservation restrictions locally, and that there have been some issues about who received livelihood projects and who didn’t). The village chief was very keen for us to pass on another message to the authorities when we meet them in July at our regional event. He said “The problem for us here is that we only know our traditional farming practices, this means we have no option but to do tavy. The state wants us to stop doing tavy but how can we do that if we know nothing else? No one here studies past primary level as we don’t have a middle school and we can’t afford to send our kids to Moramanga”. He urged us to tell the authorities that if they want to stop tavy they need to provide better education. We repeated again about what our role is as researchers (that we can’t bring development projects) but did say we can certainly pass on this point when we meet the regional authorities in July.
The hydrology team did a really effective infiltration demonstration, showing how the rate that water flows into the soils depends on the quality of the soil and that is affected by vegetation cover. This went down really well and generated a lot of discussion. At the end we gave the detailed Ampahitra report to the village chief and a small gift to thank the school for hosting us (some text books, a football and some measuring equipment). 
Afterwards the team sat down to discuss what went well and what didn’t go so well, and made a plan for the next events. We then packed and started the two hour walk to the next village Besariaka (which means ‘lots of kind people’ in Malagasy). The name seemed very apt as we had an absolutely lovely welcome. Again people remembered the names of many of our team and greeted us like old friends. They were delighted to receive copies of the booklet. One little girl (aged only 8) sat down immediately and read the whole booklet cover to cover out loud to a gathered audience of other children.
The next day I had to leave the village and head back to Tana for some project meetings. I left the team chatting about the project with villagers and planning the logistics for the remaining events. I left with a real sense of happiness. This is a large project involving more than 50 researchers from many different disciplinary backgrounds and nationalities. Despite the many challenges (challenges in agreeing sampling strategies, months of power cuts at the University of Antananarivo, cyclones and illness affecting field work, big difficulties with accessing sites) we have managed to complete data collection and preliminary analysis, produce such interesting synthesis and get the results back to the field. The reception we received also tells me so much about how well the field teams have interacted locally during the project.
The comments from my colleague Rina Mandibiniaina during our final debriefing before I left summed up the whole experience for me. “I think it is something quite particular about this project and this team that we work so well together, we always discuss everything so we learn from each other and local people and always improve things”.