Research fieldwork can be daunting and often impossible when the community is not on your side. It is essential as an evaluator conducting research in the field for an evaluation to strive to overcome this obstacle by acknowledging the importance of community buy-in. This helps minimise the chance of community politics.
To have the community with you – and not against you – is vital and cannot be underestimated. Politics must be negotiated carefully to avoid community objections, apathy or resistance.
Lindy Briginshaw, CEO and Founder of Development Works Changemakers, explains that without community buy-in, your research study or evaluation can be challenged or even derailed.
“Don’t anticipate obvious success in undertaking your community research or evaluation study. The strength of your work depends largely on partnerships developed between researcher, evaluator and community, as well as cooperation, negotiation and commitment to the research or evaluation project,” she says.
Here are 10 top tips for overcoming challenging community politics when conducting research, completing surveys, interviewing community members and gathering data for an evaluation in a particular community.
1. Share responsibilities with your client from day one
Bring your client on-board as much as possible. Your client may be well connected to a community and so able to assist to identify community stakeholders, or influencers, who can legitimise the research process. Such stakeholders include local government officials with political office, as well as community leaders, activists and mobilisers. Once the community leaders have been identified, you will need a point of entry into the target communities.
You must be given adequate channels of access and know the protocols that need to be followed. This can be achieved by obtaining a letter from the relevant officials in positions of power. This way, community politics can be limited, or even avoided, engaging respectfully and communicating extensively with respective community stakeholders to ensure buy-in and access.
2. Conduct a situational assessment with your client
Get to know the community landscape and social dynamics at play and share your experience of this at briefing meetings. Doing so will provide valuable feedback of how your client’s intervention has been received up to the point of evaluation. This will expose a preliminary assessment of the knowledge, attitudes and perception of the intervention. In turn, you can then identify areas of sensitivity to avoid when approaching the community and refine your methods where necessary.
3. Be up-to-speed on community current affairs
Identify a ‘community champion’ – someone who is a leader or is working in the community and who you may regularly contact for information and guidance before reaching out to the community and throughout the intervention.
Champions are often your first point of contact as a researcher and evaluator. Usually, they have the community intelligence you need to assist you in your work. Open communication and a good relationship with your champion/s are key and this will support your understanding of the community, as well as your safety and security in the field.
4. Set up meetings with the community leaders
Community leaders are elected or appointed representatives of their community and feel responsible for what happens in their sphere of influence in their communities. It is essential therefore to identify yourself and your purpose in the area.
Inform and communicate respectfully with the community and leaders of your research and evaluation objectives and who your client is. Failing to acknowledge community leaders can pose a serious challenge and limit access and may even derail your efforts entirely.
5. Follow the proper channels of community awareness to facilitate buy-in
Once you’ve developed and nurtured a relationship with community leaders, they become an important asset for conducting your research in a particular community. They are instrumental in facilitating buy-in because of their position of influence.
The leaders will make the community aware of the intended research or objectives of the evaluation study and benefits to the community. Buy-in from the rest of the community is then more likely to be achieved. The community will be aware of your presence. Most importantly, you are secure in knowing that the proper channels have been followed.
6. Step back and take an objective standpoint
After the politics of access have been addressed, it is important to note that broader political issues should not be addressed by you. You should not represent any affiliation nor any political party, view or ideology. Rather, you should approach the community as an objective outsider who represents the research consultancy. Or an evaluation agency contracted by your client.
You should emphasise that your role is only for data collection, research and evaluation purposes and that you have no authority, nor judgment, on views expressed by community members.
7. Treat community members with the utmost respect
Always obtain consent for participation from community members through the signing of a consent form. This is necessary before you begin. Community members should be treated with dignity and respect and should not be forced to participate in your research.
8. Be aware of political and community sensitivities
It’s essential to be aware of sensitive issues happening in communities and in the country at large. Knowing this can guide you as to how to dress, approach people and how to talk or even conduct your research.
This becomes even more important if your research explores sensitive socio-political issues. Having such contextual awareness can mitigate the risk of frustrating community participants and it allows you to be politically sensitive.
9. Know when you can push the limits
If you find that a survey participant is uncomfortable, it is important that you are sensitive to this. Your task is not to cause turmoil or further damage to a situation. In some extreme situations, you are advised to release a participant from the interview who does not want to proceed. It is best practice to then refer the participant to a person or nonprofit support group, or counsellor, who may support them.
10. Show your appreciation
Once you have completed your research, it is important to give thanks and show appreciation for the community’s time and contribution to your work. You never know when research will need to be conducted in the same community again.
Leaving people with a smile and a feeling that their inputs are valued is crucial. This respect shows appreciation for the contributions of community members.
Development Works Changemakers conducts independent evaluations and assessments of globally of projects, programmes, development initiatives and communication campaigns.
We strive to add value to public and private sector partners, funders and development organisations, by providing accurate, insightful and cost-effective solutions to enhance programme performance. For more info do contact Lindy Briginshaw, CEO or Susannah Clarke-von Witt, Research & Evaluation Director for more information by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.