Creative Consulting & Development Works

We are a research, evaluation and communications consultancy, servicing nonprofits, governments and donors with innovative solutions within the development context.

10 tips for moving beyond community politics

19 October 2015

Research fieldwork can be daunting as it is, but when the community is not on your side, it can be near impossible. It is essential as a researcher conducting research in the field to strive to overcome this obstacle by acknowledging the importance of community buy-in. To have the community with you – and not against you – is vital and cannot be underestimated. Politics must be negotiated carefully to avoid community apathy and resistance.

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Lindy Briginshaw, Director of Creative Consulting & Development Works, explains that without community buy-in, meeting the objectives of your specific research can be derailed. “Don’t anticipate obvious success in undertaking your community research. The strength of your work depends largely on partnership development between researcher and community, as well as cooperation, negotiation and commitment to the research project,” she says.

Here are 10 top tips for overcoming challenging community politics when conducting research and surveys in the field, or gathering data for an evaluation.

1. Share responsibilities with your client from day one
Bring your client on-board as much as possible as your client can 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. 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 through obtaining a letter from the relevant officials in positions of power so that community politics can be limited or even avoided.

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, which 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 through which access is obtained.

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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. Champions are often your first point of contact as a researcher, and usually have the community intelligence you need to assist you in your work. Open communication and a good relationship with your champion 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. It is essential therefore to identify yourself and your purpose in the area. Inform the community and leaders of your research objectives and who your client is. Failing to acknowledge community leaders can pose a serious challenge with access to a community and inhibit participation.

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 the 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 and buy-in from the rest of the community is more likely to be achieved. The community will be aware of your presence and most importantly, that the proper channels have been followed.

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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 hired by your client. You should emphasise that your role is only for data collection 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 before beginning your work. 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 the community and in the country at large. Knowing this can guide you on how to dress, approach people and how to talk or even conduct your research, which becomes 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 expresses discomfort, it is important that you are sensitive to their emotions. 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 with the sensitive issues that the survey may be exploring. It is best practice to then refer the participant to a person or non-profit support group 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 input has contributed value to the overall research is a good method of closure and shows appreciation for the contributions of community members.

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Photo courtesy of Maureen Sill.

Creative Consulting & Development Works conducts independent evaluations and assessments of national and regional projects, programmes, development initiatives and communication campaigns. Using quantitative and qualitative research methods is at the core of our work. We strive to add value to public and private sector partners, donors and development organisations, by providing accurate, insightful and cost-effective solutions to enhance programme performance.  Contact Lindy Briginshaw, Director, or Susannah Clarke, General Manager and Research & Evaluation Manager for more information on conducting a needs assessment for your organisation.

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