The power of practitioner-led research in reframing the narrative around what it means to be “community-led”

29 Mar 2021

Do we ever imagine the impact of a research project on the researchers themselves? Or do we just assume that researchers are “experts” who just do the work and then move on? The GFCF recently conducted follow-up interviews with five civil society leaders who were the principal field researchers in a project conducted in partnership with the GFCF and GlobalGiving, What does it mean to be community-led? Conversations with each of them revealed how their involvement in the six-month, six-country project, most of which took place under COVID-19 lockdown conditions, was both formative and transformative.

The researchers – Artemisa Felix Castro (Fondo Acción Solidaria A.C. – FASOL, Mexico), Barbara Nöst (Zambian Governance Foundation for Civil Society), Shubha Chacko (Solidarity Foundation, India), Truc Nguyen (Independent Consultant/LIN Center for Community Development, Vietnam), and Urmila Shrestha (Tewa – the Nepal Women’s Fund) – all described how their participation in the project provided a welcome and invaluable opportunity to engage in a different kind of conversation with community members. In addition to the deep listening that the research process involved, the researchers shared how the project had also prompted them to reflect on their own practices as local development organizations, grantmakers and community philanthropy champions – both individually and as a group – enabling them to step into the role of producers and shapers of knowledge in ways that felt very empowering.


Challenging the production of knowledge in international development

For Shubha Chacko, whose organization works with LGBTQI and sex worker communities in India, the decision to involve leaders of local institutions as researchers, rather than academics or external consultants, was important, and is something that she would like to see more of, explaining how it was important – and yet still rare – for global south civil society to be included in, and to influence, global research agendas. In her view, civil society organizations in the global south often find themselves engulfed in the politics of knowledge production, but only as implementers rather than experts (the latter still tending to come from the global north). “We are not seen as intellectual beings but rather as people who can ‘run around.’ The theories will come from the north, and our role is merely to implement because that’s all we can do. I think this was a good turn of events, to see us producing this knowledge together, not just as heads of organizations but together with grassroot community leaders.”

The research took a participatory action approach organized around the perspectives and experiences of local community leaders in India, Mexico, Nepal, Russia, Vietnam and Zambia (the GFCF was not able to interview the Russian field researchers for this article). Information was collected through in-person and online interviews with community leaders, who were selected using various criteria developed by the group and project coordinators, Dana Doan and Mary Fifield. Criteria included people with lived or direct experience of issues affected by a specific community, who value community members’ knowledge, and who promote community members’ agency as determined by the research partners and local leaders themselves. Early on, the research group also agreed on a broad and inclusive definition of what constituted “community”, which ranged from people in a geographic proximity who share resources and face common challenges or issues, to groups with a shared or common identity, often but not necessarily in the same place.


Moving beyond “development talk” and surfacing community power

For some of the researchers, having the opportunity to engage at length with grassroots community leaders, and to listen to their views, made for a welcome break from the day-to-day work of running an organization, which can often tie staff to their desks. Furthermore, while conducting the research in Zambia, Barbara Nöst reflected on how she had become much more aware of the divide that sometimes exists between community leaders and the staff of development organizations, observing that the latter often lapsed easily into the “language of NGOs”, which felt less authentic. “The process taught me that if you really want to talk to the community leaders, you need to talk to those that have lived the experience, rather than those who work with professional NGOs, who tell you what you want to hear, almost like they are just filling a template.” In a similar vein, Urmila Shrestha in Nepal observed how the research had confirmed for her how much community leaders have to offer in terms of insights and analysis, and that they articulate their views and share their knowledge in ways that are clearly understood by those around them, even if it is a long way from the “proposals written in good English”, which are the norm of the formal development sector.

For Truc Nguyen in Vietnam, speaking directly with community members about their work was very enriching. “In my previous job I worked for an organization that supported community groups. Most of them were intermediaries, meaning we did not have direct contact with the communities. However, [in this project] I got to speak with individual community leaders and heard their first-hand experiences, which also helped me to address some of my assumptions. For example, I had always thought that the voice of small organizations that depend on donors was very weak. To my surprise, I found out that it was the opposite. The community leaders really understood their position and had ways of negotiating with donors to stand up for their rights.” For example, one of the research participants in Vietnam shared an experience where an international NGO had, as part of their funding requirements, requested information deemed confidential and sensitive from a group of people living with disabilities. The grassroots community leaders refused to share this information, opting instead to preserve the dignity of their members. This aligned with Shubha’s experience in India: she was struck by how the people she spoke to revealed themselves to be very aware of when they are being taken for granted. “Communities said they had moments when they felt used, when they saw funders’ driving personal agendas and playing games with them.”

For her part, Artemisa Castro Felix of FASOL shared her deep concern about the power that money continues to hold. “We should be in a position to say that, even without money, we will still implement, even if the project might take much longer. We, in the philanthropy and development space, have put a lot of emphasis on something that does not really deserve so much attention. We have embedded our thinking in a system that was created by money, within a larger, global economic system that is increasingly more individualistic than collective in its spirit and design. We have confused money with one kind of power, when real power lies with the people who themselves have the power to mobilize their resources, collectively and in solidarity. In the end money can do nothing without people.”


What are some of the larger learnings we can take away from this experience?

Individually, the reflections shared by the field researchers may seem like ordinary stories, but they all serve as an important reminder of how important it is – wherever one sits in the philanthropy and development system, and particularly when one has any amount of power – to take the time to really listen to the views of the community. Having local civil society leaders as research leads mattered too. Not only did it provide them with the dedicated time to hold real, meaningful, conversations with some of their constituents – something that can be hard to make happen when one is busy delivering programmes etc. – as well as to test some of their own assumptions and to gather important insights that might help inform future activities, but it also enabled them to reflect on and give language to some of the knottier, intangible aspects of their work, especially when it comes to distinguishing between saying that something is community-led and knowing that it is. Furthermore, the fact that each of the field researchers was associated with a local civil society institution with a long-term presence in the community meant they were able to leverage knowledge, experience and extensive networks in the identification of research participants, particularly among marginalized communities who might normally be hidden from, or invisible to, external actors, and to build on pre-existing relationships based on trust. It also meant that, rather than being a one-off exercise, where the researchers simply came and then went, the project helped to strengthen and contribute towards larger, ongoing processes of dialogue and reflection around ownership and power, based on hard data produced within and by community members.

And finally, being part of a global group of peers – most of whom would see themselves as acting at the “edges” of development, far from the corridors of formal power – who came together in the research project to design, test and collectively make sense of their findings, helped to instill a sense of confidence and legitimacy, a validation of their knowledge and experience and,  perhaps most importantly, to contribute to the sense of being part of a much bigger global movement of individuals and organizations – who often feel overlooked and unheard by the mainstream – working every day to put communities at the heart of development.


By: Tarisai Jangara, GFCF Communications Specialist

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Barbara Nöst

Thank you Tarisai, for this great article. Being part of this research project has been the highlight of 2020. When everyone was preoccupied with the consequences of Covid-19, I had the privilege to immerse myself into research and it made me feel so much better about what I do in this space that is not given the necessary recognition. It was therapeutic. I particularly loved Artemisa’s comment about development sector’s focus on money “…..We, in the philanthropy and development space, have put a lot of emphasis on something that does not really deserve so much attention. We have embedded our… Read more »