Research dissemination in settings of conflict and hurt is more than a well-rehearsed flash talk; it can become a forum for healing and learning. That is what we learnt from a research dissemination experience we had in Abuja earlier this year.
For about two years, a team of Nigerian researchers commissioned by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR), studied the strategies, impact and challenges of Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG), a movement that is advocating the release of just under 300 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram terrorists in 2014.
The study, which is part of a five-country research programme exploring new forms of social and political action, empowerment and accountability, is an interesting one in that:
- it is located in a hurting and destabilised area of Nigeria
- is concerned with violence against and violation of women and girls
- is focused on vibrant but unusual movement, in the form of the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG).
The BBOG is an unusual movement not just because it was women-led but also because it was a spontaneous eruption which has refused to go away. It has no known office address, no compiled membership list and is free-entry-free-exit. The research team conducted interviews with parents and community leaders of the abductees, analysed online media content and interviewed the members of the BBOG movement.
When a research dissemination event is about a lot more than “dissemination”
The research dissemination event was attended by about 60 people including representatives of the European Union, the BBOG movement itself, PASGR staff, academic researchers, and – as usual – the media.
Like every dissemination event, the aim was to share the findings of the research. There was a 45-minute presentation of the study in very straightforward, non-academic language followed by a comments, questions and answers session.
Pretty run of the mill so far.
What followed, however was different to my experience of such events.
Most of the contributions were very passionate, almost lachrymal. They were also very many. And, rather than focus on the findings and methods of the study, most of the comments focused on the painful and excruciating horrors inflicted on society by the Boko Haram insurgents, the pain of being abducted or being an abductee’s relative, the travails of the BBOG movement, the ineptitude of the governments, and the question of when the abductees would be finally released.
It was impossible to shut down or stop the overflow of words and emotions. At the end, the programme schedule had to be adjusted to bring about proper closure.
Three lessons on research dissemination in fragile settings
We discuss three main lessons learnt from this event about disseminating research findings in contexts that are hurting and fragile because of gruesome conflicts.
Lesson 1: Words really matter in fragile and conflict-affected settings.
Typically when we think of dissemination, we think of choosing the right words so that we can clearly communicate our findings to policy actors. Thus, we avoid jargon and complications. This is important but not enough as the Abuja event taught us.
First, in addition to choosing clear words, we must also avoid words that might offend the hurting people present. It is a fragile and painful setting. Many among the audience were victims of the insurgency.
Second, our words must capture their feelings the way they feel it – and not in the way we understand or process it. At the event, the lead researcher said members of the BBOG “were physically harassed” but this was quickly corrected by the members thus:
“I think you [researchers] are not aware of what happened; we were not just physically harassed – we were tear-gassed, arrested and detained”.
To the typical researcher, all of these three acts fall under “physical harassment”; but for those who lived and experienced the harassment, such aggregation of three acts into one umbrella term does not do their experience justice. Words indeed matter.
In another instance, the lead researcher stated that the BBOG movement had empowered its members with voice and skills. But during the comments session, a contributor corrected him thus:
“The BBOG has given members leadership skills – BBOG has enabled ordinary people to even address the UN”.
To a researcher who is trained to code and classify ideas into neat categories, “leadership skills” is subsumed under skills; to those in fragile and hurting situations, it was important to elaborate the nature and significance of the skills gained.
Lesson 2: It does not matter that the point had already been made
Typically, in our hurry to make meetings short and to the point, we clamp down on repetition, verbosity and superfluous explanation. We tell people: “the point has been made”.
Research dissemination in fragile and conflict-affected settings should not be for people to make a point. Participants come to talk and to be listened to.
In fact, dissemination can be rightly regarded as a therapeutic process, part of the overall community healing and even reconciliation. Talking heals. The lead researcher called it, in another forum, “ejo therapy”. In Yoruba language, ejo means talks, or accounts, or a drifty emptying of the mind.
At the Abuja event, some comments were so long they became in themselves another form of lecture.
In some cases, the same person had the chance to speak again and again, sometimes clarifying one thing or refuting another. Disagreement or arguments set in at some point.
In stable and un-disrupted settings, this would rarely happen. A dissemination meeting can, therefore, be brief and business-like. In disrupted and fragile settings, provision must be made for repetitions of all manners. The administrative and communicative fuse of organisers should be both long and elastic.
Lesson 3: The boundary between data collection, analysis and dissemination can become shifty and blurred
One point that is clear from the above is that research dissemination dialogue in fragile and conflict-affected settings can become another data collection activity and as well provide analytical nudges. This is contrary to what we had been taught about dissemination, which is: finish your research and give out (that is, disseminate) information about it.
In the Abuja event, and contrary to the norm, comments from participants from various organisations and agencies, media and even the EU became “food for thought” for the research team. The research team not only took new copious notes but decided to go back to their data.
A member of the BBOG asked, “Why didn’t you conduct interviews in Lagos?” When told that no BBOG member in Lagos agreed to be interviewed, she freely offered to help recruit interviewees in Lagos. Not even the explanation that the interview process had reached the saturation point could dissuade her.
Now you are ready … aren’t you?
To be ready to disseminate your research in fragile and conflict-affected settings is to be ready for a drawn-out process, to be ready to subvert the linear rigidity of the research process, and to be ready for therapeutic listening and learning. Both researchers and donor should understand that.
This blog was originally posted on the IDS website. Editorial support for this blog was provided by Ayo Ojebode, Professor of Applied Communication & Head, Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, and Emilie Wilson, Research Uptake Lead for the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) research programme.