Working with vulnerable communities

Posted on February 24, 2012

House in an Angaite community, Paraguay

While my community meetings have always ended on a very positive note, I want to be clear that it is not easy to establish a good working relationship in vulnerable communities.  You don’t just waltz into town one day and they welcome you with open arms.  My previous post may give that impression, but we did hit some bumps during our visit, and this is in communities that have had good, long-term relationships with the group that introduced me.  I’ve had conversations with lots of different groups working in vulnerable communities and we seem to encounter a lot of the same problems.   Some tips for others working in similar areas:

(1)  You must be very clear about who you are (i.e. what category of organization or class of professionals you belong to) and what you can and cannot do.  Because I do health research, and I collaborate with the local health regions, people have assumed that I work for the health regions or I have some kind of pull there.  I always try to be very clear that I’m an independent researcher, from a North American university, who is working in partnership with local organizations.  They call me Dr. as a token of respect, but I am very clear that I am not a medical doctor, I am an anthropologist and biologist who studies health.

(2) You are probably going to be blamed for bad things done by other people or organizations similar to you (and maybe even those not similar to you).  If there was a ‘bad anthropologist’ who came to the community before you and didn’t do a proper leave-taking in the community, they will think you are the same.  If there was an unethical health researcher who took biological samples in the community and then never delivered results, they will think you are the same.  If there was an evil ‘NGO’ that collected signatures from community members who wanted to receive donated clothes, and then imported the free clothes and sold them at a profit instead of delivering them to the community, they will think you are the same.  If a government agency or politician (especially during election season) promised something to the community and didn’t deliver on it, they will think you are the same.  These are all real things that have happened in the communities I’ve worked in.  Don’t just tell them ‘I’m not like those guys’, do your best to show that you are committed to follow through. You will have to earn their trust over time, gradually.  When you mess up, everyone who comes after you will have a hard time, so own your mistakes.

(3) Don’t make promises you can’t keep or – better yet – don’t make promises.  I try not to give exact dates of arrival in my study communities anymore.  Several times I’ve been delayed by bad weather and then I get flack for arriving on Thursday instead of Monday.  So now I say I’ll be back ‘maybe in a few weeks’ or ‘maybe around the end of the month’ or ‘it depends on the weather, but as soon as I can’.  If you can’t guarantee it, don’t commit to it.  Also, don’t make promises that require the cooperation of others to hold up.  You can’t rely on others to have the same level of commitment.

(4)  Keep them updated, even when the update is ‘nothing is happening’.  Time is moving far differently for them than it is for you.  You know you’ve been busy battling bureaucracy, going to meetings, and entering data.  They know they haven’t seen you three weeks and they wonder if you’ve abandoned the project.  If you maintain regular contact, even just to say ‘nothing is going to happen in your community in the next week’, community members will be much happier with you.

(5)  Learn the local politics but don’t let them drag you into it.  As an outsider with resources, you can become a very important pawn in local conflicts.  There is a great blog post by Ryan Anderson on Savageminds about the micro-politics of fieldwork.  Be aware of who the players are and how they are trying to manipulate you. 

(6)  Listen.  This one is straightforward enough.  Listen to their concerns and questions.  Find out what matters to them.  They know their community well.  If you listened to them, you could have avoided wasting a stupid amount of money building a fish hatching pond in a community which no longer has a lake or river access, because they will tell your (embarrassingly famous, international) NGO that the birds are just going to eat all the fish.

(7)  They care about material benefits, not research. Esoteric things like research and knowledge are not going to put a roof over their heads or food on their table.  If you want your study to succeed, make sure there are material benefits for their participation.  But that being said…

(8)  Don’t give handouts.  Some communities have become so dependent on handouts that their own ability to organize and mobilize as a community has been severely handicapped.  Nothing you try to implement in a community is going to be sustainable unless it has local support and momentum to carry it. A fantastic example: CEDIC’s new project is helping communities to build new houses.  The houses were designed by community members and will be built using relatively cheap, locally available materials so they can be duplicated by others in the future.  CEDIC will provide training and the equipment for brick-making and the roofing, but community members must organize work teams and provide the labour to build the houses.

Also, when you give handouts you are creating an expectation that all future visitors to the community should also be giving them handouts.  Last week I was traveling with a group of healthcare workers providing routine vaccinations, and a religious missionary group – who wanted to associate themselves with giving health assistance, although they did nothing of the kind – set up beside them and started handing out free soap, clothes and candy.  The religious group was there for only two hours in the morning, but even in the late afternoon people continued to approach the doctor and nurses asking for free handouts.  The next time the healthcare workers visit, will mothers insist on a free gift before getting their child vaccinated?  Will they refuse admittance to or develop animosity towards the healthcare workers because they are considered stingy for not giving away free things?

As a rule, I always insist that there be some kind of exchange.  If they take my survey, I give a small gift.  If they gave me hospitality or helped repair my vehicle or did some other favour for me, I’ll give a gift.  And I don’t mind doing favours myself; I’ve given lots of people a lift in my truck and delivered letters on their behalf.  But I don’t give anything material or monetary to people who ask me point-blank.  In my experience, the people who ask for freebies tend also to be the people who need them the least (and I know this from their socioeconomic status scores from my census data!).

(9) Personal relationships are important.  This is a great point one of my advisors made.  This is true wherever you are, but as she said “…the cultural expectations to spend time chatting about life, not work, in small-scale societies are probably at least one order of magnitude higher.”  I try to visit with a lot of different people, instead of associating myself with just one group.  And the things that make great conversation there are similar to what makes great conversation at home: the weather, what’s happening in the news, family, and what things are like where I’m from (snow is a very popular topic!).  I also get some great conversations by asking about local plants and animals, making fun of myself as a weird foreigner, and “things that scare me”.  The last topic of conversation has given me lots of stories about snakes, scorpions, and spiders from an older woman who really enjoyed giving me the heebie jeebies.

I can’t think of a #10 right now, but I’m sure there is more to be said.  I would love to hear from others about their experiences in similar settings.