The humanitarian sector has made admirable headway in its transfer of power to local practitioners and increasing locally-led responses, but what of the localisation of its research? At HAG, we believe that how we do things is just as important as what we’re doing. This refers partly to the way our ethics and values inform how we work. But it also refers to the way that partnership-based research can produce different – and better – results when done the right way.
As we launch our latest lesson paper reflecting on the localised research model we used in the Beyond Barriers research initiative led by HAG and World Vision, we thought we’d take the opportunity to look back over what we’ve learned.
HAG’s partnership model
But first off – what does “partnership” even mean? HAG’s ambition is for our partnerships to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts:
HAG’s vision is that our partnerships make us stronger than when operating as individual agencies. We believe that working in partnership enables a collective contribution that can more effectively drive positive change in the humanitarian system.
For HAG, effective and meaningful partnerships are built on trust and shared values. Our partnership framework identifies four pillars on which our collaborations are built: shared areas of strategic interest and mutual benefit, capacity sharing, effective communication, and reflection and learning.
What are we learning?
When putting together research teams and designing projects, we look for ways of working that will elevate local leadership and allow each member of the team to contribute in a unique way to the success of the study. Though it is easy – and sometimes very valuable – to make decisions based on what has worked in the past, we also try to stay creative. Here are some of our key take-aways.
It’s about the right systems, but it’s also about the right people
With the Beyond Barriers research, which involved studies on the integration of disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) in Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Timor-Leste, we adopted a tiered model, with a senior researcher based in Fiji leading a team of national researchers with varied backgrounds and skills. HAG staff managed the project, facilitating the collaborative analysis phases and leading on report writing and dissemination.
Reflecting on their experiences, national researchers revealed that they had not only improved their research skills but also their confidence, and they had made connections across the region because of their involvement in the research initiative. Much of this success can be attributed to the motivated and experienced senior researcher who guided and advised the national researchers. While her technical knowledge and stakeholder connections were indispensable, it was her commitment to capacity-building and mentoring a new generation of researchers that helped this model to flourish.
Make space for flexibility where you can
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought enormous changes in all sectors, and research is no exception. When reflecting on the successes and challenges of the project Building A Blueprint for Change, which was part of the 2018-2021 Humanitarian Horizons research program, flexibility and adaptability came out as key. The Blueprint project explored requirements and options for humanitarian reform in Indonesia. Over the course of the study, Indonesia experienced two waves of cases and the Pujiono Centre (the in-country partner) was drawn into supporting the pandemic response. Thanks to the flexibility of the Australian Department of Foreign Affair and Trade (DFAT) as program funder, the Blueprint project was able to pivot to enabling and evaluating the SEJAJAR initiative, a platform for local organisations involved in the pandemic response.
At the same time, flexibility needs to be balanced with clarity. In the research model for Beyond Barriers, we were hesitant to be too constrictive about different roles, both because we recognised the range of experience and background across the team and because we wanted to remain agile when faced with changing circumstances. What we discovered, however, was that too much flexibility sometimes led to a lack of clarity surrounding the different roles of HAG and the senior researcher, in addition to blurred communication lines between the national researchers and HAG. Additionally, there were instances in which too much flexibility led to delays meeting deadlines and the open structure saw inconsistencies in data collection. Communication remains key.
Invest in relationship-building
One of the first formal partnership reflections that we undertook was on the collaboration between HAG and the Pacific Island Association of NGOs (PIANGO). HAG and PIANGO’s journey began in 2018 and has been a driving force of research on localisation in the Pacific. From the start, both core partners took time to get to know each other and decided on a process for establishing the partnership, agreeing to:
- Jointly set agendas and contribute to planning
- Establish and respect an agreed tone when communicating with each other
- Develop principles to support the collaboration
- Be led by an external facilitator during the partnership brokering process
- Invest time in discussion, with PIANGO leading a Talanoa process
- Commit to regular review and follow-up.
The importance of such activities was also highlighted by the Independent Mid-Term Review of the Humanitarian Horizons program 2018-2021. That review, carried out by CoLAB, found that the “collegial approach to partnerships and ways of working is a platform for sustained engagement” yet that “resources (budget and time) needed to build partnerships was underestimated and under budgeted”, including support for activities outside of specific projects or after the deadline has been met. We have taken this forward by formalising our partnership brokering process, establishing more holistic institutional partnerships, and reinforcing two-way accountability in the Humanitarian Horizons 2021-2024 program.
A groundswell for change
As explored in the platform paper for the People, Power and Local Leadership stream of the latest Humanitarian Horizons program, there is an increasing push for more equitable research in the humanitarian sector. Researchers have increasingly reflected on the power dynamics shaping research on local humanitarian action, in conflict settings, and co-production techniques. As our own experiences show, day-to-day choices in how projects are set up and run can make a big difference. With more localised approaches to research, we can hope to see more equitable research practices and a humanitarian research eco-system more representative of the communities it aims to support.
The Beyond Barriers project has been made possible through funding from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through the Australian Humanitarian Partnership Disaster READY program. Read more about our research model in our recent Reflection Paper.
Photo: asso-myron, Unspalsh