By Aysha Fleming
What’s required for researchers to effectively engage with local communities in international research tackling complex socio-ecological problems?
In a project involving Indonesian and Australian researchers working with local communities to restore peatlands in Indonesia, we identified three key elements for international collaboration with stakeholders:
- project design
- individual and collective skills and competencies
- processes to support knowledge integration.
Designing the right processes of community engagement includes thinking about culture, networks, approvals, time and trust and including clear communication in every aspect. That’s quite a lot to keep track of. It is paramount that the community is engaged sensitively and that cultural procedures are followed appropriately, such as who is approached first and what approvals are required. This requires additional time for background research. To make sure that time is well spent with communities, it is important to be aware of what other engagements have happened and to allow time to build trust. It is difficult to do this in a short, one-off visit, so ongoing engagement is often required to work with the community to maintain change, make the benefits visible and foster agency over the actions taken.
Communication is necessary for community members to be actively involved in decisions and have ownership over the activities. If there is good design and good communication, we found that the actual method of engagement, whether interviews, workshops or field sites was less vital to the outcome than the relationships and principles behind the work.
Individual and collective skills and competencies
At the individual level, there must be a willingness to participate, share and explain ideas, be open-minded and sensitive, and take responsibility to regularly check in on (mis)understandings. There must also be a willingness to engage in complex intellectual work negotiating world views and assumptions and additional roles and skills, such as active listening and flexibility to think outside of specific disciplines and experiences. International collaboration with stakeholders is not for everyone! It requires patience and humility.
Four key skills are:
- being open-minded and willing to learn,
- sharing and listening,
- challenging yourself to step outside the box, and
- being reflexive.
At the team level, there must be processes in place to support open and inclusive communication (such as regular meetings which are well-attended and the ability to contribute via access to the internet and technology).
International research is a journey of building relationships and reflexive capacity. Time spent face to face was an important factor for our team to build reflexivity, through increasing understanding and empathy for other perspectives and developing a shared, project view. We also found that boundary objects, such as field trips, maps and photos were helpful to understand each other’s perspectives.
As the team included members across disciplines and both academic and non-academic partners, this also involved a period of accepting the validity of each other’s different knowledge and experience, and building a culture of shared power and accountability. On-ground experience is as vital as scientific expertise in international projects.
Processes to support knowledge integration
Integration is an explicit task; it doesn’t just happen if you put people together. It needs to be intentional and supported. Leaders need to set up the structures to facilitate this and to role model processes of inclusion, respect, and the ‘work’ of building relationships and understanding. It also needs allocation of time and resources, capacity building and support (including language support), all of which may have no clear deliverable or output. Investing in the relationships is essential for later outcomes.
Organisations need to support funding and design arrangements that enable communication—for example, a dedicated ‘neutral’ project manager, or communication specialists, as well as adequate time, opportunity, and support for effective communication (face to face meetings for new teams or geographically dispersed teams, language support, and cultural and ethics training).
Integration rests on relationships. Building relationships can be supported with explicit structures including a theory of change, requiring attendance at regular meetings and strong leadership to build a supportive culture where everyone can learn together and there are no ‘stupid’ questions.
Different individuals have different capacities and interests in integrated research (as do different teams, leaders and organisations). Being able to match capabilities and interests with the work required is an advantage, and where there are gaps, options to support may be required (eg., adapting the design, objectives or outputs, or building capacity). Different individuals also have expectations about the project and their own careers, which may be implicit or unrealised. These assumptions take time to negotiate, especially when there are unequal power relationships involved.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a big disruption to our research, and we had to move many of our activities to online or hybrid forms, but the underlying processes of establishing relationships, trust, respect, time to learn, and commitment to a shared outcome were still required. Of course, nothing beats time face-to-face and this was re-established as soon as possible.
No project is perfect and there will always be challenges, but through sharing learning and building our capacity to be reflexive, as individuals and as leaders in organisations, we can improve international research practices and on-ground outcomes.
What has your experience been? Do our lessons resonate? Do you have additional or different lessons to share?
To find out more:
Fleming, A., Agrawal, S., Dinomika, Fransisca, Y., Graham, L., Lestari, S., Mendham, D., O’Connell, D., Paul, B., Po, M., Rawluk, A., Sakuntaladewi, N., Winarno, B. and Yuwati, T. W. (2021). Reflections on integrated research from community engagement in peatland restoration. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8: 199. (Online, open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-021-00878-8
Biography: Aysha Fleming PhD is a senior researcher in Land and Water at CSIRO in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Her primary research interests are in improving sustainable decision making and climate adaptation using social science methods and environmental sociology theories.