Heading out for a day of research in Bangui. Credit: Franziska Mager/Oxfam

Agile research in the risky realities of the Central African Republic

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General, Humanitarian, Methodology, Real Geek, Research Leave a Comment

Conducting research in volatile locations like the Central African Republic (CAR) requires the agility to constantly adapt. Irene Guijt and Franziska Mager report back from a recent trip with unexpected twists and turns.

Heading out for a day of research in Bangui. Credit: Franziska Mager/Oxfam

Heading out for a day of research in Bangui. Credit: Franziska Mager/Oxfam

Conducting research in a country like the Central African Republic with chronic conflict – and around half a million internally displaced people (1/8th of the national population!) – is no piece of cake. But on our recent trip it proved easier than expected, when accompanied by a strong dose of agile planning.

Our core interest is what agency, however limited, displaced people might have despite being in limbo
We’re kicking off a series of country case studies on displacement for Oxfam’s Stand as One campaign. Our core interest is what agency, however limited, displaced people might have despite being in limbo, and how this differs – or not – across diverse forms of displacement dynamics, both internal and cross-border.

Connecting the case studies is the shared use of SenseMaker, an innovative methodology that permits the collection, at scale, of short narratives around a single question framework. Respondents interpret their own stories, which generates a vast and intriguing web of qualitative data. The country team in CAR hope that listening to the many voices of displaced people, at a scale that goes well beyond anecdotes, will stimulate national debate about the limitations of current policy responses and provide input for Oxfam’s own programmatic responses. We will discuss the methodology and the findings in more detail in future posts.

 the hours we spent refining the questionnaire in micro-detail seem comically sanitized
After we arrived in Bangui, the hours we spent refining the questionnaire in micro-detail seem comically sanitized compared to what our respondents’ lives look like. A fragile, volatile security situation is at the heart of all the issues we experience, strongly shaping the daily realities of data collection; forcing flexibility in order to avoid failure. It is a reminder that no matter how thoroughly prepared, no research plan can withstand the unpredictability of, for example, certain neighbourhoods being off limits from one hour to the next.

no matter how thoroughly prepared, no research plan can withstand the unpredictability of, for example, certain neighbourhoods being off limits from one hour to the next
Days at the Oxfam CAR office start with a daily 8am security brief. The security manager summarizes the previous 24 hours of events in Bangui and the provinces, which might shift or spiral out of control overnight, and updates us on how staff in hotspots are doing. He invites everyone, especially drivers, cleaners and handymen, all with extensive networks to pipe up with news, confirming or debunking security rumours.

We spend a week training a team of data collectors, familiarising them with the novel question types of SenseMaker, and with the tablets we have brought to collect the data. Some of the team are used to administering household-type surveys, so unlearning formulaic application of questionnaires is important. Their understanding of the importance of nuance is strengthened by the many hours we spend on agreeing the best translations from the French questionnaire into the largely phonetic Sango national language.

we’re suddenly told we can no longer enter Bangui’s infamous PK5 – the prime location for our data collection
But then, ready for a flying start, we’re suddenly told we can no longer enter Bangui’s infamous PK5 – the prime location for our data collection. PK5 is a neighbourhood from which thousands of people have been displaced, fleeing the 2013 conflict and further violence ever since. We had strolled around the displaced families only a couple of days earlier. Plans B, C ….and D are needed instead.

Keen to ensure a balanced purposive sample, where we can and can’t go has a massive influence on the types of people we are able to talk with, be it in terms of displaced or recent returnee status, age or religion. Oxfam’s local network in each neighbourhood becomes crucial – trusted local contacts are essential for getting access. The time our Plan E led us to a neighbourhood where contact had not been made with enough advance warning, the tension in the air was palpable, with residents’ confusion about the purpose of the enumerator team leading to heated discussions.

Half of the team heads to the small northern town of Batangafo, only accessible by air
Half of the team heads to the small northern town of Batangafo, only accessible by air. It has seen even worse violence than Bangui, less humanitarian infrastructure and fewer economic opportunities – some referring to people there as the ‘abandoned displaced’. We have very little time with the team in Batangafo due to the limited number of humanitarian flights, and must rely on them to continue collecting with remote support. This makes in-depth training and data quality checks even more critical.

the data collection team was robbed by a machete wielding gang… In an unexpected twist of fate, the only local public servant, with Oxfam staff, negotiates to return the tablets
Data collection is paced by the rise and fall of security in different locations. In Bangui, the team returns at 4 or 5 pm, depending on the extent of recent tensions. In Batangafo, there is a blanket 4.30 cut-off point to meet the 6 pm curfew. No better example of site-specific cadence than the sudden screech to a halt of work in Batangafo one morning, when rumours were heard that tablets might be stolen by local youth who are frustrated that data collectors have been brought in from Bangui rather than recruited from the thousands of unemployed local youth. Our fears are confirmed when we receive a call that the data collection team was robbed by a machete wielding gang. Fortunately, no one is injured. In an unexpected twist of fate, the only local public servant, with Oxfam staff, negotiates the return of the tablets, allowing data collection to continue.

The bottom line is flexibility – our methods can only mediate certain effects of the country’s instability
The extent to which site-specific insecurity influences what information can be gleaned from people is staggering. The bottom line is flexibility – our methods can only mediate certain effects of the country’s instability and only partially at that. Accepting imperfect conditions is essential for primary research – even if this means one’s idea of excellence turns into something that, in practice, is probably ‘just’ good. The price would have been even less data on CAR than the little that exists. But it has also been great fun and deeply satisfying to adapt our way through this first research step. The Oxfam CAR office and dedicated excellence of the research team have shown us the high standard that we’re now aiming for with the other case studies.

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Author
Irene Guijt

Irene Guijt

Irene leads Oxfam GB's research team, which uses evidence to influence economic, environmental, and social justice. Prior to joining Oxfam in 2015, Irene worked for 25 years in rural development, natural resource management, collective action and social justice. She is a keen advocate for making the less heard voices more audible and influential.

Author
Franziska Mager

Franziska Mager

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Franziska is Research Assistant in the research team at Oxfam GB. She supports the team through quantitative research. Her background is in Political Science and Social Policy, with an emphasis on qualitative and quantitative research methods to inform decision-making.