I joined Oxfam in Myanmar in 2017 as a research coordinator to lead overall project management and coordination between researchers in Myanmar and researchers in the UK for the innovative Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) project. A4EA is an international research programme, implemented by a consortium which Oxfam is part of, led by The Institute of Development Studies (IDS).
It explores how social and political action can contribute to empowerment and accountability in fragile, conflict-affected, and violent settings. The programme focuses on Egypt, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Pakistan.
The diary method
The word I heard almost every day at the beginning of this project was “diary.” Why? For the A4EA research, we decided to conduct “Governance Diaries”, a methodology where researchers visit the same households every month for a period of 12 months.
The Governance Diary method allows researchers to build more trust with the people they interview and, as a result, to gain a level of understanding that would have been out of reach through other methods. This is particularly important in conflict-affected areas and fragile settings where trust and social cohesion might be damaged.
In Myanmar, a country which includes areas that have contested governance and are often not under the control of state administration, many people are impacted by conflict and intense fighting with and between armed groups. Conducting research in fragile settings is very challenging. Firstly, there are issues around the ever-changing security situation. To ensure everyone’s safety, I need to pay attention to conflict dynamics and developments near our research locations, which are often remote. And secondly, trust plays a very large role in data collection, for example many people may be afraid to share information with an outsider or someone whom they don’t know.
To overcome this, we partnered with local Civil Society Organisations, who recruited people from the same ethnic minority groups as the research participants. I then worked with them intensively to develop their skills and support them in becoming researchers, so they could build trusting relationships with the community and gather better information.
For the first phase of the research, 78 households across Kachin and Kayin were selected. We engaged with them on an ongoing basis to understand their lived experiences and expectations of public authorities. Specifically, we tried to focus on understanding who community members trusted and who they looked to for help in solving their everyday issues. The researchers visited these households on a monthly basis to have tea with them and ask about what they do when they face day-to-day issues around services, disputes, registration, laws, etc.
We found that people would often not necessarily identify issues they face, such as a lack of electricity, limited health access, poor road infrastructure and lack of public services, as governance issues. Therefore, we trained the researchers to be curious, to build trust and rapport, and to ask probing questions according to the situation or the previous interviews. We found that people are very self-reliant, and do not expect services, nor do they, in most situations, report issues to public authorities.
For many historic and cultural reasons, people in Myanmar often distrust institutions and public authorities. Instead, they rely on family members, friends and often informal local leaders who are part of their community. In some cases, these leaders solve issues directly. In other cases, they act as an intermediary to a diverse network of higher-level authorities. We were then left with questions: Who are these intermediaries? How did they become intermediaries? Where do their accountabilities lie? And do they connect into formal governance systems? If so, how?
For the second phase of our research, to help answer these questions, we interviewed 33 intermediaries who were community leaders identified by the households we had been visiting. The intermediaries were often unavailable and sometimes quite powerful people, bringing new methodological challenges, with researchers sometimes visiting their homes twice in a month or late in the evening to complete a monthly interview. We, therefore, had to learn how to navigate local politics within communities and between intermediaries. Ultimately this phase confirmed that most issues are addressed locally and traditionally. The role of intermediaries is primarily to keep communities safe and peaceful, to ‘Keep big issues small, and make small issues disappear’ through community mediation, and escalate the issues only when it is a big criminal case or requires documentation. These intermediaries work within complex local government networks involving multiple authorities, which look different in every location.
In March 2020, the situation changed unexpectedly, and we were no longer able to hold face-to-face interviews due to Covid-19 in Myanmar. As a result, the four researchers and I adapted the research design from “Governance Diaries” to “Covid Diaries” to understand the impact of Covid-19 in the communities, the role of intermediaries and their responses to the pandemic.
This brought with it a new set of methodological challenges. We faced challenges not only about who had access to a mobile phone, whose numbers we had, who had reliable coverage, and whose coverage was on the Myanmar network rather than that of bordering countries. Poor connection and not being able to see each other’s faces meant we had to adapt the methodology and be creative with how we did the interviews, sometimes relying on short voice messages back and forwards. This was made possible by the relationships and trust that had previously been developed between the researchers and the interviewees.
Strengthening local research capacity
Sharing research experiences is crucial in Myanmar, which was under military dictatorship for 48 years, from 1962 to 2011. Independent research is still relatively new to Myanmar, which has been going through big political and economic shifts in recent years. Most Myanmar research organizations are used to conducting quantitative data collection, with research analyses and design often still done by foreign researchers while Myanmar researchers often carry out data collection as enumerators.
Through this programme, I have developed unique skills for a researcher in Myanmar, by engaging in qualitative research methodology, designing questions, and learning how to use NVivo qualitative data analysis software. It is important for me to build my research skills so that I can then also build the capacity of others. One of my favourite components of the A4EA research has been building the capacity of other Myanmar researchers.
Through this programme we have given particular attention to working with four local researchers. I led training, not only on research methodology, but on accountability, empowerment and governance – so researchers would know what to look for, would be able to probe, and hold the interviews as a conversation, not a script. In the research we introduced new and various mapping activities into the interviews every month. I provided ongoing training on new methodologies and supported the four researchers, adapting the research as need be and ensuring problems were resolved. They also learnt from each other, and coordinated timings appropriately around cultural events throughout the research.
I am sure there is a very limited number of people in Myanmar with experience leading a qualitative longitudinal study, such as this one, because of challenges around financial and technical capacity. I used to teach others about the pros and cons of longitudinal studies when I was a research trainer, even though I didn’t have practical experience. Now, that I have a lot of practical experience with longitudinal qualitative research, I can share with other researchers in Myanmar and support their learning.
Reaching another layer in our research
Last but not least, I had the brilliant opportunity to present the first phase of A4EA research findings at the Burma Study Conference at Australia National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia. It was an important milestone in my life to participate in an international conference, to share my own experiences, learn from international perspectives on Myanmar’s issues, and connect with an extended network of researchers. Through the A4EA research programme, I have both broadened and deepened my understanding, while also having a positive impact on the development of others and the outcomes of programme. All in all, my experiences have allowed me to reach another layer in our research, in building the capacity of researchers in Myanmar and in my own development.