Lifting when we fall – on disclosure and reflection in research

Anyone who works in development will be used to hearing the now famous quote that even in the remotest of places you can always get a Coca Cola. This idea’s been used to talk about barriers in introducing medicines, health and development staff, education and food aid. Asking, if a commercial company can do it, why can’t we?

One venture, ColaLife, decided to take this idea one stage further and developed ‘aid pods’- anti-diarrhea kits – that would fit into the crates used to deliver coke. Piloting began with community involvement in Zambia and moved to trial whether distributing the pods via Coca Cola crates would work. The idea of using an existing trade network to distribute vital medical aid is excellent. However, partnering with a commercial company and particularly one with a problematic reputation certainly does raise questions. Nevertheless as a pragmatic solution it is certainly worth exploring. (You can follow them on Twitter @colalife).

So far, so familiar. If you’re doing development work or health research well you follow this model. You have an idea. You develop it within a community. Then you pilot, test and reflect on it before deciding whether or not to roll it out.

And we’re used to seeing projects boast of successes (even if they weren’t that successful) or to produce findings (no matter how flimsy) in glossy brochures or fancy websites. Which of course keep investors and sponsors happy and tick boxes in terms of ‘impact’ being achieved.

Privately we may reflect together on what went wrong, on how we could improve our work, and of how relieved we are that the problems and pitfalls we encountered remain hidden from wider scrutiny. We may write up our findings, with a ‘cleaned up’ version of events that gloss over the struggles, the false starts, the unimpressive findings, or the fact that everyone involved in the project is no longer speaking to each other.

In that context ColaLife have done something very unusual. They have written an honest and open account of the problems they have encountered during the development of their project, and have also talked in depth about the criticisms they have faced along the way (plus how they felt about all of this). You can read it here (plus a wider conversation about the model here too).

Disclosing where we get things right, and where we go wrong is vital within social, health and development research. It stops other people making the same mistakes as we have. It highlights where things might be more complex than they first seem. It challenges the idea that methods come in a one-size-fits-all box where all you have to do is follow a recipe and all will work out fine (and it’s down to you if it doesn’t). It can indicate where the problems may have arisen – an overambitious idea? An under qualified or poorly supported team? A great plan but delivered in the wrong place at the wrong time? A study that struggled to get off the ground because gatekeepers or participants weren’t enthusiastic? Or perhaps where funders or sponsors were putting undue pressure to adopt certain methods or present particular findings that ran counter to the ethos of the work? A project that was imposed on a community who, understandably, resisted it? The list can go on and on.

ColaLife describe their experience as ‘failing forward’. That in sharing the problems they had with others they can indicate how to avoid such pitfalls in the future. While admiring them for their candour I’d venture a criticism here of their using the term ‘failing’. To the public, sponsors, politicians, policy makers, journalists or academics this suggests something that’s gone completely wrong and as a result has no value. Which in turn may reinforce the idea we should keep the realities of our research private. Or even feel ashamed if things don’t work as we planned all those months or years ago when we first started out.

Rather I would encourage us to see the problems and challenges we encounter in research and development as an integral part of the work we do. It is normal, then, to expect things won’t go smoothly. That you will need to be agile. That plans will have to change and methods and approaches should adapt accordingly. That you’ll encounter people with diverse agendas and multiple needs. That if you’re new to research, and particularly if you’re working on a student project, it’s no bad thing if it doesn’t work out how you hoped because you’ll have so much more to reflect on. Or that the most experienced researcher or practitioner will encounter challenges and unexpected events during any study because that’s just how social, health and development projects and programmes ARE. Over on Where There Is No Data, Matt Greenall explores these issues further (For more development reflections follow @mngreenall on Twitter).

Sadly for most social and health research training and development work we’re not allowed the luxury of time to think about how to get our work going, or permission to change our approaches. It takes confidence and experience to know it’s normal to adapt as your project or programme grows, especially if you’re negotiating with sponsors, funders and stakeholders who are uncertain about, or even resistant towards, you wanting to alter your plans.

How do we change the way we teach, supervise and fund research and development work to stop these everyday experiences from being transformed into guilty secrets? Do you have examples like the ColaLife reflections on how you’ve run a project or programme. Can you share how that went and how people reacted as a consequence? Do you have resources in the form of books, websites or blog posts that we can collate here to help give others the confidence to accept this is part of the world of research (at all levels) and not something to be frightened by? All contributions very welcome in the comments below.

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