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This World Humanitarian Day, we’re shining a light on humanitarian researchers who persevered through the challenges of the pandemic to drive improvements in the sector and support those working on the front line with insights that could ultimately help save lives.

Conducting humanitarian research isn’t easy, even in years when there isn’t a pandemic. Studies are often carried out in volatile and unsafe environments, where standard methods and approaches are difficult to maintain. COVID-19 dramatically complicated things further, suddenly adding extra layers of risk and complexity to already sensitive and painstaking work.

Here, we draw on reflections from our work exploring how the humanitarian research sector adapted through the pandemic, and lessons we can take forward for both funders and researchers.

Adapting research methods

Throughout the pandemic, public health measures and national protocols forced many to rethink how they could conduct their research.

Determined to make it work, research teams made several practical adjustments. These included:

  • minimising the number of participants in discussion groups
  • conducting sessions in well-ventilated spaces
  • ensuring appropriate handwashing and PPE
  • or cancelling travel plans altogether and moving to online spaces.

Tapping into existing relationships and networks was crucial.

Roba Aldaour, Oxfam Public Health and WASH practitioner in Gaza, conducted consultations in Palestine for our WASH Gap Analysis. “We conducted the discussions in areas where the participating organisations already worked,” she said. “Because they had access to the affected people.”

“We coordinated with existing community committees and community-based organisations in the affected area to invite the affected population.”

Maureen Murphy is a Research Scientist and co-author of our Gap analysis of gender-based violence (GBV) in humanitarian settings, published in partnership with the Global Women’s Institute at the George Washington University. When her team’s plans to conduct research in three countries — Myanmar, Uganda and Lebanon — went “out of the window”, they turned to the GBV community of practice and other networks with an online survey and prioritisation exercise. They also carried out a literature review before finally seeking input from a technical advisory group.

“It really was a multi-level, collaborative process in coming up with these gaps, but it was definitely very different from what we’d imagined at the beginning.”

Navigating ethical challenges

Lily Chrysant, a Partnership Manager at Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund in Indonesia and the Philippines conducted consultations for our Gap analysis on the inclusion of people with disabilities and older people. When COVID-19 threw up ethical concerns, her team drafted guidance to help them navigate the process.

“We did have some ethical considerations and it was mainly about conducting face-to-face consultations with people with disabilities and older people,” she said. “Because you know they are more likely to have underlying health conditions and therefore would face higher risk of COVID-19 infection.”

“Also, we knew because of the limited access to the internet they would need to gather in one place, just to be able to access online meetings. And this was risky, of course.”

Ultimately, the team ran online workshops featuring representatives from disability groups to ensure their voice was still heard.

New funding open

Following the conclusion of our COVID-19 rapid response funding call, Simon Pickard, Portfolio Manager for our Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) programme, shared some key lessons about how the research was successfully conducted and what this means for researchers and funders.

Allowing flexible timeframes

An inescapable observation from our COVID-19 rapid response granteecohort, was that all studies took longer than originally expected. Our early hopes were that research would be concluded in six months with findings made available before the end of 2020.

In reality, the studies took an additional three to six months and, in a few cases, substantially longer.

Many of the reasons for delays could be attributed to the usual complications of conducting research in volatile humanitarian settings. Others, like newly introduced lockdowns, were more direct consequences of the pandemic.

During the review of proposals, our R2HC Programme Funding Committee occasionally judged the proposed timeline for research to be overly ambitious, allowing us to extend the length of studies and associated budget from the outset.

In future, we could act more pre-emptively like this, erring more on the side of realism rather than optimism.

Responding to emerging needs

If data collection and analysis takes longer, study teams need to consider how they can build greater flexibility into their research plans.

We saw examples from our COVID-19 rapid response studies where research objectives were adapted, or added to, as the course of the pandemic altered what information was most needed by the humanitarian responders. As funders, we allowed flexibility when study teams asked to adapt their objectives or methods.

For future funding calls we could build an expectation that research questions might develop iteratively across the course of the grant, and place more emphasis on us identifying well-positioned study teams.

This is especially relevant for rapid research calls which give applicants just a few weeks to develop their proposals.

Making rapid evidence available along the way

The delays we witnessed in data collection for our COVID-19 rapid response studies highlighted the importance of study teams sharing new data as they went, rather than holding it all back until final analysis was completed and articles were published.

This was fundamental for this group of studies — multiple teams shared data in meetings, briefing notes and presentations at regular intervals. This required teams to have identified and be well-connected with their intended audiences from the outset.

For subsequent funding calls, we have emphasised the need for teams to be ‘positioned for impact’ — to already be well-networked with intended users of research findings — and made this a key evaluation criteria.

Involving all stakeholders

Mohammed Alruzzi, a Research Associate in Department of Social and Policy Sciences from the University of Bath, commented on the challenging experience of conducting research remotely through the pandemic.

“Undertaking research activities under these unfamiliar conditions brought about new questions, dilemmas, and ethical concerns. The success of our project depended on having inclusive and transparent conversations with all stakeholders, including the communities involved.”

Many COVID-19 study teams found that partners were much less available than originally thought, either to contribute to studies (as Key Informant Interviewees, for example) or to engage with findings.

Looking ahead

The ability of research teams to respond to changed circumstances, adapt study designs and regularly engage their audiences were key success factors during the pandemic.

As research funders, we can play an important role in anticipating this need for flexibility when designing funding calls, managing grants or commissioning research.

Despite the challenges encountered by project teams as they navigated research in the shadow of a pandemic, their efforts resulted in studies that provided vital analyses and insights to inform the work of front-line responders, policy makers and humanitarian practitioners.

They also continue to shape strategies and underpin important conversations about inclusion, gaps in research, and the need for new community-based solutions to complex humanitarian problems identified by those affected by crisis.

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