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.