Research Methodology Klaxon: Lessons from two years of doing ‘Governance Diaries’ in scary places

February 25, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

The first outputs are now appearing from ‘Governance Diaries’, a really fascinating new research method that emerged from an initial conversation in a bar in Yangon 4 years ago. If you’re even slightly interested in research, please take a look at this first paper on the emerging methodology, by Miguel Loureiro, Anuradha Joshi, Katrina Barnes and Egídio Chaimite.

What are governance diaries? ‘a cross between a panel survey and ethnographies of marginal households living under conditions of fragility, conflict and violence.’

What question did they seek to answer? ‘under what conditions are citizens likely to undertake collective action to make claims on public institutions? If they don’t undertake collective action, what do they do instead?’

What’s particularly interesting is the settings. 3 ‘fragile, conflict and violence-affected settings (FCVAS)’ so unstable that the paper couldn’t even say their names, rechristening them as ‘Sombodia, Bultan and Makondo’. Research in these places comes with a whole set of additional barriers:

  • ‘high levels of insecurity leading to an atmosphere of fear and distrust, restricting the open or easy flow of information between researchers and households;
  • cultural, social, and economic constraints, from language barriers to never having engaged with research, to relative position in local hierarchies and status;
  • ideological, religious, and political affiliation related barriers, particularly when belonging to minority or powerless groups; as well as
  • technical, administrative, and legal obstacles, such as mobility limitations and state regulatory frameworks.’

Given those challenges it is hardly surprising that ‘Most of our current understanding of processes through which poor and marginalised groups get empowered and make successful accountability claims comes from places with relatively stable and effective states.’ But it is highly plausible that things are really different in FCVAS because:

‘in FCVAS, internalisation of fear and repression make collective action and claim making rare, as people learn to self-censor and accept their ‘fate’. Further, such contexts are precisely those where state institutions are weak, fragmented and lack legitimacy, while other non-state actors control territory, claim to represent the population and often provide services. This makes claim making complex, as it is not clear who precisely is seen to be accountable for what. At the same time, both state and non-state actors restrict civic space for claim-making, as such actions are viewed as a threat. Finally, given the uncertainty and flux that people find themselves in, informal channels and networks dominate, and have greater credibility when people are attempting to solve their governance needs.’

How did they do the diaries? ‘choosing field researchers that were as closely linked as possible to the field sites, in an effort to reduce distrust as well as to ensure that the interviews could be conducted in the local language (rather than the national language of the country)’. That involved hiring students and junior faculty to return to their home areas, or in some cases recruiting local CSO staff.

Points that stood out for me from the ensuring discussion of two years of research:

  1. Regular reflection led to lots of changes of both methodology and conceptual framework. 3 initial themes eventually became 6: health; security, justice, and conflict resolution; revenue collection/taxation; social protection, employment, and poverty; accessing services and resources; and documentation.
  2. Testing and adapting a widening range of tools: in the end the project mainly used ‘ethnographic tools, institutional mapping, and anchoring vignettes.’ (read the paper if you want to know what that means!)
  3. Their end of project reflections include: ‘The key challenges related to definitions of key concepts and their meaning across languages, respondent fatigue, the iterative analysis, and the amount of time needed for training and accompanying the research teams.’ How they dealt with these challenges is fascinating.
  4. Some lovely asides: ‘in Sombodia, we were asked multiple times why God was not on our list of governance actors’.

And this nice reflection from one of the researchers in their notes:

‘We have started feeling that people are becoming more comfortable in talking to us as time passes. We felt this in the case of Mr X, as he talked about his father’s murder in great length. He told us all the events that happened before, during and after the murder. He even shared the responses of the womenfolk in his family after the murder. Men in this region usually don’t share the stories of their women and the events that happen within the family, except to the closest of their friends. So, in a way, we are becoming his friends – that’s why he is opening more and more about himself and his family. By the third visit, we felt he was waiting for our arrival and was desperate to share the story. Governance diaries, the interviews, have become a source of catharsis for him.’

This is a paper on the methodology, which I think has huge potential to be adapted and adopted in a range of research programmes. A paper on the findings will follow.

The team concludes:

‘The approach seems to be particularly valuable in places where: (a) there is likely to be limited trust between populations of interest and outsiders, particularly around research; (b) where the environment is rapidly changing requiring shifting responses from people; or (c) where the subject matter is particularly sensitive and one shot approaches are unlikely to generate accurate data for the questions being asked.

In sum, governance diaries offer a powerful approach for both academics and practitioners. It fits well within applied research, particularly low trust, rapidly changing settings where it is difficult to go as outside researchers, allowing for a more economical ethnographic study which is simultaneously a qualitative longitudinal one, as well as potentially comparative in its nature. At the same time, it can easily be customised for practitioners as a monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) tool, as it allows for real-time data collection and analysis, potentially making the implementation of projects and programmes more adaptive by creating feedback loops, as well as testing underlying assumptions.’

Great stuff. Memo to self: most spend more time talking rubbish in bars – top theory of change……

February 25, 2020
Duncan Green