Monday, 6 June 2016

When the respondents questioned

by Saba Aslam

Respondents at rural site Dadu
Photo credit: Collective team

For the four-year research project, “Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility” we were asked to visit rural and urban communities of our respondents who had participated in the research for three consecutive years. This year, the idea was to engage with the respondents, explain to them research findings and thank them for their involvement throughout these years. A day before my visit to district Dadu, I spent time preparing for my interaction with our female respondents. I tried simplifying the findings and I was eager to conduct the session. To my surprise, the response I received from the female respondents was completely different to what I had been expecting.

The women were frustrated, anxious and demanding. Upon conveying the purpose of my visit the first thing they asked me was, “What will we get in return?” and “Why are you here again?” They thought they would be asked to sit for an interview and straight away confirmed their disregard in the matter. They demanded a compensation of 500 rupees or more instead of the 250 rupees that were allotted for each participant. One of the women said, “You interviewed us thrice in the past three years, I even remember all the answers but nothing happened in my village! We still suffer from power cuts in our village. Prices of food items are increasing. We need jobs for our men. There has been no improvement in our conditions since these three years.” I was faced with questions to which I had no answers. Their expectations had risen over the time we had worked with them. These coupled with little or no fulfillment of their demands had created feelings of resentment amongst our respondents. Even though these demands were directed towards the government the respondents were not willing to participate in our session. I realized that I needed to take a step back before I could share any of our research findings. The women seemed extremely wary of my explanations as I sought to clarify our role as researchers. That the state is responsible for the provision of their needs and we as researchers identify, highlight and convey their issues to the government did not seem to be a convincing argument for these women.

Research dissemination thus can pose several challenges for researchers because the respondents want quick results for the time they give to us. They want tangible outcomes that one can argue are not part of our domain of work. However, I think a primary step in explaining research findings is to first establish what research work actually entails. How well our respondents understand our work is something we may want to explore in our future visits. But how does one explain to them the nature of research work? What implications do this hold for our future community visits? What value does it hold in our respondents’ lives since they see no viable solutions from our work?

People living in rural areas often view researchers as people either from non-governmental organizations or from the government. They do not understand the purpose of long drawn out interviews and the opportunity cost of their time is quite high. As one of the respondents said, “We keep aside our household chores to answer your questions but what do you have to give us in return?” Cash or gifts are not sufficient forms of compensation anymore. The people seem to have developed a strong resentment for those who ask questions but fail to generate favorable tangible outcomes for them. Many organisations visit these communities and extract significant information but little interventions happen in the villages. This entire process infuriates them, leaving us (the researchers) with inadequate explanations, making it even more difficult to reach out in the future. It seems impossible that we will ever fulfill the building expectations of our respondents as we work with them over an extended period of time.

Another intriguing aspect is the feeling of distrust and little hope from the government. Despite this lack of hope in their fulfillment, the people’s demands are still directed towards the government. One of the women claimed, “We will not give any more votes in the elections. The landlords who ask us for votes, when they win, they make lavish houses for themselves and live a wealthy life. But we cannot even afford education for our children. We can only fulfill their food requirements.” Another woman said, “We have made up our mind that poverty will not end but at least our basic needs should be addressed. I want nothing from the government, but electricity in my house.” On the one hand there is lack of trust but on the other hand, people are aware that it is the government that can bring forth some form of change for them. Whilst some of the women still remained unconvinced about the purpose of my visit, others sent messages for the government: “Tell the government to increase salaries of our husbands and reduce the prices of food items.”

This community engagement session raised important questions regarding our methods of sharing research work and how they should be simplified. Moreover, it made me realize that research dissemination needs to include responses that justify and explain our work to our key respondents. We should also be able to differentiate our work from government led and other interventions that are taking place in the communities.