Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Do we give back?

by Amna Akhtar

What can we give back? Respondents at  the field site in Dadu
Photo credit: Collective team

‘Tell me what’s wrong with my baby. There are no health services in these areas. Help us.’ Conversations and pleas such as these are not uncommon for researchers to hear. Every time we step into the field in rural, low income areas of the country, we are met with countless appeals from our respondents to do something. To act. To intervene. But as researchers, that is the one thing we are trained not to do. As observers of an issue or community our task is to objectively gather information, interact with locals and gather insights. We cannot ‘help’ people or provide goods or services. The only thing we may give at times is compensation for the time people spent with us and consequently lost out in their wages and earnings.

And of course there are valid and rational reasons behind it. We have to report about the people and the issue as objectively and completely as possible, free from bias or external interventions. Our mandate is not to provide relief or assistance but to study and report on the environment factually and accurately. It is possible that our research may eventually contribute to improvement or relief for people through policy and/or programmatic shifts in the long term and we hope to do that. But what about the people at that moment, people with their lives and well-being at risk, who may not have much time? There are no easy answers to this but are important questions we continue to grapple with on a regular basis.

For me, the internal conflict really surfaced during fieldwork for one of our recent studies on women’s work in agriculture for LANSA earlier this year. The survey involved conducting baseline anthropometric measurements for mother and child pairs to assess their levels of nutrition. The infants being surveyed were 2 weeks to 2 months old and were to be surveyed again a few months later to gather information about their nutritional well-being over time. However, we soon realized that come the time for our next survey, there may be some infants amongst our sample that may not survive. Their nutrition indicators were shocking and it was hard to imagine them outliving the effects of their under-nutrition. Were we to stand by and carry on gathering data, knowing full well that a child’s life may be in danger because of the extreme malnourishment he/she is suffering from? Did we not have an ethical and moral responsibility to help prevent the unfortunate possibility?

Our team could not possibly provide any health service or form of relief that could help the child survive in the long term. In fact, I am not even sure what he/she needed, being an ordinary social science researcher with no technical training or expertise in health or nutrition. Was it enough to inform the mother or should we recommend a place for treatment? What if they follow our recommendation and fail to receive the adequate treatment and/or are unable to afford it? And was this enough?

Struggling to balance their roles as researchers and their desire to help others in need, we saw our team of field surveyors respond in various ways; some chose to advice mothers on improving hygiene and eating habits, while others handed over the food items they were carrying. And yet there were others who chose to accept that there was nothing they could do and instead chose to focus on completing the tasks they were assigned.

Given the situation, I don’t think there was one correct response in any case. As a team we had to make a call using our best judgment and understanding of the situation. But the larger question remains. Where does one draw the line as a researcher? While we may continue to adapt according to situations, it is important to continually reflect on our role and the ethical and moral obligations of our work.

*This blog is a part of an ongoing Research to Action conversation series. For other related blogs on this, please refer to:
1. 'When the respondents questioned' Saba Aslam, June 2016
2. 'Making your work count: it's all about impact' Amna Akhtar, April 2016
3. 'Research (uptake)-so what?' Samar Zuberi, Feb 2015