In your own way

Engaging Communities During Development Research: A Conversation with Dr. Ayobami Ojebode

“Researchers need to earn the right to be heard”

The Evidence and Lessons from Latin America (ELLA) Programme is a three-year long research project in which researchers from Latin America and Africa collaborate to conduct comparative research on issues currently on the agendas of policy actors in their countries. The current phase is a collaboration between 12 countries on 6 research topics ranging from Informality and Inclusive Growth to Domestic Violence. More information can be found here: http://ella.practicalaction.org

Say for Development spoke to Dr. Ayobami Ojebode, the leader of the research team from Ibadan University, Nigeria. His team collaborated with a team from El Salvador on community based crime prevention, focusing on how communities work together to fill the gap of inadequate security provided by the state in Nigeria. The Ibadan University research team actively collaborated with key stakeholders (including the police force) throughout the research process. Say for Development spoke to Ayobami to understand what development practitioners can learn from his team’s experience with involving key stakeholders in the research process.

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Say for Development: For the benefit of our readers, could you briefly introduce your background and research interests?

Ayobami: My name is Ayobami Ojebode, and I am a professor and Head of the Department of Communication and Language Arts, Ibadan University, Nigeria.  In terms of my research, I specialize in communications, particularly how communication resources are used in different contexts to produce results. More recently, my research interests have focused on the non-state provision of public goods like security, infrastructure and so on. I am especially interested in the way communities organize at the same time for these activities; I look at all of that, and the politics and geography of how communities organize themselves to provide these resources.

Say for Development: Your research interests seem to be focused on communication media; what attracted you to this field, and how does it intersect with development?

Ayobami: My Bachelor’s degree was in English language education, and my Master’s degree focused on language education. At some point I began to ask how I could use my voice to contribute. I was interested in how language can be used to accomplish things, specifically what the structure and teaching of language can be used to accomplish. With that in mind, I moved to communication over 20 years ago, and I’ve been working in the communication field ever since.

Say for Development: Please could you tell us more about your involvement with the ELLA Project?

Ayobami: ELLA is the biggest project I’ve ever been involved with. The project involves 12 countries working together on 6 areas, 6 countries from Latin America and 6 countries from Africa. In Africa, the countries included Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa. In Nigeria, we worked together with El Salvador on Phase 2 of the ELLA Project.

Phase 2 was an improvement that built on the successes of Phase 1 of the project. My role is in the research team at the University of Ibadan; our team has 6 academic researchers and 1 administrative assistant. I was responsible for setting a vision for the proposal, and when we came onto to the project, I handled the project management, recruiting all the members of our team. In addition, I liaised with those outside the project team: for instance, the police, and the relevant authorities in the communities we worked with.

Say for Development: Why did you need to get in touch with the police team? Was it a planned part of your research process?

Ayobami: Working together with the police was a part of our research process right from the start. Our research was on community based activities. As a developing country, government security in Nigeria is inadequate; communities thus get together to provide their own security. This is widespread throughout Nigeria and is an example of poor state provision of public goods. This is why we got in touch with the police; we had to understand how the police get involved with this process, and how they work together with communities.

Say for Development: It would be great if you could take us through your key findings of the ELLA project.

Ayobami: Essentially, we discovered that community based provision of goods works well in communities where social ties are strong; in communities where social ties are not strong, the community provision of security does not work as well.

Say for Development: Please could you share with us your experience in involving the police team during your research process; this could be useful for other development practitioners to know.

Ayobami: We did not start talking to the police at the end; we started talking to them right at the beginning of the project. We first mapped out the stakeholders – identifying the police and community members themselves as key stakeholders in this context. Then we organized a stakholders’ meeting. We invited all of them – including faith-based organizations, NGOs, Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, Ministry of Justice, Office of the Governor – to a meeting, and asked about their interest in understanding social issues and community dynamics. We asked them whether there were any specific research questions they would like us to focus on.

The police force was interested in understanding issues around community organization, how the organizations work and so on. As we moved through our project, we kept in touch with the police team and all other stakeholders; so when we had our final findings at the end of the project, the police and others already knew the key findings.

Say for Development: How did the police and communities use the findings from the ELLA Project?

Ayobami: We are still working with police and the communities. For the communities, we wrote our policy briefs in different versions: one in simple English, and one in Yoruba, the indigenous language. We took both briefs to the communities where we had worked. The communities asked us the good things they had done that they should keep doing, and also wanted to know how they could make things better. We are letting the communities make the decisions on their own; they have our findings in the policy briefs. We are also keeping in touch with them, so at any time they can call us if they wish to.

Say for Development: Broadly drawing on your expertise as a communication media specialist, what lessons can development practitioners use when trying to engage communities and share their research with them?

Ayobami: I would say that researchers need to earn the right to be heard. From my experience, some researchers get their findings together and then go to communities to tell them about these findings. There is a chance that this might succeed, but it is doubtful. Instead, if we have worked with communities right from the conception of the research project, they know that they are part of the task and they are already waiting for the researchers to return to them.

There have been programs that failed not because the communities did not need the things offered in the programs, but because they were not part of the process right from the beginning. If we make them part of the process, then it is their decision. This is especially important in the Nigerian context of mistrust for the government; people believe that the government is their enemy, that the government cheats the people. So when they see projects that are executed by the government, many communities don’t want to take care of the projects; they see it as foreign to them. There is no sense of ownership.

Say for Development: Do you have any general lessons for development practitioners based on your past experience?

Ayobami: Besides what I said earlier about involving the community in the research process, I think it is important to listen to the context of the people. For example, in El Salvador (for the ELLA Project), the researchers organized online interviews and other virtual means to reach the stakeholders. But that could not work in Nigeria because 60% of the people live in rural areas, and possibly do not have access to Whatsapp, Facebook and so on…they rely on phone calls. Further, there is a lot of cultural respect for face to face contact.

When we weighed the Nigerian context against online options for engagement proposed by ELLA, we realized that the online-centric approach was sure to fail in Nigeria. We thus aligned our research process with the context in Nigeria, and this worked well; we emphasized face-to-face offline interactions and meetings more than online interactions.

Say for Development: Say for Development is dedicated to spreading love and empathy among development thinkers and practitioners. In your opinion, what can development practitioners do to ensure that this comes through in our programs and actions?

Ayobami: I think it is important to show empathy for people, and not keep at a distance from them. In my experience, there is a distance between researchers and their subjects; this is caused by cultural differences or by biases. For example, if someone visits from the U.K. and is afraid to meet with the people because of negativity about Nigerians in the media, there will be distance. This distance has to be bridged for us to show love and empathy for people who are unfortunate; this is our responsibility. This is why I think development practitioners need to be taught progressively, with researchers moving to people and living with them. Further, we have to plan for the long term; outcomes sometimes take ages to manifest.

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*Dr. Ayobami Ojebode is a professor and Head of the Department of Communication and Language Arts, Ibadan University, Nigeria. He is the leader of the research team from Ibadan University, Nigeria for Project ELLA.

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Say for Development is thankful to Dr. Ayobami Ojebode for sharing his insights. This conversation was prepared and conducted by Sanaya Sinha.

*Feature Photo: http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/effective-engagement/introduction-to-engagement/what-is-community-engagement

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