In global research, trust is a valuable resource. Rural populations are often suspicious of outsiders, and researchers frequently lack training in how to approach communities appropriately. Working on various projects, we have encountered people who assumed that we were there to seize agricultural land, take natural resources, or destroy villages to develop airports. Previous experiences with NGOs and researchers meant that people believed that researchers would take what they needed without giving anything back to the community. Our recent work taught us how to build trust to form successful research partnerships.
PANChSHEEEL was an interdisciplinary cross-sector project to explore health, education, engineering, and environmental factors that influence infant and young child feeding (IYCF) practices in Rajasthan, India. health workers, and communities to co-develop solutions to benefit the health of local children. This blog will outline the techniques we used and the lessons we have learned while working with these communities.
Connect with local leaders
Engaging with respected community members such as teachers, religious figures, and village leaders before connecting with the rest of the community is essential. In addition to being respectful, having influential allies within the community can help to build confidence in the researchers’ intentions and assist in communication. This is something we learned first-hand. When driving to meet health workers, we accidentally hit a goat on the road. Upon our return, villagers armed with sticks had blocked the road with stones. They threatened to beat us and destroy the car if we did not pay them compensation for the goat immediately. Through the good relationship we had with local teachers, we were able to assure them that we were willing to pay for any damages. This illustrates the importance of forging these relationships before conducting any field work.
We wanted the community to understand that we were there to listen and learn, not judge. Approaching the community as equals (knowing the language and culture) helped villagers to understand that our intentions were benevolent. Discussing the villagers’ interests allowed us to build rapport before easing into research topics. We also developed a “social map” of the area so we could understand the environment from a local perspective. Focus groups were participant-led, with guidance from the trained community researchers, and interviews were semi-structured and conversational.
Involving everyone in the research made people feel that we supported the community’s wellbeing, increasing their willingness to share information.
Engaging with locals allowed us to provide health education and build strong community relations. Our partners trained community members in research methods, employed them to help conduct the research, and consulted them at each stage of the project. This provided foundations for future partnerships and employment. We taught children to perform skits and songs and then showcased their performances, which encouraged the community to engage with public health messages. Additionally, we gave the children water bottles so that they could hydrate while at school. This engagement demonstrated to the community that we were interested in improving their wellbeing and were not solely results-focused.
Considering these factors when working in partnership with rural communities was key to the success of our study, and capacity building laid the groundwork for future partnerships. As researchers, we need to remember that each community will need a tailored approach and be able to step back if our presence is not welcome. We must always be willing to learn, both from other researchers’ experiences and from the communities involved. Trust is an integral part of community research, and it is essential to take time to develop it to maintain equitable, long-lasting partnerships.