Sharing your research with communities? Be ready to lose control

AuthorAID mentor Ayo Ojebode shares his experiences of how research uptake can happen in unexpected ways

Having taught research uptake to 16 cohorts of experienced African researchers across four years, I thought I knew a lot about research communication and uptake. I taught many research communication tools such as the Message Box, an amazing tool that helps researchers organize their thoughts and plan their messages. I taught the inverted pyramid, blogs and blogging, op-eds, policy briefs, and elevator pitching among others. The hitting point on the anvil has always been how to take your research to the users – the methods, the tools!

However, one thing I never taught – because I never knew it – was that taking your research to its users means losing control of it. I never knew that until a recent experience brought it home to me.

With some of my colleagues at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, I was involved in a South-South research project, the Evidence and Lessons from Latin America (ELLA) Phase II. The theme of our study was community-based crime prevention in Nigeria and El Salvador. Our research showed that, in Nigeria, this crime prevention practice worked only in communities where the members surrendered certain fundamental rights to community associations. In such communities, there was also an informal, sometimes nondescript, relationship between the community leaders and police authorities.

For uptake, we developed and distributed four policy briefs including one in Yoruba for community members; these were designed to share our research findings with stakeholders. Also as part of the uptake, the funders assembled a group of research users across Africa and took them on a study tour to El- Salvador.

Three months after our study was completed, we went back to the communities where we had conducted the study. We wanted to know if our study (and policy briefs) was having any impact. What we met was an eye opener.

We met Ms Mbakeren Ikeseh who had recruited about 100 unemployed youths for vocational training such as dressmaking, interior decoration and events management, computer operation and hairdressing. Though our work had nothing to do with vocational training, she told us that her intervention was a direct product of our study. But it was much more connected to her study tour experience than to our study.

In another community, we met Demola Atanda, an activist who was busy raising funds to equip the police and organising peace meetings between warring farmers and herdsmen. Demola spoke a lot about our study and distributed our policy briefs at those meetings. Yet, our study had nothing to do with equipping the police.

In nearly all the communities, we encountered a unique adaptation of our study, some of which transcended our original findings and contents of our policy briefs by a mile.

Our initial reaction was despair: have we not set in motion a machinery and then lost its control? On a second thought, however, we realized our arrogance in always thinking that as researchers, we knew what was good for the people and expected them to take and apply our findings unreflectively.

We learnt that research uptake means releasing the content, the motion and control of your findings to the communities. In fact, it means losing control. The Yoruba saying is instructive: when you offer a ram to the gods, let go of the leash!

Guest Contributor

6 Responses to “Sharing your research with communities? Be ready to lose control

  • Pauline Ngimwa
    6 years ago

    Useful revelations… but don’t we do policy research for uptake? How the uptake happens should never be our preoccupation. I think as researchers we should be satisfied when our research has provided evidence that will impact communities positively.

    • You are very right, Pauline. We need to get rid of that tendency to “protect” our research and ensure communities do what we recommend to them and not more not less.

  • Inge Ligtvoet
    6 years ago

    Thank you Ayobami Ojebode. This makes me think about research that does not necessarily give recommendations or of which the findings are not necessarily applicable to communities. How do we lose control there? Because I think we should. I believe we can lose control over that kind of research when we co-create the research and the products of that research with respondents or ‘users’. This is very necessary in ethnographical fieldwork, especially when done by western researchers in the global south.

    • Good question and great thoughts, Inge. You right on spot — not all research require/enable policy recommendations. Your work on witchcraft in Nigeria is an example. Same with your work on conducting ethnography in difficult terrains. Well … I would not have thought of co-creating as a way of losing control. Now that you mentioned it, “my eyes just cleared”. I just returned from a research dissemination in Abuja and I really saw that co-creation is yielding not just control but also your “rights” as a researcher. More on that in some blog in the future …

  • Prof, you have done a great job, I have similar experience in my research work on prison congestion and the causes. I sent my findings and recomendation to the judiciary, they eventually took to my recommendation but without acknowledging me. The issue is that I am happy they took to the advice. The subsequent one I reserved it.

    • Given the difficult terrain in which you work, Sir, one would have been happier if they had taken your recommendations and as well acknowledge you as source. Somehow, we have to be contented with seeing our impact even when our names are unknown.