With a mandate to ground findings in the voice of their targeted communities, more than 50 national and international researchers and partners from the ResilientAfrica Network (RAN) convened at the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort outside Kampala, Uganda from May 6 – 8 to share lessons learned and chart a pathway for bridging community based resilience research with innovative solutions to some of the sub-Saharan Africa’s most pressing challenges. Hailing from 10 sub-Saharan countries, including Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Ghana, Resilience Innovation Lab (RILab) researchers reported out findings from qualitative data collected to date on contextual factors, vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities of targeted communities and shared criteria for identifying resilience dimensions/sub dimensions for issues ranging from climate variability and rapid urbanization to chronic, complex conflict, displacement and gender-based violence to the underlying causes and socio-economic impacts of HIV/AIDS. Participants then gathered in small groups to ask questions and discuss ways to strengthen research, while ensuring innovative interventions are tailored to community based, data-driven findings and applied with acupuncture-like precision – to make the greatest impact.
“Countries and communities across sub-Saharan Africa face acute and chronic shocks and stresses with limited resources to respond. While some communities are able to recover, adapt, survive and thrive, others struggle, suffer, or even collapse. What makes the difference? How can we learn from successful community responses, and help to build resilience through sustainable interventions?”
Funded by USAID’s Office of Science and Technology, the RAN Resilience Workshop was facilitated by Ex. Director and Founder of Tulane University’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy Prof. Ky Luu, a well-respected global leader in applied resilience research in highly vulnerable communities. Throughout the three-day workshop, Luu pushed his fellow researchers to look for roots of roots of vulnerability in their analysis and cross-reference resilience dimensions, combing for redundancies, unexpected, cross cutting linkages and latent meanings to uncover the salient issues.
“If we only uncover what we already knew,” he warned, “then we have failed.”
Echoing Prof. Luu’s sentiment, Dr. Roy William Mayega, the RAN Deputy Chief of Party also challenged his peers to “look for new connections not previously cited in the literature.” He used his experience in Northern Uganda as an example: Genetically modified seeds intended to increase crop yields – and resilience – are failing because they cannot be replanted. Why? Dr. Mayega also discussed the need to be sensitive to outliers, as they could prove important. The most-frequent data may not be the most important, he added. And he reminded participants to be mindful of how they code their data to ensure the community’s voice isn’t lost in translation while not treating that voice as sacrosanct, especially when negative adaptation/coping mechanisms are reported.
Tasked with analyzing findings through different lenses while utilizing the Resilience Workshop as an opportunity to learn from one another, each of the RILabs presented their criteria for developing, understanding and prioritizing locally relevant resilience dimensions. For example, the RILab in the Horn of Africa, led by Jimma University in Ethiopia, discussed why they separated categories, such as livelihoods and livestock, into two dimensions when other RILabs combined livestock as a sub dimension under a broad livelihood dimension. The research team in Somalia discussed how they looked for redundancies and direct relationships in their data to pare down a large list of 15 dimensions into a more succinct 10 without sacrificing substance.
With resilience dimensions defined and discussed, RILabs then broke into groups and postered their dimension findings around the room. They identified three to four priority dimensions and discussed any found inter-relations in order to develop innovation entry points that emphasize effective and locally relevant innovations/interventions. When relationships were unclear, Prof. Luu encouraged researchers to return to their datasets and look for evidence of connectivity. For example, the Southern African RILab discussed how the lack of infrastructure and non-agricultural jobs are underlying factors behind the spread of HIV/AIDs. But they questioned, are limited investment dollars better utilized building roads or building entrepreneurial skills?
Following the group exercises, Prof. Banny Banerjee, a founder of Stanford University’s Change Labs, led a presentation on how to link targeted resilience dimensions to innovation pathways. To create transformational and actionable innovations that build resilience capacity in highly vulnerable communities, he advised, we must identify barriers to implementation, feedback loops and clear pathways. “Solutions that are genuinely transformative,” he added, “require us to use different approaches…. You have to imagine an altered scenario. You have to recast the future.”
Rounding out the three-day workshop, researchers devoted their final day to discussing the upcoming quantitative research aspect of the project. Several researchers expressed concern about the six-to-eight-month timeframe quantitative data collection and analysis likely will take, especially when the issues many communities face are so dire, and researchers must return, yet again, to affected communities without an intervention. They agreed, however, that although there is an urgency to act, RAN’s mandate to bridge resilience research with innovations is unique. That requires systematic action, which takes time.
In his quantitative methods presentation, Dr. Mayega discussed how qualitative and quantitative data tell different sides of the story. Because the community’s voice is so strong in qualitative data, these methods help researchers get to the bottom of unique phenomena. They do not, however, tell which phenomena are most prevalent. That’s where quantitative data shines light. Furthermore, quantitative data allows researchers to review statistical analysis between different dimensions, develop and test hypotheses and create regional resilience indices for use by the larger development community. Moving forward in the months to come, RAN’s mixed methods may take longer, and researchers may be anxious to act, but the insight theses research methods provide can inform innovative interventions that bring transformative value.