Things I wish I knew before doing research in the field

It ain’t Oxbridge

“R&D comprise a creative and systematic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humans, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications”.

This is the definition of research (& development) according to OECD’s Frascati manual (p. 28). Perhaps a and less rigorous, but more operational and simpler definition could be “the process of finding an answer to a question that nobody has answered before – or has not been answered in a satisfactory way”. Sure enough, such a definition would be ill fitted for some fields – in particular the arts – but I find it quite apt for all the activities related to research that could be implemented in a field operation in an emergency. These most of the times take the shape of an assessment or an evaluation process, and indeed it is aimed to find an answer to very specific questions: where are the displaced people? How are they surviving? How many disabled people are there? Is my intervention making their life easier? And so forth.

Sure, most of the times it is a more specific, possibly transient process than “traditional” research: the knowledge we have acquired today might be useless tomorrow because of changes on the ground, and it makes sense to be content with good enough, rather than seeking perfection. Still: it is research nonetheless.

I did my tiny bit of historical research while at university, focusing in particular on the mourning process during WWI (if you happen to know Italian, you can check this out) and on an Italian political party in the 90s. I then ended up taking part to several assessments and evaluations while in South Sudan.

I try to summarize here some of the takeovers from this experience, in form of things that I wished I had known before embarking in doing research in emergency settings. As such, I will phrase it as an open letter to myself, that I wished I had read some years ago.

“Dear Fra,

As I happen to know that you are eventually heading to the field, and since I quite literally have been there before you, I want to take the opportunity to give you a small piece of advice that you might find handy while out there. No, I will not focus on the fact that you should wear sunscreen, avoid uncooked food or pack probiotics. As you might end up using those brilliant research skills you acquired during your studies, I want to tell you a couple of things in this regard. Do as you wish, but these are a couple of things that I wished I knew earlier.

  1. Start any research with a question.

This is, like, the first thing that any course relative to data teaches you. In my experience, it is also stressed in human and social sciences as taught in the Anglo-Saxon world, while I didn’t find it stressed during my studies in Italy. I do believe that is a golden principle.

Probably not in academia, but in emergency response research is most – if not all – of the times purpose driven. You get to know something that you didn’t know in order to inform your action. Hence framing a question will allow you to focus your effort, being to the point (more on this later), and makes life easier for whoever will need to act on your inputs. There are little things worst than reading a potentially interesting and insightful paper and then asking “yes ok, cool, and so?”.

  1. Be relevant.

Humanitarians love quantitative indicators. It doesn’t mean they are always good (GIGO, anyone?). Humanitarians also love coordination meetings, but these are not guarantee of coordination and communication. If you embark in a piece of research, in particular an assessment, be sure that it is the right question the one you are asking. I happened to read reports of surveys that had been performed recently, in the same location where I was working, focusing on issues that were very close to what we were dealing with, but run short of providing the answers we needed. Better communication between organizations would have prevented this, resulting in more timely results and better allocation of resources.

  1. Be humble

I guess this is a general principle that could be relevant with regard to research in any field. Unless you are very good, very lucky and very tenacious, chances are that you are not going to revolutionize your field. Even less so if you are in a IDP settlement on the fringes of the Sudd and you are trying to assess if the distribution of mosquito nets is having some impact on the malaria morbidity rates (quite likely, the nets are being used to make ropes). So, don’t expect to find out the silver bullet that will change forever the way aid is delivered: stick to the scope of your research. If you do it properly, you can make a difference in the life of people, and it is no small achievement.

  1. Be realistic

Be sure that you can do what you have to do. If you are working on a quick and dirty assignment, be sure that you can deliver something good enough on time, and if it is clear that you cannot, be open about it. If the scope of your research is huge and you have time, be sure that you can manage it from where you are, with the resources you have, and with what you know and with the support you can get.

  1. Good enough today is usually better than perfect in a few weeks

If you are in academia, you better be god-damned sure that what you wrote is bomb-proof. Ideally also in field settings, but this luxury can seldom be afforded. If lives are at stakes and time makes a difference (and most of the times, it does), ditch academic ambitions and forget about building a seminal work that might require months, if not years, to be completed. I happened to work once on the draft revision of a very good profiling exercise that took place in Mali in fall 2012. It then turned out useless because its results were not ready before the French intervention. End of the story, waste of money and a potentially helpful exercise that got lost because it took too long to complete.

  1. Go to the point

Or, keep it short, stupid. No claim of originality here: even if you have written the most interesting paper/report/assessment ever, if it is 40 pages long, no one is going to read it. Good enough if someone is going to read the executive summary – provided it doesn’t take much longer than two pages. Here is where having framed the research with a question comes handy: give out the basic findings, those who need to know more, if interested, will read the rest.

  1. Be ready to fight

Ok, enough with humbleness. If you are sure of the evidence you collected – and if you did things right, you have to be – advocate for it to inform policy. If your organization takes decisions that are inconsistent with your findings – say keep distributing mosquito nets when it is clear that this is useless without further information sessions about malaria – be ready to question them, fight them and to get p* off about them. Your mission there is to inform policy with evidence, not to rubber-stamp policies that have already been decided somewhere (as one once said, to provide policy-based evidence). Complacency is never a good thing, and a very dangerous one if it means wasting resources that could otherwise improve other people’s lives.

Hope this will help. This said, you’d better also pack those probiotics in your luggage.

Take care and all the best,


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