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Sharing your research with communities? Be ready to lose control

By Ayobami Ojebode | July 3, 2018  | Research skills Research communication

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.

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A research dissemination event held as part of the the ELLA project

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!

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