It is widely acknowledged that engaging displacement-affected communities is critical to ensuring more accountability towards them, obtaining better quality data and analysis, and achieving more effective responses that can support sustainable solutions. Displaced people should drive solutions, and their views and intentions should inform policies and programmes, as highlighted in the report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement, but also anchored in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the IASC Framework on Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons.
Nevertheless, there exists no agreed upon definition of the term or internationally established guidelines that can be followed and in particular that can be operationalised for the purpose of data collection and analysis processes. In other words, community engagement means different things to different actors. Against this background, the sixth edition of the JIPS–Durable Solutions Learning Community webinar series, held on 6 July 2022, zoomed in on current practices on engaging communities during data processes and offered space to exchange lessons across contexts.
Three practitioners shared their distinct perspectives: Rebecca Enobong Roberts, PhD Candidate at the Habitat Unit of the Technical University of Berlin; Abdel-Rahman El-Mahdi, Managing Director at the Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA); and Alexandra Montaño, Director of the community-based organization Revimipaz in the Netherlands, for Colombian displaced persons and migrants.
Community engagement can be achieved at different levels, in different ways, and at different stages of displacement studies. It can range from one-way communication, where communities are passive recipients of information, to truly collaborative working and two-way communication, where communities are included as partners and stakeholders that participate in shaping up the research study and using the results.
An interactive poll provided a snapshot of how participants present in the webinar had previously engaged with communities in data collection and analysis. This showed that most frequently, communities participated in data collection as respondents.
Panelists emphasized that communities are not homogeneous entities. It is crucial to understand cultural structures and community dynamics before embarking on participatory approaches as part of a displacement study. It is equally important to understand the vested interests and priorities of communities alongside those of other actors participating in a study, and to navigate the data process in a way that is beneficial for all stakeholders involved.
Designing fit-for-purpose community engagement methodologies involves, but is not limited to, engaging people as part of the research team, ensuring trusted community representatives’ participation in the process, and using language and terminologies that are easily understandable. It also requires finding ways to capture the voices of vulnerable subgroups such as young people, for example by creating safe spaces where they can express their needs. Doing so, researchers must ensure that community engagement is not an imposed approach, keeping in mind that civic engagement may not be affordable to every member of a community, as they struggle with other priorities.
Another fundamental element that emerged from the discussion includes the need to build trust and community ownership over data processes. Community-based organizations can offer a valuable structure for community representation and engagement in this regard.
“We need to create organizations that represent the communities. […] We hope to be for them the voice that they need. […]” – Alexandra Montaño, Director of Revimipaz
Collectively planning and defining the research objectives and methodology, as well as managing expectations around results can minimize risks of skewed data in the short-term and data collection fatigue in the longer-term.
“It’s not just the end goal of getting the data or validating the [analysis/findings] but [to ensure] that in the process of the engagement we’re leaving behind something […]” – Abdel-Rahman El-Mahdi, Managing Director, Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA)
Following the data collection and analysis process, there are various ways to collaboratively put the data to use and make the community “part of the process of telling their own stories”. This might include authoring a joint article, jointly developing action plans based on the evidence produced, and other avenues.
Moving forward, we need to further unpack ‘community engagement’ and continue to refine and improve our approaches to ensure meaningful and inclusive participation. As panelists emphasised, this requires ensuring effective feedback loops with communities alongside other stakeholders, throughout the data process.
“How does [learning] translate back into action? A lot of times, […] it is captured but then we fail to translate [it] into action to have that loop closed.” – Abdel-Rahman El-Mahdi, Managing Director, Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA)
Panelists encouraged practitioners to be bold enough to report their own challenges in methodology design, and to create room for others to apply and build on lessons learned in future research.
“We need to be bold in reporting our challenges because it creates room for other people to learn […]. Being able to thoroughly report our processes, our methodologies, what worked [and] what didn’t […], is something that we need to be encouraging of each other to do.” – Rebecca Enobong Roberts, PhD Candidate, Habitat Unit, Technical University of Berlin
To conclude, JIPS’ Margharita Lundkvist-Houndoumadi, who moderated the discussion, noted that for meaningful participation of communities in displacement studies, a broader shift in mindset and practices is needed.
“For meaningful participation in displacement studies, […] communities also need to be viewed as end users of the results of a study, alongside other stakeholders. This will require shifts in the way studies are set up, in terms of resources allocated, and how studies are designed.” – Margharita Lundkvist-Houndoumadi, Senior Profiling Advisor, JIPS
She invited participants to switch their perspective – viewing themselves as the party that has to engage and participate with communities in displacement studies, rather than the other way around.
A forthcoming JIPS knowledge product will offer an overview of approaches and levels to community engagement along a displacement data process. This can serve as a reference tool for meaningful participatory research in displacement contexts. It draws on JIPS’ experience conducting profiling exercises in diverse displacement contexts, including Sudan, Greece, Ukraine and Syria.