Including the community in community-based research

Community-based research by universities, almost unknown less than a decade ago, is increasing – particularly as part of interdisciplinary research that includes a community ‘impact’ element.

But researchers have been frustrated at the lack of funding when members of the community are included in gathering data or contribute to research in other ways. Universities struggle to get the community part of community engagement research supported.

Co-authors of research papers from the community, who assist university researchers with gathering material and insights, have few funding channels, even if they are fortunate enough to be credited for their work as joint authors.

“They are not part of the traditional instruments that fund universities,” said Darren Lortan, dean of applied sciences at Durban University of Technology and chair of the South African Higher Education Community Engagement Forum or SAHECEF.

Community-engaged teaching and research appears to exist in a “barter type economy”, in which community members are almost co-educators and co-researchers, noted Jerome Slamat, senior director in the division for community interaction at Stellenbosch University and director of SAHECEF.

“The more you border on [community members as] co-educators, the more they should be paid,” Slamat told the Talloires Network Leaders Conference on university-community engagement held near Cape Town from 2-4 December.

In some cases researchers in South Africa say they could not have done research on deprived communities in townships or rural areas without the willingness of community members to assist them for no remuneration, Jayshree Thakrar, a doctoral student at Fort Hare University and the university’s former director of community engagement, told University World News.

She cited the example of a doctoral student with nine such assistants from the community who were needed to conduct the research.

South Africa

South Africa is one of the few countries that sets aside funding for research proposals that include community-based research.

“It came out of an idea years ago when I was minister of education, for strong support for community engagement,” South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, told University World News.

But it is up to institutions how the research is carried out and what the research should be, she said after delivering the concluding keynote speech at the conference.

“We don’t have a particular intention, but we do want the research to have some link to the [researcher’s] programme of study, the area in which they registered in, and a strong development focus,” Pandor explained, adding that she hoped investment from her department could influence policy.

South Africa’s National Research Foundation, or NRF, began funding community-based research in 2010-11 and is into its third funding round.

At a meeting of NRF grantees in advance of the Talloires Network conference, academics and researchers examined some of the challenges. While there is clear recognition of its importance, how community-engaged research is carried out is still developing.

Not a discipline

“Community engagement is not a discipline. There are no global peers within the discipline keeping an eye on what you are doing,” said Fort Hare’s Thakrar. Those receiving NRF funding for community engagement research come from every discipline, but assessing such research alongside traditional research methods can be tricky.

Even researchers who manage to obtain funding from international donors and some governments for research that engages the community, find that it is not easy to organise, assess and credit the community contribution.

Another issue is that community-based research is often founded on an unequal relationship between the university and locals. “It is not about extracting [data] from the community but engaging with them,” Thakrar said.

“You may have people in the community who have had exposure to universities and who understand the language of the university and others that have no idea what goes on behind those walls. The university is still basically in a position of power.

“There is very interesting, amazing work going on but it is in the form of the university going out to the community. I have yet to discover someone from the community who has knocked on the door of the university,” said Thakrar.

Hlekani Kabiti, a PhD student in rural development at the University of Venda in northern South Africa, said: “The community must play a central role in the collection of data. They are the foot-soldiers you send into the forefront.

“We try to promote youth who are not employed. Some have degrees, some did not get far in school,” Kabiti said. “But they need to be trained in the collection of data.”

That is sometimes done by pilot data collecting and testing the system, to ensure the community-collected data is sound and usable.

A matter of trust

While there are many different tools and methods for collecting data from within the community, said Joseph Francis, director of the Institute for Rural Development at the University of Venda, it is not easy work.

“The biggest challenge in community-based research is building trust,” said Francis, an associate professor. “What is central is participatory methods [of research] and that you as a researcher build a relationship with the source of data, whether it is a village, a township or a farm.”

Building trust with the target group has to start well before data collection begins. “You must allow members of the community to ask questions, before they provide you the data.” If all goes well, in some cases the ‘foot soldiers’, as Kabiti calls them, co-present the research.

“We prepare the paper together,” said Francis. “However, when it comes to co-authoring papers for publishing in a journal we are not doing so well.”

For example, when a university considers subsidy pay-outs for journal authors, it does not consider community members. “That dissuades co-authoring and it is also an impediment to publishing this kind of work,” Francis said.

Nonetheless, it is important to have community contributions to research, Kabiti stressed. “It puts people at the centre. It makes no sense to do a research report without them.”

The research, Francis concluded, “is supposed to lead to action with the community – not on the community or in the community”.