Research Partners Share Valuable Lessons
Great strides have been made in the development of communication technologies, transforming international relationships in business and academia. However, the practical benefits and timesaving qualities of electronic correspondence can come at a cost.
South African health researcher Dr Gubela Mji, who recently wrapped up a collaborative Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) project to study access to healthcare, suggests that the convenience of technology such as email and Skype can lead to us underestimating the value of physical interaction, which plays an important part in fostering relationships and in turn affect the results and the project outcomes themselves.
Based at the University of Stellenbosch’s Centre of Rehabilitation Studies, Dr Mji worked on the EquitAble project (2009 – 2013) alongside researchers from Ireland, Norway, South Africa, Namibia, Sudan and Malawi. The project set out to find ways to promote greater access to healthcare for people with disabilities and other marginalised groups in the four African countries.
With more than 10 years of experience with the institution and several collaborative projects with researchers in Dublin, Norway and Namibia under her belt, Mji is clear on the value of collaboration, which she says was key to EquitAble’s success.
“I think collaboration made us aware that if you really want to be a global scholar, and not just a global scholar but– an effective global researcher – you must be willing to accommodate; you must be ready to be fluid; you can’t be rigid and you must also be patient.”
Mji adds that the Irish coordinators’ approach, which valued face-to face interaction from the onset, was vital to the relationship. From a pivotal kick-off meeting in Dublin to identify key themes and appropriate research tools, to regular subsequent gatherings – she says these interactions became the lifeblood of the project.
“I think the importance of human interaction was critical, because I think when we were away from each other we tended to sometimes interpret things in whatever way…but immediately when we came together things would gel together again and we would have a far better clarity…” she says.
She adds that electronic communication can be “quite problematic”, due to miscommunication which may arise from emails and video calls.
“I think sometimes we undervalue the human connection,” she says. Although she thinks the study would have been possible without international collaboration, she believes it drew its strength directly from the diverse backgrounds of the partners and the direct contact with one another.
Tips for Collaboration
- Make sure you’re on the same page - Collaborate with people who have the same philosophy and understanding of things.
- Use your existing contacts - They will lead you to good people. Using Google to search for partners can be risky.
- Don’t underestimate the value of face-to-face interaction - Even if you make first contact via the Internet, physical meetings are crucial. Interaction via email can lead to poor communication.
- Have a plan! - You must have a plan and each stakeholder must know exactly what he or she is going to do. Avoid dead wood — it is not fair on the person or the project.
- Budget for fluctuating exchange rates - Prepare by ensuring there is wiggle room in your budget for exchange rate fluctuations, which can be the cause of immense stress. You can also consider using financial advisers in your institution to give projections that will help you plan ahead.
- Time - Remember it takes time to develop an understanding of where your partners are coming from.
- Gaps - Geographical and funding gaps are a given.
- Money - If you are relying on funding from a European Union instrument, such as the Framework Programme, be sure to understand the reporting and disbursement timeframes.
Stellenbosch University was approached by the Principal Investigator at Trinity College Dublin, Prof. Mac MacLachlan, who saw the mutual benefits for both regions from the beginning. Having lived in Malawi and with the experience of working in Africa for 20 years on various projects, MacLachlan witnessed the obstacles faced by people with disabilities trying to access healthcare.
However, from the outset he was well aware the project was by no means exclusively about extending a helping hand to Africans, but about mutual benefit for both regions.
“One of the things you learn if you’ve lived in Africa is that the problems are of the same type [as elsewhere], but the extent of problems might be different,” he says, adding that the consequences of not accessing healthcare are somewhat different. MacLachlan also saw a chance to learn from working within a complicated policy landscape.
Mji adds that those who do not have an egalitarian approach may miss out on reaping maximum rewards in both regions. “My sense is that when… we do research in Africa we always have those lenses that these are the needy people so we do things for them; not also thinking that you can learn lessons even from the poorest of the poor.”
MacLachlan says European partners who underestimate the resources and expertise that are available in Africa risk starting a relationship from the wrong foot and adds, “Partnership should embrace equality.”
The luxury of entering into a pre-existing network of trust before EquitAble even began was crucial, Mji says. Not only did the two institutions have a history of collaboration, but MacLachlan brought to the party existing relationships with other researchers in Malawi and elsewhere.
Mji says apart from the fact that she may not have found the research partners herself, relying on existing networks presents a much smaller risk than looking for partners on the internet.
The confidence Mji and MacLachlan drew from pre-existing relationships was key, and gave them the reassurance needed to make the necessary investments to facilitate physical meetings between researchers.
“One of my rules of thumb is that I really don’t like collaborating with people unless I’ve met them,” MacLachlan says.
He points out that with one year spent putting a proposal together, the project running for four, and three years publishing results, (a total of eight years of working with people), it is imperative that you get along.
The EquitAble project has developed a new policy analysis framework — EquiFrame — which will be used to guide all future policy revision and development in Sudan, and was the guiding framework for the development of Malawi’s first National Health Policy. There are currently plans to use EquiFrame in other countries and it has already been used to evaluate the health-related donor policies of the Governmental aid agencies in Ireland, UK and Norway. More than 10 papers have now being published using EquiFrame; ethnographic work is currently being published and the consortium is about to embark on analysis of its unique quantitative dataset of over 32,000 people across 17 sites in Africa.
Further details of the project can be found at: www.equitableproject.org/.
*An earlier version of this article first appeared in the CAAST-Net Plus Magazine of December 2013.
[Image credit: Flickr, Dirk Mathesius]
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