As funders, our immediate response to the onset of a global pandemic early in 2020 was humanitarian: to increase our support and to provide it in more flexible ways. Now, as we see that COVID-19’s impact will be lasting and pronounced, philanthropy needs to shift to taking a longer view.
This raises important questions. How do we best help affected communities recover and rebuild better? How do we both meet their immediate needs and use this opportunity to tackle entrenched social and economic inequities?
At EMpower — The Emerging Markets Foundation, where I serve as president and CEO, we have been working to understand how to most effectively deploy our resources beyond crisis response. Emerging market countries have been among those hit hardest by COVID-19, and they are facing skyrocketing increases in poverty and inequality. Marginalized young people — the population we focus on — have been deeply affected. In particular, it was imperative for us to learn about the pandemic’s impact on girls, after numerous reports brought to light how the pandemic has led to their experiencing a burden of extra household chores and caretaking, increased isolation, and heightened risk of gender-based violence.
And so, one year since the COVID-19 crisis began, we set out to look at the pandemic’s impact on young people and girls in emerging market countries. We wanted to find out how the pandemic had affected these young people, what barriers they faced, and what they were fearful and hopeful about. We also knew we had to take a new approach to this. Given the urgency of the pandemic’s challenges, traditional research methods and protracted studies were no longer feasible. In order to gain knowledge from those who are most affected, we knew we had to be thoughtful and act quickly, without adding undue burden to those we were seeking to help.
As a foundation that centers young people’s voices and experiences, we wanted to understand how we could help facilitate an inclusive recovery — one designed for and with young people. We firmly believe that young people are the ones best positioned to identify the challenges they face — and possible solutions to those challenges. With this guiding principle, we used three concurrent strategies to obtain input and guidance from young people and our grantee partners:
- We facilitated participatory research by and with adolescent girls in urban India (supported by the U.K.’s Foreign Commonwealth Development Organisation).
- We conducted a questionnaire survey of 26 grantee partners, in 13 countries, that work with young people.
- Through our grantee partners, we directly engaged youth from 10 countries who shared their thoughts with us through their preferred means: written responses, photos, drawings, etc.
This three-pronged approach gave us wraparound insights on the most pressing challenges young people face, as well as recommendations for action steps. Importantly, these findings are informing our grantmaking and cross-learning with and between grantee partners.
In this post, I want focus on the first approach — the participatory action research in India — where the process itself functioned as a step toward recovery. The research was rapid, fit for purpose, and, most importantly, engaged as researchers and research subjects those who have been dramatically affected by the pandemic, yet whose views have been seldom sought or heard: adolescent girls.
We chose the approach of participatory action research because it engages and empowers the study’s target population, recognizing their agency. Importantly for EMpower, this method created a way for the most marginalized people to lead, and it ensured that they were authentically represented in the findings.
Getting input from girls who live in resource-poor settings is challenging even in the best of times. Their mobility is often restricted, they face scrutiny from their families and communities on what they say and do, and they have less free time due to household responsibilities. If the girls are underage, they must also obtain consent to participate in the research from a parent or guardian, and safeguarding measures must be in place. These challenges were compounded during COVID-19, and we and our grantee partners applied additional measures to mitigate the risk of infection and ensure that girls could safely and effectively participate.
We placed girls at the center of the study so that they could lead and advise on the research. We virtually trained 25 girl leaders (ages 13–24) from seven major urban areas of India and with diverse social, cultural, and religious backgrounds. At the end of the training, they were equipped to go out and interview their peers.
The girl leaders helped guide the research process by providing input on the questionnaire and simplifying and rewording the questions. Open-ended questions, such as “What are the things about your life now that are better or worse?” enabled the researchers to get additional insights from their peers.
In all, the girl leaders conducted 153 interviews over two weeks, and then participated in a data analysis masterclass to share their experiences and notations. Keeping true to the central value of the assessment, we shared our compiled findings and analysis back with the girl leaders, which allowed them to see and approve the final report. In alignment with EMpower’s commitment to reciprocity, the girl leaders were provided with stipends, training in marketable skills for future jobs, and letters of recommendation.
For EMpower, the value of undertaking a rapid assessment with a participatory action research methodology became abundantly clear. The questions the girl leaders asked were stronger, they added nuance to the situational analysis, and they were able to more easily garner trust and candid responses from their peers, which led to richer, more relevant findings.
As Swatee Deepak, EMpower’s board director and an expert in participatory approaches with girls, thoughtfully advises: “You should be practicing progress not perfection. See this as an opportunity for the organization to learn and be in a space of deep listening. Things will change, you will need to adapt, and you stand to gain so much by doing that.”
Our experience illustrates that conducting actionable research that is inclusive of the community is feasible in a relatively short timeframe (three months) — even during extremely challenging times. The insights the girl leaders helped us gather are now streaming into decisions on strategic grants and other supports to rebuild from COVID-19.
I invite you to learn more about the process we took and our findings in our new report, “COVID In Her Voice.” While our assessment was focused on girls, the method could easily be adapted to other populations and countries, and by foundations without a research arm. We hope that other foundations will consider such participatory, community-led, rapid assessments of their populations’ and communities’ lived realities, needs, and recommendations to cope with the COVID-19 crisis — and beyond.
Cynthia Steele is president and CEO of EMpower — The Emerging Markets Foundation. Follow them on Twitter at @EMpowerweb.