Plenty of researchers would stiffen at the suggestion: Change the findings? No way. But Chamindra Weerackody cheerfully gets ready to do just that.
On this hot August morning in a small fishing village on Sri Lanka's southern coast, he is probing locals for a full understanding of what well-being means to them. He remains serene as they squabble a bit, call each other liars, and offer up whole new categories no one has mentioned before. When a group of men can't agree on a set of criteria, he announces a tie and allows both points to become part of the findings.
Such is the life of a researcher engaged in the ebb and flow of a study that allows its authors to enter into a direct dialogue with the community they are focusing on. The approach is called participatory action research—a method Weerackody believes in deeply. He is applying it to a piece of research intended to expand the understanding of mental health issues in Sri Lankan communities affected by natural disasters or long-term conflict. Funded partially by Oxfam, the study is part of a large, four-year project conducted by investigators from McGill University. This piece is being carried out by the People's Rural Development Association, McGill's local partner.
"People are never given a chance to participate in the decision-making process," says Weerackody. "And this is what we need"
That lesson became all too clear in an earlier study he had helped to conduct on the impact of the aid system on communities affected by the tsunami. People received goods that weren't relevant to their lives, that were of poor quality, that weren't useful, says Weerackody—all because no one had bothered to consult with the communities themselves.
"It's about attitude and the way the colonial system was established," he adds. That system says decisions should be made by technical experts or politicians. "They think people don't know what they want."
Weerackody thinks otherwise.
"If it is decided by someone else, people don't have any feeling it is part of their lives," he says. And aid agencies have enough experience building roads, community halls, culverts, and the like to know quite well what will happen if beneficiaries aren't involved from the start: As nice as the facilities are, they won't be maintained, says Weerackody.
A relocated fishing village in which he has been conducting research recently offers a case in point. The hillside homes, sturdy but small, now house 55 families formerly living near the sea, and a newly built community center at the top of the hill serves as gathering place for all.
"They have a house but they're not happy," says Weerackody. "That house was not spacious. They can't entertain their relatives. They don't have enough place to sleep. One woman said she can't even make love with her husband. The lesson we learn from the study is you may design houses, but what's needed by development workers is to take into consideration other aspects of well-being."
From a rural community himself, Weerackody, who has been working in participatory development since 1982, says he takes pleasure in meeting with local people to learn about their opinions and needs—an important perspective to understand since so much of the country's population is rural. About 80 percent of Sri Lankans live in rural areas, Weerackody points out. And whenever he's got a free moment, he heads out of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital and his current home, to visit the village in which he was raised.
"I have a strong belief in community consultation," he says. "Development workers should respect the communities and should win the trust and confidence of communities."