Research in action

By Elizabeth Stevens
Throughout the HIV project and long afterward, researcher Manoj T.J. (left) provided information and medical referrals to the communities where he carried out the study.

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When HIV researchers from the Swasti Health Resource Center traveled to tsunami-affected villages in India, it wasn't just to gather data. They entered the communities to learn about the villagers' risk of contracting HIV, but they didn't leave until they'd reduced that risk by raising awareness and putting participants in touch with services.

When Colombo University's Community Extension Center in Sri Lanka uncovered mistreatment of tsunami survivors, the researchers went straight to the country's Human Rights Commission to right the wrongs.

Anawim Trust researchers studying good practices among Indian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in empowering women didn't settle for documenting what they saw: soon the NGOs were implementing new, more women-friendly policies in their organizations that reflected what they'd learned from the Trust.

And long before the Institute for Policy Studies had published its study on Sri Lanka's disaster management systems, researchers had already helped reshape the key national disaster agency.

This is research at its liveliest, where the findings get results before the ink is dry.

"The studies we're supporting aren't destined for a dusty shelf somewhere, and they're not carried out by academics from faraway places," says Russell Miles, an Oxfam humanitarian specialist. "We're partnering with local researchers who are dedicated to solving problems in their own countries."

The Oxfam program involves a process known as participatory action research. The "action" part of the name has to do with its purpose: getting immediate results, rather than studying issues simply for the sake of learning. And it's participatory in that focus groups and other interactive activities in the communities take precedence over Internet searches and leafing through books at the library.

"Reducing disaster risks is a complex process that requires continuous learning," says Miles. "We've found a way to ensure that community members are at the center of that learning process."