Humanitarian field studies
In the years following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, Oxfam supported a series of studies on topics that ranged from vulnerability to HIV to restoring incomes to reducing the risk of future disasters.
Between 2005 and 2008, Oxfam carried out a program in the tsunami-affected regions of India and Sri Lanka aimed at improving the policies and practices of Oxfam and other aid agencies in the tsunami response, as well as contributing to humanitarian aid effectiveness in future emergencies.
The program involved around 20 large and 20 smaller studies on topics such as disaster risk reduction, gender equity, physical and mental health, and improving livelihoods after disasters. Each was designed and implemented by researchers from academic institutes and NGOs in the region—partners who brought to the task both cultural awareness and ideas that were fresh to Oxfam.
Nearly all of the studies employed elements of participatory action research, a methodology in which participants are engaged as partners rather than subjects, where researchers work to create space for diverse groups within communities—not simply designated leaders—to speak freely and openly, and where the end result of the study directly benefits the participants. In India, for example, a study of conditions in temporary shelters helped bring about the release of $1.4 million in government funds for repairs. In Sri Lanka, a study of the coir (coconut fiber) industry was the foundation for a program that helped double and in some cases triple the incomes of more than 3,000 coir spinners.
Although the topics and findings of the studies were disparate, a strong underlying message emerged from the program as a whole: disaster-affected communities want a chance to play a more central and decisive role in the programs aimed at assisting them. Too often, the research revealed, community members were cast as consultants or passive recipients of aid rather than equal partners with aid providers in the recovery process.
Oxfam aims for community participation and empowerment in all its programming, but we are committed to continuously improving our programs, and there is more we can do to deepen community engagement and leadership in our humanitarian work around the world.
"The humanitarian community has a key role to play in emergencies, but as the research confirmed, it is the disaster-affected people who need to guide the response. At the end of the day this is their home, their disaster, their rights, their future. As humanitarian agencies, we need to take care that the ownership of the recovery process is theirs as well," says Russell Miles, director of the tsunami research program. "Listening to communities through participatory research is an investment in the sustainability and effectiveness of aid programs, and in the well-being and empowerment of the disaster-affected communities at the center of our mission."
Read stories from the field and highlights of the research in Collaboration in Crisis: Lessons in community participation from the Oxfam International tsunami research program.