By Melissa Gatter
When the participatory action researchers (PARs) on the PPE and Refugees research project entered the training room in Jordan’s Al al-Bayt University in September 2021, they no doubt arrived with expectations on how the training sessions would be conducted. Jordanians and Syrians from Mafraq city, the PARs had previous experience in countless development programmes and training sessions. The presence of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), one of the project’s partner institutions, likely contributed to assumptions surrounding the nature of the training – and more generally, expectations of the project as merely another development programme.
The project’s team – social scientists and scientists based at the University of Sheffield and University of the Arts London in the UK and Petra University and Al al-Bayt University (AABU) in Jordan – also held expectations for the training. We had spent months designing the curriculum, and those of us who travelled to Jordan to support the training in person also entered AABU with our own set of assumptions.
For both groups, stepping foot into the training room immediately challenged all expectations.
Introductory training in Mafraq, Jordan
From 27th September to 5th October 2021, 34 Jordanians and Syrians hired as participatory action researchers on the project gathered at AABU in Mafraq for introductory training. The aim of this training was to introduce to PARs the skills needed for researching and addressing community issues through social science research, technical innovation, and digital initiatives. When asked why they were drawn to the PPE & Refugees project, many of the researchers expressed their passion for this focus on improving the social infrastructures of their communities. The researchers are all residents of Mafraq, where AABU has played a historical role in the city’s development. Ages range from 20-60, and a little more than half of the group are women.
The PARs came to this project with a broad range of experience – in education, humanitarian aid, law, health, engineering, and computer science to name a few – and several have obtained or are currently pursuing postgraduate degrees. This interdisciplinary team attended training sessions across three pillars:
- Social science themes and research methods, led by Dr Aya Musmar of Petra University
- Technology, PPE, and innovation, led by Dr Mohanad Masad of AABU
- Digital literacy and tools, led by Dr Najah Shanableh of AABU
Among the topics covered in training, PARs explored histories of pandemics, social behaviour and ethics, hydroponics, mask-making, precious plastics, data protection, and marketing. By employing participatory pedagogies such as collective mapping, scenario-making, and discussion-based seminars, the trainers encouraged PARs to learn from and through their peers’ diverse perspectives and experiences. The penultimate day of training was dedicated as a ‘Field Research Day’, in which PARs implemented what they learned through ‘practice fieldwork’ in their neighbourhoods. Reflective exercises were scheduled throughout the seven days to prompt regular self-reflection and establish the researchers as active decision makers in the project.
Challenging PARs’ expectations through our commitment to participation
A defining feature of the social pillar of training – and key to the participatory aims of the project as a whole – was the daily practice of having PARs voice their feedback on the training experience itself. The PARs eagerly participated in our first feedback session, held on the second day of training, but they were confused as to why we held another session the following day. Indeed, it took several consecutive days of sessions for the researchers to adjust to the idea of having their opinions and concerns regularly prioritised. In addition to verbal feedback, we also offered space for written feedback. We displayed in the back of the room a long piece of fabric featuring prompts to which the PARs could respond anonymously in their own time.
By consistently encouraging the PARs to participate in evaluation of the training, we invited them to play an active role in their own training, defining our working relationship beyond the training. This practice communicated to the researchers that we are committed to participatory action, setting the project apart from the development training programmes with which the PARs are familiar. This had an immediate and positive effect on the PARs, one of whom initiated and designed an anonymous feedback survey using Google Forms, which he shared with his peers towards the end of the training week. In this survey, most of the PARs reported that they were satisfied with the general training, with 71.4% responding that the training exceeded or greatly exceeded their expectations. The PARs also expressed an eagerness to delve deeper into some of the training topics, which trainers have incorporated into the ongoing advanced training that has followed since November.
These were the top three takeaways from these feedback avenues:
- The PARs described an experience of horizontal power dynamics: “We don’t feel like you are the teachers and we are the students but that we are all at the same level, teaching and learning together.” PARs noted that they did not experience a teacher-student hierarchy that they had come to expect from similar training environments of humanitarian organisations. The trainees spoke and discussed topics freely. The trainers worked to incorporate PARs’ ideas and feedback into the training, redesigning the curriculum to reflect and respond to PARs’ interests and experiences as the training was implemented. The training also approached the PARs as experts of their city and the issues facing their communities.
- The PARs were eager to be challenged: “We might have known some of the training material, but all of us were introduced to new knowledge we hadn’t encountered before.” PARs shared that they were pleased that the training covered topics such as pandemic geographies, vulnerability, and individual and communal behaviour from new angles. These topics drew on PARs’ personal experiences to situate their stories within a more global context. The training encouraged PARs to think more critically about their positionalities and their communities within the pandemic.
- The PARs felt heard: “In other organisations, our feedback would be collected and that was it, but here you actually listen and respond to it.” As a result of providing regular feedback mechanisms, PARs expressed appreciation that their comments were heard and taken into account by the training team almost immediately. While some of their feedback pertained to the logistics of the training (the physical environment and resources at AABU), which were addressed quickly, other feedback was related to the aims of the project, which have been taken into account for the remaining months of the project.
What we learned from the training
As trainers, our own ambitions for the training were also challenged. We came up against issues of practicality (many sessions took longer than planned) and of structural limitations (the PARs who live in Zaatari camp could not obtain the permits needed to travel to AABU, only five minutes down the road, so we held a virtual training for them later that month).
These were our top three takeaways from the training:
- When in doubt, involve the PARs. Even though PARs told us they felt there was a horizontal power dynamic, they still looked to us for answers. Indeed, they often expected us to have all the answers about how the research project would play out, and sometimes we, too, expect this of ourselves. But often, the PARs, as experts of their communities, have better answers than we do. Being transparent about our uncertainties and involving the PARs in brainstorming solutions to challenges as they arise encourages the researchers to take ownership of the project and continue to pursue project goals long after it ends. We must consistently remind ourselves that this is a collaborative effort through which we reflect and learn as we go.
- Genuine impact takes time. Impact is no small word in the academic and development communities. The kind of impact I am concerned with here is at two different levels: 1) the impact on the lives and capabilities of the PARs, and 2) the impact on their communities through our participatory action research. The latter will take the lifetime of the project and beyond to fulfil, and it starts with the former: the PARs themselves. It is no simple task to teach social science research methods, and it will take time for PARs to take ownership of various methodologies and practice them within their own communities. It will take even more time to create a self-sustaining system within which PARs will use research to address issues in their communities, even beyond the lifetime of the project.
- When working within a system of structural inequality, outcomes should be realistic and communicated. The project is an ambitious one, and the researchers with whom we have the privilege of working are likewise ambitious. For this reason, it is important that we encourage PARs to critically engage with their environments as a part of the research process – with the understanding that we may not have solutions to the structural inequalities revealed through this research. A question we constantly come back to on this project is how to balance encouraging researcher criticality with our relative powerlessness within the discriminatory systems that shape PARs’ lives.
While we might have expectations throughout the project, we cannot make promises. What we can do is equip the participatory action researchers with the tools to chip away at these flawed systems, which we believe can prompt a ripple effect throughout their communities.