As a researcher in training, I had the opportunity to participate in a study into the core causes of food, nutrition, and income insecurity in Karamoja, a sub region in the east of Uganda. This mixed-methods study – undertaken by Development Pathways for the World Food Programme – was my first experience conducting research in the field, writes Anh Tran.
For one week – as part of my professional development – I joined a research team in a qualitative field study across Karamoja, where we engaged with local communities and stakeholders. The study involved in-depth interviews with individuals, interactive exercises and focus group discussions.
Prior to travelling to Karamoja, I’d undertaken a review of the literature on the region and analysed some of the available quantitative data. However, the field study proved to be a valuable experience offering many new perspectives that I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. A literature review comprises a crucial element of any research, enabling a thorough background study and stock-take of all the available literature and reports based on the relevant topic. However, there are many aspects to a research project that go beyond what the literature and data can tell you. I found that, by talking with a wide range of Karamojong, I was able to learn about their own perspectives and gain a deeper understanding.
During the research, I was able to analyse the vulnerabilities faced by people throughout the different stages of the lifecycle, aiming to uncover the types of risks and shocks that people of different ages and gender are exposed to. I found that, by analysing the vulnerabilities people are exposed to through the lens of the lifecycle, I was able to perceive the intergenerational relationships and power structures within communities, as Karamojong of different ages and gender possess distinct social roles within the household and the community. Throughout the research, different challenges were highlighted by each person, such as the loss of a parent, an illness, child marriage, single motherhood, unemployment or disability.
Disability is often ignored in research, but it was evident during my fieldwork that it creates significant challenges for people of all ages, as it can occur in any stage of a person’s life and result in significant social and institutional barriers to wellbeing. Our in-depth interviews indicated that the disability of a person in the household or a family member created challenges for other members of the household, relatives and caretakers as well, by bringing additional care duties and out-of-pocket costs. On the other hand, it was clear that a lack of investment and support for persons with disabilities in the region was resulting in a massive loss of talented human resources and impacting negatively not only on households but on communities and the regional economy.
Another important aspect of how the qualitative research added value to my learning experience was that it taught me about the importance of people’s histories and how they shape the insecurities they face. For any project that attempts to understand the vulnerabilities experienced by a society, it is crucial to look further into the political and environmental changes that have been experienced by its people. In Karamjoa, our in-depth interviews and focus group discussions showed how insecurities were deeply rooted in the region’s history of marginalisation, conflict and oppression.
As people experience different shocks and risks throughout their lives, it is difficult to pinpoint which groups are the most vulnerable or prone to food insecurities. The experience in Karamoja brought to the fore for me the importance of ensuring inclusive, lifecycle social protection: realistically, each person – no matter which age, or gender – is in need of enough support to mitigate the risks and insecurities that they may experience in each phase of their lives, whether they are going through childhood, adulthood, parenthood or old age.
It is striking that, in Karamoja, over 80 per cent of people were living on less than US$0.50 per day and the necessity of a comprehensive social protection system was more than evident. One programme that was universally appreciated in Karamoja was the Senior Citizens’ Grant which, despite only giving everyone over 60 years only US$7.50 per month, was making a major difference to people’s lives, including many children.
Our field study provided the team with the opportunity to ask people their own opinions, including how they perceive their own challenges as well as their perceptions of the development programmes active in their districts. Hearing about people’s own experiences offered me a much deeper understanding of the results of programmes on the ground, how their beneficiaries perceive them, and whether the intended people are actually being reached.
In conclusion, some of the most valuable benefits for me from this fieldwork experience were the ability to get a realistic sense of how the Karamajong lived and the challenges they faced and tried to overcome on a daily basis. It also challenged my own preconceptions that I had developed through the literature review. By participating in the qualitative research, I was able to gain a (still limited) understanding of the culture and history of people in Karamoja.
I’m now more convinced than ever that, if the challenge of poverty reduction is to be addressed effectively, we need to listen to the voices of people themselves and build on their own experiences. We need to regard people as active agents with their own desires and aspirations which should be respected, rather than imposing our own ideas and beliefs.