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"You runaway": the challenges of research in South Sudan

Trish Doherty

South Sudan Research Manager, BBC Media Action

Writing from Juba, Research Manager Trish Doherty explains the importance of conducting research in conflict-affected countries like South Sudan – despite the very real risks for both researchers and the people they speak to.

“You runaway people”. This is how I was greeted upon returning to South Sudan last week. Along with many other colleagues, I had left the country following the outbreak of violence in July when BBC Media Action’s Juba office – though not our operations – was temporarily closed. Now that we are all back in the capital, our thoughts are on how to continue our programme activities and research. This consideration is, sadly, not a new one. Marked by four decades of war, South Sudan (formerly part of Sudan) is a country in which continued fighting, sudden outbreaks of localised violence, food insecurity and rumours and misinformation have profound implications for people’s lives. These trends also affect what we are able to research and how.

What are the risks?

Violence is not rare in South Sudan and is just one of the country’s very real risks, which periodically reach heights that mandate some of us ‘running away’. Over the years, colleagues have been greeted with suspicion, intimidation and even imprisonment. And this only speaks to the risks faced by researchers. For the participants in our studies, the risks can be equally, if not more, severe. They might be afraid about how their answers will be used. Any mention of the “BBC” can raise fears that we’re spying or acting on behalf of foreign governments or, alternatively, give people the impression that what they say will be aired on radio or TV. Furthermore, there is the very real possibility that asking people questions can resurrect past or ongoing trauma or create an expectation that services will be provided or their needs catered to immediately.

So why do research at all in a country like South Sudan?

Audiences are at the heart of what we do at BBC Media Action. It is vital we hear back from them so we can inform and refine programme activities to better suit their needs. Our research provides an opportunity for participant and implementer alike to speak openly about what works and what doesn’t, what needs to be done and what needs to stop. Working in a fragile and conflict-affected environment can make the need for this feedback more important than ever.

As a Médecins Sans Frontières‎ paper put it, research in conflict settings – while needing to be approached with care and strict ethical guidelines – is necessary to alleviate the vulnerability of these populations and to minimise the potential “for complacency among those responsible or who contribute to their unfortunate plight”. I would emphasise that research in these settings is just as important to mitigate the potential complacency of those in the humanitarian and development sectors, who, despite the best of intentions, may not necessarily be delivering the most effective of interventions. 

When we in the research team speak to our programmes’ audiences, we hear a range of stories. These include heart-warming stories like that of Stella, who spoke of how she learnt about the need to go for antenatal care check-ups and deliver in a health facility by listening to Our Tukul, a radio show about health. Our research also enables audiences to tell us what is not working for them. For example, our programmes are sometimes not in the right language and the information they provide sometimes contradicts what people hear from other sources, leaving them confused. Sometimes people might not have the money to put our programmes’ advice into practice, like send their children to school.

Much of this feedback directly leads to programme changes. For example, our programmes are increasingly made in local languages and we are always expanding our outreach activities so communities can discuss what they hear on the shows. We have also incorporated new content that focuses on things like budget management and financial planning.

Just as BBC Media Action surveys audiences to determine what works and what doesn’t with our programmes, other development and humanitarian organisations can and do refine their operations by collecting and incorporating feedback from those they serve.

How should we conduct research in these settings?

For a checklist on how to do research in conflict settings such as South Sudan, I’d recommend the recent World Bank blog by Markus Goldstein and “the crowd”. Reading it with my research colleagues here in Juba, we smiled at just how accurately it speaks to the many challenges we face, including: how do we plan for the ‘bad stuff’, how do we ensure we don’t ask stupid or harmful questions, how can we make it comfortable for people to speak to us about their personal experiences and views and what does our data mean outside of the particular environment we collected it in? The tips of Goldstein et. al. provide a guide to trying to get it right.

What’s next?

Since our office reopened, the research team in South Sudan has been working on survey data gathered through our maternal and child health and girls’ education projects. We’ve also been reporting on our qualitative capacity strengthening evaluation with partner radio stations. As our work continues, we will keep on looking at what’s relevant and what’s not, what’s needed and why and making sure our research enables projects to best meet the needs of a population facing all manner of risks.

Trish Doherty is BBC Media Action's South Sudan Research Manager. She has worked across health, governance, humanitarian response and resilience projects at BBC Media Action using both quantitative and qualitative methodologies.