How do you set up a short-term research project in times of Covid?

The experience of ‘Livelihood impacts of Coping with Covid-19 in rural Africa’ (CwC)

Date: 15 July 2020

Author: CwC team

Portuguese version / versão em português

A group of researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh (Scotland), Sheffield and Manchester (UK) and the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique) as well as the MICAIA foundation collaborated on a successful bid for 3.5 months’ worth of funding to work on ‘Livelihood impacts of coping with Covid-19 in rural Africa’. The main objective of the project is to assess the impacts of the COVID pandemic in rural households and how communities in rural Africa are coping with it in making a living.

But how exactly do you ensure in these distanced times that the collaboration and particularly the interaction with research participants is ethically and methodologically sound? We reflect on some important principles in building our joint project.

Build on longstanding partnerships

Funding from the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund was designated by the University of Edinburgh to be spent on Covid-related research in the Global South by July 2020. The short deadline for both submission and funding necessitated building on longstanding partnerships and study sites with which researchers already had a deep familiarity.

Dr Casey Ryan (University of Edinburgh), principal investigator of the project, used longstanding links with the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (Maputo, Mozambique) on research projects around charcoal (ACES, REFORMA) to bring in the expertise of Professor Luis Artur, Professor Natasha Ribeiro and Jone Fernando Jr (UEM).

He also liaised with Professor Dan Brockington, the University of Sheffield, and the collaboration the UK/Mozambique MICAIA Foundation led by Dr Milagre Nuvunga and Andrew Kingman, who equally are longstanding collaborators, to be part of the research network.

Together with post-docs Dr Rose Pritchard, University of Manchester, and Dr Judith Krauss, the University of Sheffield, who also have long collaborated with different parts of the network, a bid was assembled centred on co-creating research questions among this group of research partners. In times of Covid, a key focus was prioritising the voices of research partners and creating research benefits for research participants.

Collaborative distance-working for co-production and co-benefits

In some senses, Covid has not changed much for this research collaboration, while in other senses, it has changed everything.

Any research collaboration involving colleagues in a multitude of sites within and across countries will have to rely on distance-working practices including coordination meetings through video-conferencing and iterative consultation by email.

In that sense, there is not much change for this project: coordination takes place eg through a weekly check-in call, iterative documents including methodological first steps, interview questions and sampling tables are shared with colleagues by email or through online platforms. So far, so “normal”, despite challenges with variable internet connections across sites

In another sense, Covid has accentuated the need to make collaborations more equitable. Collaborators on this project strive to work in equitable, equal research partnerships that reject any notion of ‘Direction being contributed by the Global North, Data by the Global South’. This stance is all the more important when looking into the on-the-ground consequences of a pandemic unprecedented in recent history.

Similarly, as the project does not involve any travel and shared presence between colleagues in the Global North and Global South, it requires more trust in each other’s working practices. Physical distance, Covid-related logistical challenges and heightened caring responsibilities also necessitate being more sensitive to each others’ workloads and challenges, which can be more difficult to gauge remotely. Again, the long-standing collaborations are a basis for making this work.

Finally, there are ways in which Covid has changed everything.

For one, it is a key part of the project’s focus, looking at how coping with Covid is impacting livelihoods in rural Africa. Travel restrictions, shop closures as well as restrictions on movement are affecting livelihoods. As further restrictions around Covid-19 may be enforced as the disease spreads, there is a need to analyse how the disease and responses to it have already, and will in the future, affect what may already be precarious livelihoods.

Secondly, the research project was designed to involve as little inter-person contact as possible given an ethical imperative not to increase infection risks in challenging health care settings.

While necessary, this minimisation of inter-personal contact, thirdly, raises a number of ethical, methodological and practical challenges: they include obtaining informed consent from panel members for continuous phone interviews, distributing phones, as well as involving vulnerable groups effectively who may not be very familiar with phones. We will report on these challenges, and how we continually revisit our current arrangements as the situation changes, in coming weeks.

Throughout the early stages of establishing this project, two other principles have been key:

  • Engage in open, fruitful discussions on logistical, ethical and methodological challenges with contributions from all involved.

  • Try and accept error especially in as fast-moving an environment as this pandemic.

In short, if there is something worth underlining at this beginning point of the project, building long-term partnerships and horizontal relationships always pays off, especially to respond to unexpected events in a multitude of places and engaging multiple actors.

In these difficult times, we feel it has been, and will be, a privilege to learn from each other and from our research participants through this project.