Research on the pandemic, in the pandemic: How does a project adjust to changing needs in the field?

Date: 6 December 2021

Author: Melissa Gatter

The PPE and Refugees research project, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund, originally emerged in response to the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, throughout the lifetime of the project, the pandemic has progressed, presenting new challenges and needs.

This has prompted the question of how to conduct research on the pandemic while still in the pandemic. How do we as researchers adjust our own objectives to respond to the ever-changing situation while project deadlines — set at the time of the grant application — loom?

The project’s initial focus had two prongs:

  1. To provide Syrian refugees in Zaatari camp and Syrians and Jordanians in Mafraq city with the skills and resources for PPE production.

  2. To conduct participatory action research on refugees’ behavioural changes and agency in responding to health risks in their community.

In August 2020, science and social science teams at the University of Sheffield, along with University of the Arts London and Jordanian partners at Petra University, Al Albayt University, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), got to work implementing PPE production training in Zaatari. A year later, a fully functioning and self-sustaining PPE factory is operated by Syrian refugees in Zaatari camp — a celebrated achievement of the project.

As PPE needs are met, however, other needs arising from the pandemic have emerged throughout this past year. The pandemic has only exacerbated existing issues for the more than half a million Syrian refugees in Jordan, who face social and political marginalisation and limited economic opportunity.

The urgency of pandemic response measures also deprioritised these issues as the Jordanian government has shifted its focus to the safety of its citizens. While Jordan has managed to keep Covid-19 transmission relatively low, it has done so using strictly enforced curfew laws and stay-at-home orders in the first year of the pandemic, which cost many — nationals and refugees — their jobs.

As a result, the project team has adjusted our objectives from the immediate to the longer term, incorporating a focus on ‘livelihoods’. Put simply, livelihoods provide those in the project with income-generating opportunities in various areas, including hydroponics (growing produce using water rather than soil), soapmaking, Geographic Information Systems (map-making), and social science research. Many of these opportunities respond to the restrictions imposed on those in Zaatari camp. The term ‘livelihoods’, however, can carry more precarious implications and different meanings for Syrian refugees than Jordanians (Lenner and Turner 2019, Tobin and Alahmed 2019).

This leaves us with the inevitable, ultimate question:

How do we leave a positive legacy after the project comes to an end? How do we ensure that this project does not ultimately add to the endless pile of training certificates that fail to connect refugees to actual opportunities (Wagner 2017)?

For the science pillar of the project, the construction of this legacy has already been underway for several years through the hydroponics project Desert Gardens and fashion, soap, and perfume line Made in Zaatari. For the social science pillar, having a long-term impact means designing a path from social science research training for Syrians and Jordanians to actual livelihood opportunities in and through research.

The project approaches this challenge through its participatory design. Current research uses a participatory approach to understand how the pandemic has impacted livelihoods and behaviour in the camp and host communities.

We are attempting to not only carry out the research in collaboration with Jordanian and Syrian participatory action researchers (PARs), but through the process of research, we aim to enable these participatory action researchers to identify, innovate, and implement interventions that address their communities’ needs.

Of course, participatory action is not the final answer to our Ultimate Question. The question remains as to how we adjust as the situation in the ‘field’ continues to change. It requires a constant evaluation and re-evaluation of the project from each participant’s perspective — the participatory action researchers, research associate and assistants, principal and co-investigators, and project manager. This involves intentionally scheduling in time to reflect on the project, both as a group and individually.

Thus, alongside the research, the team is conducting meta-research, or research on the research process. We are learning from the project as we go and — here is the challenging part — adjusting accordingly.

Here are the main lessons we have already learned:

  1. Listening is key.

On a project that extends across two countries with vastly different income levels as well as across disciplines and universities, virtual collaboration is vital. The key to hybrid idea exchange is listening. Keeping up morale of a diverse team with diverse perspectives on an ambitious project requires regular communication, and this needs to be appreciated by all partners involved. The project has demonstrated that truly reciprocal learning means building capacities among partners in both the global North and South. For this, consistent self-reflection practices can work to challenge expectations and biases.

  1. Truly participatory research takes time.

Time limitations due to bureaucratic procedures and changing circumstances can cause research practices to default to less-than-participatory methods. We have learned that it is worth taking the extra time to ensure participatory elements can be built into project implementation. This means realising that ‘we’ — the project investigators and research associates and assistants in the UK and Jordan — are also participants with as much to learn as the participatory action researchers we have hired in the ‘field’. Everyone involved is both a teacher and a participant. We have made the time to design a horizontal training process, which has facilitated smoother collaboration with participatory action researchers.

  1. The most effective work happens at the individual level.

In a large project with many partners, bureaucratic procedure can cause major delays. Our partners have reported the most productive collaboration has taken place in one-on-one or small group meetings. This dynamic is likely to be mirrored in our participatory research in Mafraq and Zaatari camp.

As the training of participatory action researchers in Jordan is underway, our specific research questions will be driven by their interests and priorities. PARs will also be shaping how this research is communicated and used to create interventions and solutions. Publications that arise from the research will be undertaken as a collaborative authorship.

While the project deadline is set for 20 February 2022, this is, in fact, an arbitrary timeline set by the parameters of the grant. The issues facing the PARs in their communities will not magically disappear on 21 February 2022. In the coming months, we will strive to co-create systems with the PARs so that the aims of the project continue to be realised after the project itself ends.

Works cited

Lenner, K., & Turner, L. (2019). Making Refugees Work? The Politics of Integrating Syrian Refugees Into the Labor Market in Jordan. Middle East Critique, 28(1), 65-95.

Tobin, S., and Alahmed, M. (2019). Beyond the Work Permit Quotas: Corruption and Other Barriers to Labour Integration for Syrian Refugees in Jordan. U4 Issue. Bergen: U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Chr. Michelsen Institute.

Wagner, A-C. (2017). Frantic Waiting: NGO Anti-Politics and “Timepass” for Young Syrian Refugees in Jordan. Middle East – Topics and Arguments, 9, 107-121.