Anyone who has worked in transition or stabilization environments knows the value of good research. But good research tends to have two drawbacks that constrain its applicability for professionals working in unstable environments: it takes time and it’s expensive. Even the best research, if it comes too late, is of little use if you’re working in fast-moving situations. And good research is too often priced out of reach for small and medium projects, particularly research conducted in places experiencing conflict and instability.
How can we conduct good research, on short timelines, and with modest budgets to inform timely programming in such environments? DAI’s Philippines ENGAGE project is testing a new approach based on collaboration between implementers, donors, and local academic institutions that promises to deliver affordable, methodologically sophisticated research on a reasonable timeline. We hope this new approach will inform our countering violent extremism (CVE) work in Mindanao.
Three Poles, One Tent
In 2017, ENGAGE partners in local government and civil society began raising concerns about the growing presence of violent extremist groups with links to the Islamic State (IS) and the influence they were exerting on young people in their communities. This simmering crisis was blown open by the siege of Marawi City in May in northern Mindanao by IS-aligned fighters. To respond effectively, the ENGAGE team needed hard data to test assumptions about the drivers of extremism in the region.
The approach we took was a three-way partnership between ENGAGE, five universities in Mindanao, and DAI’s Center for Secure and Stable States (CS3), with each taking responsibility for essential elements of the research process. In effect, ENGAGE created a three-pole research tent.
The first and most important pole is the five regional universities, which took on data collection for the project. The universities were perfect for this role for several reasons. First, they are located in the target regions for the assessment, which reduces the costs and time associated with standing up research teams in remote locations. Second, they have the relationships and local knowledge that facilitate access to remote, insecure regions and aid in logistical planning and execution. Third, they have a ready supply of enumerators in the form of students native to the region and fluent in local languages and dialects, which greatly facilitates data collection.
The second pole to the research tent is the ENGAGE staff, who took responsibility for research planning and management. While these functions are often contracted out, ENGAGE developed new internal processes to keep them in-house. The biggest hurdle was data management: fielding more than 2,200 surveys asking 110 distinct questions means that more than 240,000 data points need to be entered and stored in a usable format. ENGAGE designed a database, hired and trained a data entry team to manage the task, and instituted quality assurance processes to audit data quality throughout.
The third pole of the tent is CS3, which provided technical support in research design and analysis to ensure that the surveys meet the highest standards and use the latest methodologies in the field of CVE.
This collaborative approach allowed ENGAGE to save time and costs compared to a traditional research project. The fact that ENGAGE’s partner universities are located across the region, for example, cut down on the need to stand up research teams in remote locations, while training the enumerators remotely at each institution reduced the need for travel. But the approach offers benefits beyond time and cost savings. ENGAGE is able to maintain full ownership of the research design, ensuring that the research stays closely tied to programming priorities. For the universities, the collaboration is an important capacity building exercise: none had ever conducted research of this scope, and they gained experience in survey design, random sampling, and qualitative and quantitative interviewing that they can use on other projects. Finally, the universities will likely be key partners with ENGAGE in future CVE programming. Being involved throughout the process means the universities will be invested in the results and better positioned to propose local solutions based on the research findings.
Bottom line: ENGAGE has been able to analyze a representative sample of high school and university students in its project area (more than 2,400 respondents in total) in about three months’ time at a cost of less than $15,000. In a future post I’ll share the findings of this research, but for now I hope this collaborative model may suggest options to others wrestling with the same challenge of developing high-quality data in a timely and cost-effective way.