Lessons from Kampala on Reflexivity in Development Practice
By Yasmine Kherfi, on 20 July 2018
The international field trip is an integral component of the MSc Development Administration and Planning (DAP). After months of desk-based research in London, our cohort traveled to Kampala, Uganda, to understand how development initiatives are formulated and implemented in a specific context.
What is “the field”?
Before embarking on our trip, we were challenged to question our assumptions and conceptions of “the field”. While the term in itself is a construction rooted in anthropology, sites of fieldwork largely remain overlooked and taken for granted in the discipline’s methodology and practice (Gupta & Ferguson, 2013). Similarly, the way we come to know “the field” remains under-researched and seldom questioned in literature on international fieldtrips (Patel, 2015). Our group reflections stemmed from a pedagogical need to address the lack of attention given to dominant narratives that underpin fieldwork research. In much of the literature on fieldtrips specifically, “the field” is still evoked through an orientalist lens, as a place designed “to produce exotic encounters” to maximize students’ learning experience (Patel, 2015).
While students and researchers are temporarily interjected in “the field”, frequently treating it as a neutral place, we should not disregard its politics, history and context, in our quest to find answers (Patel, 2015). Given the thematic focus of development programmes, fieldtrips inevitably introduce students to development initiatives that address social inequalities, which often involve working with vulnerable and marginalized communities (Patel, 2015). For practitioners committed to ‘development’ fieldwork, it is important to understand the different power structures and dynamics in the local context, as well those that stem from the history of fieldwork practice. Our module ‘Development in Practice’ served as a space for collective inquiry on our positionality, research ethics, as well as assumptions, stereotypes, and behavior that we wanted to avoid perpetuating. The assigned readings and conversations with peers also prompted me to reflect on the different kinds of institutional partnerships in the field of development.
Team Work Experience
Our class was divided into seven groups, each focused on learning from a specific initiative implemented by an NGO or CBO in Kampala. Our team partnered with Action for Community Development – Uganda (ACODEV-U), a CBO that focuses on community empowerment through a wide range of programmes. We chose to learn from ACODEV’s comprehensive adolescent sexuality education project, ‘Keep It Real’ (KIR), which ran from 2013 to 2015, and addressed the lack of reliable information on sexual and reproductive rights.
Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world. Our group was curious about the different pedagogical approaches available to support Kampala’s youth in accessing information about sexual health. I also wanted to learn more about the ‘projectification’ of public health in the field of development, considering the relationship between foreign aid and the country’s management of health epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS. Overall, ideas about public health, development, and planning, fermented in my head during the trip, and what I learned in Kampala helped inspire my dissertation topic. I benefited from evening lectures delivered by development practitioners and academics, and gained important insights from Peter Kasaija, a researcher at the Urban Action Lab of Makerere University, who supported us throughout the trip.
We conducted interviews with different project stakeholders and beneficiaries, who drew attention to the strengths and weaknesses of KIR’s implementation, with school students and out-of-school youth. Interviewees included a teacher from the Old Kampala Secondary School, current and former ACODEV employees, as well as staff members of SOMERO, a youth community centre located in the neighborhood of Bwaise in Kawempe. Interviewees welcomed us to their respective work spaces, and explained different aspects of their experience with KIR. They addressed the impact of various power dynamics on the transfer of knowledge between different actors involved in the project, the difficulties in maintaining KIR’s sustainability, as well as challenges that arose from intra-organisational structures. Fieldwork did not always go as planned, and we did not get the chance to meet everyone we wanted to interview. This experience taught us how to adjust our plans and expectations, given our time limitations.
After working with my team members intermittently in London, and daily throughout the trip, we became more open and comfortable with each other. We were able to constructively voice disagreement, frustrations, as well as share and reflect on personal and collective moments experienced during the trip. The conversations I had with teammates sometimes related back to how we navigate our privilege as students coming from the United Kingdom, and explored how we made sense of our multi-layered identities in relation to the new geographic context we were in.
The Role of Reflexivity in Development Practice
I was committed to documenting my reflections every day in the fieldwork diary, in an attempt to bear the fruits of radical vulnerability; “to write vulnerably in the service of creating new understandings” that would ultimately benefit me and the people I interact with (Norander, 2017). This personal assignment required us to engage in reflexive practice – a mental exercise that operates on two levels, in which the person writing is the unit of analysis (Cunliffe, 2016). First, the exercise corresponds to the process of examining our assumptions, actions, and feelings that social interactions prompt in us (Cunliffe, 2016). Secondly, the practice requires us to think critically about the broader structures of power and knowledge that inform how we think (Cunliffe, 2016). Most importantly, critical reflexivity is characterized by a relational understanding of the self –the ways in which I not only relate to others, but also how others relate to me (Cunliffe, 2009). It is an exploration of the implications of this two-way process (Cunliffe, 2009).
While often overlooked, reflexivity ought to play an integral part in research, and should be foregrounded in development practice. It helped me gain a deeper understanding of team dynamics throughout my group project, as well as the importance of effectively deconstructing the mystique of “the field”. I learned how to be more proactive in questioning my assumptions, and adjusting my behavior accordingly. While no one is immune to mistakes, reflexive practice allows us to better account for our positionality and strive towards a higher caliber of research quality and integrity.
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Gupta, A. & Ferguson, D., 2013. Discipline and practice: “the field” as site, method and location in anthropology. Etnograficheskoe obozrenie, 6, pp.3–44.
Norander, S. 2017. Embodied moments: revisiting the field and writing vulnerably. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 45(3), pp.346–351.
Patel, K. 2015. Teaching and Learning in the Tropics: An Epistemic Exploration of “the Field” in a Development Studies Field Trip. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 39(4), pp.584–594.
Yasmine Kherfi is a Master’s candidate in Development Administration and Planning, at the Development Planning Unit. She holds a Bachelor of Arts with Distinction from the University of Toronto, and is a recipient of the Bartlett’s Refugee Cities Dissertation Fellowship at UCL. Her current research looks at the adaptation of systems of health governance to protracted displacement.