How can activists in 8 countries learn collectively about community-led research?


by Tom Weerachat

Starting in March through May 2022, around breakfast time in Haiti and Paraguay, the second cup of afternoon tea in Zimbabwe and Kenya, when people are wrapping up their work in Armenia, and right after dinner time in Indonesia and the Philippines, the new cohort of the Global Advocacy Team (GAT) gathered together online, almost every other week, to embark on a journey of learning about Community-led Development Planning facilitated by IAP and the Global Advocacy Team Advisory Group.

We completed 9 sessions convened online using 6 languages including French, Russian, Filipino, and Indonesian through simultaneous interpretations. These sessions were co-designed with the Advisory Group, GAT members, IAP staff, and allies intended to build relationships, solidarity, and exchange rich knowledge, skills, as well as experiences everyone has to offer to be able to plan and conduct community-led research that is a foundation to design community-led development planning.

Martha, an indigenous woman leader from Maluku, Indonesia spoke to her GAT fellows in Bahasa Indonesia, “Every session we get experience and a lot of information from friends all over the world which is different from here. We get new knowledge. We can complement each other. We can use and acquire them in our community. It has been very empowering. I feel we have more power together to strengthen what we have been doing.”

(Left photo) A drawing featuring mining communities and their development priorities in Zimbabwe by Kundai Chikonzo. (Right photo) A drawing representing a collaborative approach and support to achieve human rights and justice by CCMS in Armenia

We started the journey with eight new members introducing themselves and presenting their personal stories and getting to know more about the collective that they belong to through drawing. IAP presented a brief history of the first cohort of the GAT that inspires and supports this second iteration. Members also shared what they would like to see with their group in the next two years and how they envision the Global Advocacy Team as a collective.

Some of the visions include personal development to become an authentic person and a grounded individual in community-led research and the human rights approach to development. ‘I have a stronger experience to help more communities, the community that is mentored becomes an example for other communities in carrying out development as desired, sharing and building networks and staying in touch.’ Looking at GAT as a collective, members envision it to be a strong network where everyone respects each other. Community leaders can actively access and use GAT resources.

To build the global community and to achieve these visions, GAT members brainstormed shared values each member should commit to, including working towards robust community-led development that firmly adheres to human rights and contributes ideas of each collective to work synchronously.

Based on IAP’s Community Action Guide series, the training was co-designed with GAT member inputs on what each member wanted to learn on a particular topic. GAT members were part of co-creating the learning space and specific sessions. Each member filled out a survey to shape how the training will be organized. Their insightful answers to these questions by topic help guide the preparation and implementation of the training.

  • What should be addressed or improved to help you prepare and meaningfully engage during the training both logistics and content?
  • What three things would you like to learn or improve on community-led development planning?
  • What questions do you have about community-led research? What would you like to get clarity or upskill on community-led research?
  • What are other topics you would like to be added to the training sessions?

“It was extremely helpful to understand the basic principles of Community-Led Development. Applying this IAP training to my research topic issue helped me get past a big hurdle. The training provided some very concrete and easy-to-follow tools. The quality of the content was excellent. Nice balance of theory and practice. I feel confident in applying these IAP training approaches to different situations on research that come knocking at my door. I really enjoyed it, and appreciated that IAP made it fun!” — a reflection statement from Kundai Chikonzo, GAT member from Zimbabwe.

Based on everyone’s inputs, we built and explored 9 sessions together.

  1. Introduction and Getting to Know Each Other
  2. Understanding Community-led Development
  3. Community-led Research Design
  4. Power Analysis and Identifying Allies and Potential Opponents
  5. Intersectionality Approach to Gender and Climate Justice
  6. Participatory Data Collection
  7. Risk and Security
  8. Building People’s Power for Community-led Development
  9. Individual Check-in on Community-led Research Design

We continued exploring different understandings and practices of Community-led Development. We unpacked how the actors including government, private sector, and multilateral financial institutions dominate what development is and we exchanged ways to reclaim development to be truly community-led that is organized with the community, and directly from the community’s own plan.

One of the effective tools to do that is using Community-led Research. In this session, we discussed IAP’s Community Action Guide on Community-led Research which was built based on the experience of the first GAT. The cohort shared in small groups practical experience on how to meaningfully engage community members in research steps that solidify our rich and diverse collective knowledge. Now that everyone obtained more understanding of community-led research design, each GAT member discussed with their collective to identify their research topics and three main goals of their community-led research.

In the Power Analysis session, each GAT member learned tools to help understand the power structures that play a role in their research goals and topics. They learned how to create a research team that represents the diversity of people in the community including the underrepresented and often excluded from the process. We believe that this will increase community participation and ensure the research is community-led. Each GAT member used an interactive slide template to visually map allies, influencers, and potential opponents to their specific goals. Now they have better ideas of who they might work with in the future and who may disagree with what they try to achieve.

It became clearer and more important for the members to pay close attention to power and incorporate an intersectional approach to gender justice to reinforce their community-led process. Our guest facilitator and GAT alumna, Melania Chiponda, Ph.D. shared her experience using Feminist Participatory Action Research to address gender and climate justice. Mela stresses that “Patriarchy and oppression do not operate in isolation. It is anchored and bolstered by other systems that sustain it including capitalism, culture, religion.” Mela recommends that the research team analyze interaction with power at the beginning of the process and be conscious of their own privileges as facilitators, and community mobilizers. To be aware and mindful to keep ourselves in check. Listen to unspoken voices of the marginalized, indigenous, rural, peasant women who exist within social hierarchies.

The members discussed what are the power structures that restrict women’s participation in the research processes and how can we address them? Their answers suggested that the research team should have a good representation of genders so communities feel more comfortable participating especially, women. The research should provide space for women who have to negotiate their participation to feel safe and comfortable discussing their own issues, but it is also important to have a common discussion where men and women come together. It should be politically safe for them to speak out and be physically safe at home in their communities after they speak out.

It is very critical to address intersectionality approaches to climate justice. Marginalization and injustice faced by women increase after a disaster, especially in the climate crisis. The roles of rebuilding lives, reconstructing the community and care work fall upon them while women continue to experience exclusion and structural violence. There is still a lack of knowledge and understanding of impacted women at policy level discussion.

“Can you hear us?” is one of the most common sentences in our online sessions. Up to this point of the co-learning series, a few members were still struggling to join the call due to a weak internet connection. Some kept their hopes that the connection would be stable for two hours and a half. We encountered many incidents where the heavy rain cut our friend off mid-sentence. These challenges only brought us closer and we grew to understand the unique situation where each of our new friends lives. As Chrisphine Owalla, GAT member from Kenya emphasized “The space that GAT and IAP team convened is very rare for us from all over the world to be together to learn and share. The learning continues despite the challenges of the internet and batteries. This training is very impactful, but we need to have in-person meetings to reinforce these topics and go deeper”

GAT members, Advisory Group, IAP staff, and interpreters getting to know each other to kick off online learning sessions.

GAT members not only learned from IAP staff, Advisory Group members, and allies but also had various opportunities to learn from one another. Peer learning helps build their trust and relationship even through distance online space. “It has been a very good experience connecting with the other indigenous people through this informative forum.” Mayalmit Lepcha, leader of Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) from India points out. “We learned what the community-led development concretely is, discovered how it works in our community and how we can develop it in the scope of our activities.” Added Julia Amiraghian with the Centre for Community Mobilization and Support from Armenia points out “The meetings were full of theory and practical workshops which made them much more interesting and interactive. We feel really lucky to take part in the GAT training“

“I am not your data, nor am I your vote bank,

I am not your project, or any exotic museum object,

I am not the soul waiting to be harvested,

Nor am I the lab where your theories are tested…”

We started the Participatory Data Collection session by reading the powerful poem “I am not your data” by Abhay Flavian Xaxa, an Adivasi rights activist to remind and reinforce our efforts in making the research genuinely community-led. We then explored how to design tools for effective data collection that are easy for the community to do, what we need to consider, and a question posed by one of the members. Everyone brought in their own experiences with different tools and approaches. We counted 20+ tools that everyone has used. As responded by one participant, one of strategies in working with indigenous women and female elders is to gather data during their daily activities such as interviews during women’s activities in the kitchen can bring many stories.

We focused on three examples of data collection tools including Community Mapping by Óscar Pineda from Project on Organizing, Development, Education, and Research (PODER) in Mexico, IAP staff shared experience and tools on Community-led Survey, and Videos and Photos Storytelling. We ended this session with more questions:

  • Who makes decisions about steps in research–how, where, and when?
  • Do the tools allow research participants to freely express themselves? Do they exclude certain groups of people?
  • Is it possible to disaggregate the data by gender and other elements of diversity and intersecting identities?
  • What risk the research team and participants may face while gathering data?

The work that all GAT members do is difficult with alarming security risks. The discussion on risk and security was a necessity as our check-in exercise showed us that only one out of eight members felt safe about the work that they are doing. The majority of the cohort responded that they are at high risk of threats. The security expert from Front Line Defenders shared useful tips and tools with GAT members to be able to understand and analyze their personal and community situations using a holistic approach across physical, psycho-social, and digital security. Through a scenario-based exercise, GAT members discussed practical ways to mitigate the risk and response strategies in research activities. Equipped with useful information from this session, each member starts thinking about an inclusive process to create a security protocol for their collective.

Jessica Amon, a member of the first GAT cohort and the GAT Advisory Group from the Philippines co-hosted a session on Building People’s Power for Community-led Development with another member of the Advisory Group and seasoned activist from Brazil, Daniel Faggiano. “Start where the people are but do not end where they are.” Jessica started sharing her experience working with Community Organizers Multiversity (COM). She led us to deepen our understanding of community organizing approaches around the People’s Plan for social transformation which is both orientation and process to build trust and faith in the people’s capacity to bring about change, to build community with shared values, and to emphasize the role of the people in development and the governance.

In addition to Jessica’s share, Daniel invited us to look at how local communities, especially indigenous have survived and kept their culture and way of life despite many attacks and violations they received from oppressing systems. “In my experience, it is about adding people’s power. They already have something, not starting from zero. We are not creating something new. We are always adding to what they have.” Daniel suggests “We must learn from and with communities. What is their knowledge? How are they organized to resist and to live? What are their strategies and reverence? Help the communities see the ways and use their heads and their knowledge to decide what is the best way to go, to bring unique changes that connect with others around the world.”

It is quite a journey to go through all nine sessions. To measure our progress, IAP created a 22-question workbook to help guide the thinking process of GAT members to design their Community-led Research. The questions are aligned with each of the learning sessions. GAT members can reflect and capture new insights and approaches, before, during, and after each training session. GAT members are encouraged to discuss with their collective or consult with the community they plan to work with on particular questions. The Global Advocacy Team Advisory Group and IAP team are available to provide suggestions or clarifications through individual check-in calls, emails, and instant messaging as they complete their worksheet. Changes and additions in different versions of the worksheet will become GAT members’ community-led research design, a map that guides them through another exciting journey of community-led research for community-led development planning.

Edex Paul, a GAT member from Haiti summarized his experience with the training sessions, “It’s awesome that we spent nine sessions together. I think it’s truly a work of action for research. I really like the titles of the training talking about development, not about the government or country but about the whole community which can see the vision and can share something. If you want to change something where there is a problem. It’s not about someone who is going to bring a solution. We try to find solutions collectively for the whole population. Development is part of the change when we have participation and collaboration. I will bring an approach based on rights and participation to bring solutions to the changes in the environment.”

IAP is thankful for many of our friends who support this learning journey with the Global Advocacy Team especially the ESCR-net Community-led Research Project and the Legal Empowerment Learning Lab hosted by the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights NYU School of Law who have inspired and exchanged with us learning and practicing space to deepen and widen community-led approaches and participatory action research.

We hope to continue the learning journey with many more friends who share our vision and values to advance knowledge and skills in using a community-led approach to actualize community-led development planning.

Tom Weerachat is the Global Lead on Community-Led Advocacy at the International Accountability Project. Join us as IAP coordinates the Global Advocacy Team of 8 activists in 8 countries focused on community-led development planning. Read more and then contact us: iap [at] accountabilityproject [dot] org.



International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.