When communities lead development, the future is truly theirs

By Thien Hoang

Introducing the report “Asia Pacific Roundtable on Community-led Research for the Development We Want

“In the past, the government said that we only express feelings and we have no evidence. But now we have this.”

When communities speak out about their concerns over development projects, especially about harmful impacts to their lives and livelihoods, they are often meet with the accusation that they lack credible evidence to support their claims. The perceived lack of credibility provides cover for development planners to ignore the priorities of local residents. In reality, communities often possess knowledge about their homes and environments that may not be recorded elsewhere. Their expertise may not be available in written form, but the knowledge and practices that communities possess may go a long way in informing and shaping development for the better.

Consider the alternative — “What if development projects were designed and lived by the same people?” Development can be changed for the better if communities are supported to document and use their knowledge in negotiations with planners. Community-led research is one way to do this. Community- led research recognizes and captures local priorities, plans, and expertise, so people may proactively shape how development is designed and implemented in their communities. By doing so, they won’t be compelled to build their life around the plans and motives of outsiders.

The International Accountability Project, through our Global Advocacy Team initiative, has tried to build models for research that is led by communities. Using the community — led research model, experts and local organizations are facilitators, who support and create space for community research initiatives and movements. As civil society groups (CSOs), we provide recommendations and guidance when communities use research to advocate for their own development plans.

Recognizing the differences in approaches, IAP organized a half-day roundtable meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand to discuss community-led research, how to use research for advocacy and how to reinforce community campaigns and solutions. We invited local, regional and international CSOs and academics who had been working with local communities across the Asia Pacific to champion community-led initiatives on human rights, environment and social issues. Participating organizations included Living River Siam Association, Thailand Sustainable Development Foundation, Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development, Legal Advocacy Center for Indigenous Community, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, EarthRights International and Mekong Youth Assembly.

We began with a discussion on how our respective organizations have approached community-led research and, specifically, what methodologies and communication tools have been used in conducting this work. Participants agreed on the importance of communities taking a leading role in carrying out research, where they are responsible for deciding which issues they would like to investigate, the timeline for their research, as well as possible solutions to mitigate impacts in the future. One of the discussants at the roundtable, from the Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD) considered the role of NGOs as “part of the (community) struggle”, to make sure that community-led research also respects local languages and customs and the rights of women. Living River Siam Association, which has worked with local communities to implement their research model in Thailand, Vietnam, China, and Myanmar for over 15 years, highlighted that, “the villagers have to do it [research] by themselves. NGOs and academics are research assistants”.

Participants also shared their experiences using community-led research to support local and international advocacy. AIPP discussed its experience using community mapping as a tool for negotiation with companies and governments. Another participant shared that they have successfully used community-led mapping and GIS to negotiate land boundaries. Finally, participants identified the resources (training materials, case studies, methodology) that could be shared with communities interested in this type of research.

The half-day discussion provided an important starting point to understand the landscape of community-led research initiatives, especially in the Mekong Region. IAP is delighted to share the highlights from the roundtable discussion in the report “Asia-Pacific Roundtable on Community-Led Research for the Development We Want.” We look forward to fruitful discussions happening in other regions and hope that this report can be a source of inspiration for others seeking to make development accountable to local communities.

Thien Hoang works for IAP as a Community Organizer in Southeast Asia.

IAP would like to acknowledge Living River Siam Association, Thailand Sustainable Development Foundation, Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development, Legal Advocacy Center for Indigenous Community, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, EarthRights International and Mekong Youth Assembly who attended the roundtable discussion and continue to advocate for community-led research.

International Accountability Project works to defend the rights, land and livelihoods of people threatened by destructive development projects.

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