GENDER insights

The value of reflection in research for development

Refugees in Kenya Photo: Flickr/IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation

The world of research for development is small and cloistered, and now increasingly at risk due to narrowing streams of development financing that call for tangible impact. In this small world, in which some of us have had the privilege to participate, we know that far too often we have asked ourselves, why are we here, what are we doing and are we making a difference?

Questions about the efficacy and use of our research weigh heavy on our minds, consciously or unconsciously, but we rarely make time to reflect on these issues. In the culture we work in—a world of rushed project timelines, changing priorities and short attention spans—focusing on ourselves seems self-centered or unnecessary. After all, shouldn’t we be talking about what will change conditions on the ground, what will reverse situations of complex, seemingly intractable relations between nature and society?

The problem with this approach is that it does matter who we are and why we engage in research. Social, cultural and even technical research outcomes are not standard products exiting an assembly line—they are shaped by us, their creators.

Moreover, if we fail to critically reflect on that fundamental question of who we are, we cannot share that knowledge either, which will stand in the way of the transformative change we promise to deliver. Why should anyone, anywhere accept suggestions to abandon past familiar practices in favor of new approaches without knowing who is making these suggestions and why?

An ingrained reluctance to reflect

Somali refugees in Dolo Ado, Ethiopia. (Photo:  Flickr/J. Ose/UNHCR Ethiopia)

In the spring of 2021, I received an invitation to participate in a reflective evaluation process organized by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems. I was member of a grant-funded project, which was one of eight projects that had been identified for this exercise.  The grant in question has taken me to refugee camps and settlements in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia as a member of a project team working on resource recovery and reuse in African refugee contexts. The primary purpose of our work was to deliver vetted innovations that help individuals and communities to counter food insecurity and energy poverty.

My role in the still-ongoing project, is to ensure that the technical innovations are gender inclusive.  The kind of work I do is normally not sufficiently funded by donors. In my case, a Hatch Act grant from USDA-NIFA (United States Department of Agriculture-National Institutes of Food and Agriculture) to Ag Sciences Global, at the Pennsylvania State University, supports me. 

When I first got the email asking if I would be willing to meet for a reflective evaluation, I was uneasy. I am aware of the of the nature of evaluations in development parlance. The normal evaluation process in grant contexts involves what feels very much like a judicial process.  How have your actions resulted in the outcomes you promised? This is the primary gist of such evaluations. 

I wasn’t worried about the integrity of the project; I knew we had been working in a focused and coherent way on the goals in the project. Nonetheless, the idea of a reflective evaluation was unfamiliar, and sounded uncomfortably intimate. Simply put, I did not easily believe that the process would indeed be reflective. I agreed to participate but came, in retrospect, with my personal biases and professional armor firmly in place.

Honest reflection requires respect and privacy

The process itself was nothing like I had expected. In this case, reflection, it turned out, was about first understanding what led us to think about gender and inclusion as part of this kind of work in the first place.

In essence, we were asked to share how life was for us as we grew up and how we reflected on our experiences in the emotional labor of research and development work in humanitarian settings.  The assumption guiding the reflection process was that our work was not just other-oriented, directed at the refugees and host communities, but also a product of who we were and how we engaged the institutions of international collaboration to chip away at the immense suffering that is the current displacement experience.

Were we able to listen to one another? If not, then how would we be able to listen to needs of those we hardly knew on the ground?  How did we build a team and run the project that could be stretched by any number of unknowns, recently COVID-19 and other challenges, and yet not break? What was the ethos and ethics of how our project was run? 

In the reflection process, it became clear that the evaluation team shared with me and my colleagues a personal commitment to honest, critical reflection in a space of respect and privacy. These principles allowed us to open up about who we really were, behind the armor of our professional selves.

Research for development is personal

Both of my colleagues are the first generation in their families to complete college, much less earn PhDs. When they think about the needs and preferences of rural communities, those decisions are informed by a personal awareness of what that life looks like in Kenya and Ethiopia, respectively. I became more aware than ever before why my professional gender expertise was matched, or even surpassed, by my colleagues’ lived complex intersectional experiences of gender inequalities.

My own situation is far from simple. I grew up in the 60s and 70s in the American South where casual racism and misogyny were socially common and acceptable. Thanks to my mother I was not allowed to indulge in white supremacist fantasies, but the struggle to really clear my life of structural privilege is ongoing. All of these values and experiences shape who I am, and as I now reflected, how I think about, plan and do research. And yet, this had never been a point of reflection for me.

In our zeal to avoid bringing attention to the personal and the political, which shape our lives and our work, far too many of us who work in humanitarian contexts often overlook the deeply personal and emotional resources it takes to toggle between deprivation and plenty. At the end of the day, being witness to the profound deprivation of other humans is not just a career. If we treat it as such, we are either in denial of our own humanity or we have invested too much in an icy professional exterior, which feminist researchers question as the myth of “objective science”.

A Congolese refugee in Uganda. (Photo: Flickr/©EU/ECHO/Martin Karimi)

Undoing an unequal world starts with knowing ourselves

This reflective evaluation process, led with compassion, allowed us to restock our emotional pantry and relax just a bit, and find logic and reason for the overwhelming anxiety in “ticking”—and as Mary Beard mentions, not always truthfully—the boxes of gender goals and objectives we tend to overpromise.  

These reflections left me inspired and joyous.  The loneliness, fear and near despair of the COVID-19 year receded and I felt reconnected with people I had known for so long, and yet not so well. This allowed us all to refocus on what it was that we really wanted, and what it was that we could do really do—to make a difference, in the face of multiple challenges and obstacles.

Looking forward to the years ahead, it is my hope that reflection can be included in all projects—across the project cycle, to help avoid senseless rhetoric and burnout, but instead inspire the bravery and honesty that the future will require of all of us, as researchers and scientists.  

We are after all just humans—grappling with an unequal, uneven world—in which our own prejudices and biases shape how we interact, engage, work and get by every day.      



This work is aligned to an Institutional Change Initiative of the CGIAR GENDER Platform, the focus of which is to find actionable pathways to putting gender equality and transformative thinking at the heart of CGIAR research, knowledge and science, through robust institutional arrangements and processes.