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Research in a Developing Country

Doing research in areas such as Central America or Africa requires an enormous amount of patience, creativity, cultural sensitivity and resourcefulness.

By Yetilú de Baessa, PhD

Psychology can have an enormous impact in countries where there are few research projects and a lack of expertise to evaluate projects funded by international agencies. What is required to successfully conduct research or to evaluate a project in a developing country? My guess is that colleagues from Canada, the United States or Europe would have a quick answer to that question: a good research design and a good researcher. But beyond that, and perhaps even more importantly, doing research in areas such as Central America or Africa requires an enormous amount of patience, creativity, cultural sensitivity and resourcefulness. I will offer a few examples taken from my experience over the course of a long career, both as a researcher and an evaluator.

I worked in one country where psychologists, educators and other professionals were hired to collect data. My role was to explain the design of the evaluation and to help them develop instruments to collect the data. When I arrived to begin the training, I did not anticipate that an organization funded by an international agency would lack a photocopier with either paper or toner. The overhead projector did not work, so I had to make do with a simple blackboard and a piece of chalk. The behavior of the staff was also not what I had anticipated. Training sessions were scheduled to start each day at 8:00 am but people began arriving around 8:30 or 9:00 am. Lunch breaks were scheduled for 30 minutes but people didn’t return for two hours.

As I discovered later, everyone had several jobs, either teaching in more than one university and/or working in a private clinic. What at first appeared to be a lack of interest on the part of the staff was really a need to continue with their usual work. When the research project concluded, they would still need those jobs to survive. I realized that to finish the project on time, I would have to help them analyze the data and write the report.

Another example comes from an experience in an African country where the staff seemed very motivated. They clearly wanted to learn how to develop questionnaires and conduct interviews and to collect and analyze the data. However, because they were more relationship oriented than task oriented, it was necessary to advance the training at their pace, not mine. In that culture, it is impolite to rush people. Even in an emergency, it is important to ask how the family is doing, how they are doing, and maintain a courteous conversation. In spite of the time pressure to finish the job, it was necessary to comply with the cultural rules to get the work done.

These two examples illustrate some of the things that a psychologist wishing to undertake a research project in a different culture must take into account. How is this best accomplished? First, try to join efforts with a psychologist from that culture, even if he or she does not have the same level of expertise, and really listen to their perspectives. Second, be creative in working with instruments and ways to approach subjects, geography, and cultural practices. When writing a proposal from the distant “ivory tower”, it may be hard to understand that it can take four hours to cover 30 kilometers during rainy season in a tropical country or that the school will be closed for the whole week when there is a “fiesta” in town. Third, be patient with the people with whom you are working. Usually local professionals are eager to learn, but sometimes they have other obligations or a lack of prior knowledge about the subject. Keep in mind that fears of losing face in front of a foreigner may inhibit asking questions. In addition, academics from developing countries are seldom aware of the importance of doing research or even the need to read new research published in their area of interest. Why is this so?

  • There are limited resources to support research projects because sources of funding are so scarce.

  • Time to devote to research is difficult to find because people who teach at the university level in developing countries are rarely full time professors and usually have several jobs. A clinical psychologist might teach in the morning and rush to the clinic to see patients in the afternoon. An industrial psychologist might work full time and teach in the evening.

  • If research methodology is part of the curriculum, the information is only theoretical, so students become professionals without the practical knowledge of how to do research.

  • Access to journals, either by internet or in print, is limited. The cost of subscriptions to journals makes them beyond the reach of the budgets of both individual professionals and university libraries.

  • Universities in many developing countries lack the structure of ethical review committees. Even if a researcher wants to verify ethical treatment of human subjects there is no mechanism in place to do so.

How could the lack of research and the need for professionals to stay on top of recent developments in their field be addressed in developing countries?

  • Retired colleagues or professors on sabbatical from developed countries could travel to offer two or three month intensive training courses for interested professionals in areas such as methodology or statistics.

  • Colleagues from other countries could engage interested students in cross-cultural research that could show them how to put their theoretical knowledge into practice.

  • Colleagues from universities in developing and developed countries could collaborate in writing proposals for funding from agencies, such as the Ford Foundation, World Bank or even grants from the Psychology Department of their own universities. This kind of collaboration could also allow researchers from developing countries to make use of the existing ethical review processes at universities in developed countries.

  • Journals could be donated to libraries in third world countries. Even if the articles are three or four years old, the information is still more up to date than the information available in translated books purchased from the United States or Europe.

Collaborations between psychologists from developed and developing countries can be rich and rewarding. These joint efforts are more likely to be successful if there is an awareness of some of the inevitable challenges described above.

Psychology can play a very important role in all the aspects involved in project evaluation. For example: in the adaptation of tests from a different culture, in the development of appropriate research tools, in training fieldworkers to be sensitive to the needs and culture of the people involved in the projects. It is important for policy makers to remember that there is no intervention without collateral changes in the environment. Sometimes projects are theoretically sound and useful for solving a problem; however, they can also be impractical or not even of real benefit in a different culture. Seeking advice from psychologists with a solid knowledge of the local cultural milieu could save a lot of money and effort to donors. Ψ