Managing a Research Project Through a Pandemic and War

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Since 2020, Ethiopia is passing through the toughest time in its history: in March the unprecedented world pandemic of COVID-19 started and in November the war broke out. In the midst of these problems, L-IFT won a contract with IFC (International Finance Corporation) to conduct a study among smallholder farmers in various regions of Ethiopia. The diaries component of the project required a field team of 6 people to interview a total of 150 respondents for 3 months on a weekly basis. Looking back now, the fieldwork took place at the height of both the war and the pandemic. Despite the severe security threats in the country, L-IFT has been able to finish the project successfully. This did not happen by chance but through the experience of L-IFT working in hard-to-reach areas and the system that was developed to manage such a project. This article gives a glimpse into the system and the hurdles it faced during the project implementation along with the solutions.

The first task at hand for the diaries component was choosing study locations. Much care was given to choosing relatively safer areas for the study in addition to other criteria. Then, the next task was hiring a local team that is part of the community that knows the language and who has good enough connections. For this, L-IFT has a recruiting system that does not require traditional physical interaction. The potential candidates applied online and they were shortlisted based on predetermined criteria. Then they took the written assessment while being on a Zoom Video Call. Those who adhered to the rules and who scored high on the exams were selected to be part of the interview. Those selected were interviewed via Zoom Video Call with the hiring team. Double the required number of high scorers were selected for training. Thus, the whole recruitment was done online to minimize COVID risks.

For the training, we got the recruits to travel to a central place and the training was done in a well-ventilated venue. COVID protocols were seriously followed during the training. It allowed everyone to interact and allowed for personal observation. Then at the end of the training, six individuals were contracted for the job.

Subsequently, the field team went to their respective locations to find respondents and enroll them in the research. We gave COVID protection materials like face masks and sanitizers, and used a strict COVID protection protocol. They were successful in finding 25 respondents each for the diaries interviews with the help of Kebele guides. They started interviewing them on a weekly basis. These interviews did not happen without a few hurdles. At some point, during one field researcher’s visit, there were unwanted deployments of people to the war and the field researcher had to hurry home to hide; there were respondents who dropped out because they decided to join the war; some of the Kebele guides were very busy gathering donations and taking those donations to the war front areas. With regards to COVID also, at some point in the research, there was a huge surge of cases in which everyone seemed to be sick. We were able to pass through the challenges by (a) Getting on top of security and taking every threat and issue seriously, (b) Having a strong communication system with the field team that involves telegram groups where the researchers send constant messages; the biweekly zoom meeting where everyone shares their past two weeks’ experience with the higher management team; and the constant follow up by the field manager through phone calls and text messages, (c) Troubleshooting the problems case by case, for example, the respondents that dropped out were replaced by other respondents with similar profiles in the waiting list; Kebele guides that were too busy to help our researchers were replaced with other suitable people available from the Kebele; Permitting field researchers to switch to phone interviews when there was any suspicion of COVID symptoms. It is hard enough to manage a research project as it is let alone with a pandemic and war looming over us but we were able to complete the data collection.

Thus, the recruitment system; the training system; the field management system; and the communication system allowed us to finish the project during hard times. This showcases our ability to manage a project in places where no one dares to go and conduct a study. We now feel confident that we can work in the hardest places. Even Somalia is possible through our method of building a field team, distance management, flying the team in for training, and constantly following up. We are confident enough in our system and proven track record that successful completion of a research project is possible for L-IFT.

By Mahlet Alemayehu