Researching displacement: how do we know we are asking the right questions?

Inclusivity and co-design were key in creating a survey to examine the wellbeing, self-reliance and livelihoods of displaced people in urban areas and camps across four countries.

Stef Barratt's pictureNick Ross's picture
Guest blog by
19 April 2021

Stef Barratt is the pillar lead for data standards and analytics, and Nick Ross is a project manager, both at Samuel Hall

An empty street in Barikab, Kabul, Afghanistan

A refugee settlement in Barikab district, Kabul, Afghanistan, that hosts a large number of Afgan displace persons (Photo: copyright Samuel Hall/Fazal Afzali)

More than 60% of refugees and half of all internally displaced persons (IDPs) now live in towns and cities, with urban environments increasingly the preference over camps.

Research, international policy response and local action has been slow to catch up, and the experiences of urban refugees and their host communities are understudied. Little is understood about why a Somali refugee might prefer Nairobi to Dadaab camp, or why an Afghan IDP would choose to live in an informal Kabul settlement over a rural camp.

Concepts of wellbeing, productive livelihoods and self-reliance are overlooked in this context, and we lack evidence on how cities and municipalities should best respond to displacement. 

To address this, Samuel Hall is leading the quantitative survey component of the 'Protracted displacement in an urban world' (PDUW) project. It focuses on four countries that host a large number of displaced persons: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Jordan.

Inclusive research design: four key steps

If research tools and methods are designed far away from the households, shops and streets where the research takes place, they may miss key variables that would seem obvious to interviewees – if only we took the time to consult them in the design process. To avoid creating a survey “in the lab”, we co-designed our research tools taking a participatory, collaborative approach.

The following steps ensured we would be asking the right questions:

  1. Review of the conceptual framework revolving around the notions of wellbeing, livelihoods and self-reliance in the context of displacement, from which we developed a survey ’skeleton’
  2. Survey design panels in all four countries with experts from different fields working on forced displacement and municipal planning
  3. Conceptual focus groups with displaced men and women in camp and urban environments in all countries, and
  4. Testing and piloting.

Survey design panels

Survey tools need to address a number of objectives. They need to add something new without reinventing the wheel and should build on the existing body of evidence. They need to be detailed enough to avoid superficial insights, but short enough to be respectful of respondents’ time.

Finally, they need to capture the local context, which means engaging a variety of stakeholders across different locations – from government ministries to international NGOs and civil society organisations.

Samuel Hall and the PDUW consortium partners convened experts working on displacement and refugee integration for (virtual) workshops to delve into the survey, reflecting on the flow and the content of the tool.

This process gave the survey important context: asking questions around gender may be appropriate in Kenya but might alienate respondents in Jordan; religion in Ethiopia is a complex and multi-layered affair while in Afghanistan it is better to not ask about it at all; a list of assets to use as a proxy for income should include an iron in Kenya but a sewing machine in Ethiopia.

Panel meetings with experts in all research locations led to significant improvements to the survey. Bridge building between those working on similar matters in different functions (and across countries) was an additional bonus of the co-design process. 

Focus group insights

Our research framework revolves around self-reliance, 'good' livelihoods and wellbeing. Established metrics do exist for some of these themes, but were not designed with our specific target population and contexts in mind, so garnering the perspectives of displaced people was crucial.

How could we build on commonly used indicators and indices while ensuring that we captured what an undocumented young male Somali refugee or a widowed Syrian mother of three might think? How different would their answers be to: What constitutes wellbeing for you? What does it mean to be self-reliant? Would these concepts mean the same thing to everyone? How does the absence of self-reliance impact wellbeing?

These discussions were insightful. All ages and genders stressed the importance of social cohesion: “If I have no consensus with my neighbours, the Amharic proverb follows ‘who eats alone, dies alone’. At times of hardship, no one assists a person who led a solitary life. Thus, a person should live in harmony with others.” We confirmed that livelihoods and wellbeing go hand in hand.

The importance of 'respect' was evident in all four countries: “When your pocket is empty, you will be valueless. You will have no respect from the family.

An important component to wellbeing, not sufficiently reflected in the survey initially, was prospects and hope for the future or “having a clear plan in life”. Conversely, “wasting one’s time” was mentioned by many as detrimental to wellbeing. The tool was adapted to reflect these and many other insights from the potential interviewees themselves.

Designing research together  

The spirit of co-design will feature prominently in the rest of this project and in our future research going forward. Not only was co-design instrumental for the survey tool itself the design panels and focus group discussions proved valuable in their own right.

A range of voices helping to craft solid research and strong tools is a rewarding process and a key step towards best practice in research design more broadly.

About the author

Stef Barratt (stefanie.barratt@samuelhall.org) is the pillar lead for data standards and analytics at Samuel Hall

Nick Ross (nicholas.ross@samuelhall.org) is a project manager at Samuel Hall

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