Building interdisciplinary thinking through capacity building
11 Apr 2019 - 21:00
By Lucia Scodanibbio, Project coordinator
As I interviewed Divya Solomon in the offices of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), many thoughts crossed my mind: “her understanding of the content has shifted”, “the way she views and approaches research will never be the same”, “there’s a time dimension and thread joining her different experiences”, but ultimately, what reverberated more and more in my mind was that “this is why ASSAR has been worth it”...
Although Divya had an interest in gender, when the UEA (University of East Anglia) gender training was planned in June 2015, she was hesitant about joining, as she had no theoretical backing on the subject. Luckily, the course’s comprehensiveness started from exploring ground-level literature, discussing how a gender question is formulated from a development context, defining gender as going beyond the physical differentiation of the sexes to include other factors like caste or class, and looking at how these different groups experience environmental change differently. It then moved further to also cover issues of wellbeing, and gender within the broader context of vulnerability to climate change.
Not only was the opportunity to interact with experts like Laura Camfield and Nitya Rao invaluable for an understanding of the subject, but it also led to the formulation of the questions that were later explored in the Wells and wellbeing paper. Nitya’s experience in a wide range of topics, from labour issues to agriculture and nutrition in southern India, helped Divya to think about a novel angle and lens to frame issues of agriculture, irrigation and groundwater depletion in Tamil Nadu. It was also critical to understand the themes that were emerging during data analysis, which Divya explored through a Small Opportunities Grant at UEA in December 2016.
Addressing gender issues in a deeper way than through counts of female-headed households, Divya’s research unpacks what wellbeing within a household means, including through issues of cooperation between men and women. She also explores how different policies (such as electricity subsidies that promote the expansion of wells) are experienced in individuals’ everyday lives, and can enhance or undermine risk management and adaptation.
“It was nice to spend time with Nitya, as she helped to bring in aspects that I would have otherwise not thought of. In addition to helping in the framing of the paper, her suggestion to link the qualitative data to the quantitative results of our household survey, as well as to district- and state-level census data, has enabled stronger conclusions to be drawn”, explains Divya.
But this was just the beginning of Divya’s involvement in these issues. “Once you involve yourself in something that takes up so much of your mind (and time...), it ends up being a lens through which you see everything.”
Divya therefore became the perfect candidate to co-write the cross-regional changing households paper with Nitya and IIHS colleague Chandni Singh. “The January 2018 gender writeshop was so much more than a writeshop: since everyone had already analysed their data, we could exchange ideas about causality and effects in the seven case study sites and check their validity across five countries in Africa and India. I have really valued this ability to compare beyond my micro-level work and go as far as learning about trends in Africa.”
‘My mind has been transformed’
The importance of looking at aspirations in the context of adaptation and the type of decisions people take (e.g. coping versus sustainable actions) also became increasingly clear and a focus of Divya’s follow-up research (including through her upcoming, fully-funded PhD in Michigan University), which has significant policy implications. And thinking about impact has now become nearly second nature.
“Willingly or unwillingly (i.e. through our Research-into-Use/RiU colleagues constantly pushing us), my mind has been transformed from three years ago in terms of how I think about research. I don’t want to just write articles and hope they will be picked up, I want to be part of the process. Even though RiU felt like a burden initially, the process brought home the importance of what development research really is – answering questions for a purpose and influencing the way we think about our future.”
But Divya’s practical skills have also increased: the experiential learning and RiU influencing workshops helped her to think about how to keep an audience engaged, how to facilitate a workshop and interact with different types of stakeholders, engaging differently depending on who they are.
“We have been pushed to think about solutions and even if we did not quite get there, to get a researcher to go beyond theorising a problem, is already a commendable effort.”