Watering the capacity building tree and reaping its fruits at IIHS

8 Dec 2016 - 15:15

By Lucia Scodanibbio and the IIHS team.

I have always believed that you reap what you sow, and that with effort and commitment, you can achieve nearly anything. During the month of October, I spent a few weeks working from our partner IIHS’s office, and through countless chats over a cup of coffee or during our delicious lunches, the different researchers in the team shared with me some of their learning and the ways in which they feel their capacity has been strengthened. The final chat was with Amir, the regional research lead, who works far too much, but is definitely seeing the fruits of his leadership and guidance gradually ripen. Below, you can read some of the ideas that were shared with me, and left me refreshed and inspired. What a wonderful team and so many small successes in the making!

Watering the tree: Sources of learning

“The Regional Diagnostic Studies (RDS) phase was critical in furthering the team’s knowledge about climate change adaptation, its relevance and the challenges of the discipline, considering many had not studied it formally. The process of conducting the literature review and writing up the RDS chapters gave a lot of skills about how one argues and frames issues, how to inquire, as well as how to write, particularly in the cases where researchers came from more quantitative backgrounds. Researchers like Tanvi, Ritwika, Prathigna, Andaleeb and Chandni all benefited” – Amir Bazaz


 “At the beginning of the ASSAR project, I didn’t feel confident enough to reach out and meet with people from different places, especially the more senior researchers. When I joined as an intern, the amount I knew about the project was limited and it felt like one had to be a PhD student or senior to make use of the ASSAR training programmes. But then I became an assistant and associate at IIHS, and after a while I had the opportunity to apply for the ASSAR Small Opportunities Grant (ASOG) and meet senior international researchers to present and discuss my work. It was scary but exciting – everyone should have this opportunity!” – Tanvi Deshpande

I sat with all of the junior researchers and pushed them to apply for the ASOG. They came back with their revised proposals several times, until these could be submitted. And look, Tanvi and Kavya went to work with Gina at UCT; Arjun was in Cape Town working with Martine and her students; Ritwika is off to Oxfam to explore private sector engagement issues with Daniel; and Divya is going to UEA to work with Nitya on groundwater and gender issues.” – Amir


“During my PhD I had learned about social science methods like FGDs, but here I got to experience them in the field and do it in real life. Initially, I helped the urban research group with the translations for their social differentiation work because I speak Bengali and many migrants are from West Bengal. At the beginning of the fieldwork I was not very confident, but now it is much easier and I am conducting my own interviews on the knowledge systems stream.” – Madhushree Munsi


“One of my concerns coming back to India after my PhD in the UK was if I would have access to quality mentorship and researchers. Thanks to ASSAR – with the first annual meeting in IIHS being instrumental in allowing us to meet everyone – I have been able to be in touch with Gina, to review a paper from my PhD, with Roger and Nitya to ask for ideas and help… There has also been a lot of openness from IDRC, e.g. by Blane and Evans, and this has been two way, like with Evans reaching out about producing a joint paper for CBA9. IDRC has been nice in creating this environment: it made a lot of opportunities available to researchers.” – Chandni Singh

“One of my highlights was through teaching about different assessment methods at the vulnerability course. I had the opportunity to teach people who were older than me, who knew so much more and with so much policy experience, yet it was not intimidating and it felt like I was breaking barriers, it was so good to see that someone older than you is listening and willing to learn from you”. – Tanvi

“Sumetee and I decided not to teach in the vulnerability course, so that we could leave the opportunity to the ECRs. We gave them the chance to teach in the way they chose to, and provided feedback.” Amir

“There is a culture of mentorship that is built in here at IIHS, which is informal and friendly and happens over chats at coffee, people say what they are doing. It helps that it is not super formal. Some things fall, but others are gained”. – Chandni  


“It is hard for one individual to be interdisciplinary! What helps us here is that we continuously engage in informal conversations. I come from an ecological and engineering background, but sitting with colleagues that are working on social differentiation and gender is a constant reminder: am I thinking about that? It prompts that reflection as they talk about it.” – Deepa Kumar


“Sometimes, the result of your work can be improved simply by sitting in an office with colleagues from different backgrounds. One day, because of Kavya’s work on the informal sector, I realised the need to add a layer onto my GIS map to include the distribution of low income areas, which is an important factor in identifying areas suitable for green infrastructure. There is a conversation, then someone says something, they share a paper so that you can read more, and you then incorporate their input” – Kenrick Mascanrenhas


“Researchers are sometimes clumsy and disorganised, and too deeply embedded in the research problem with a bit of romanticism. Here we have developed protocols around arranging and storing data, following up on a field visit, etc. and Chandni has been key, as she is organised and encourages and teaches others. She has also picked up tips from the other regions, like from Mark T about fieldwork data, and then adapts the templates to our context, we discuss it, and then she tells others. People have now learned to manage and organise research, though this has not been taught in a formal manner. In addition, IIHS is also learning from us. Some of the ASSAR approaches or protocols, like the data management one, will probably be adopted by IIHS too.” – Amir


“There is no such thing as senior researchers at IIHS, it feels like everyone is at the same level, which is a good thing. Everyone feels free to question and criticise aspects of the research, so that we can discuss them and make modifications. People have an open mind and are ready to explore new things… you don’t have to struggle with people in putting forth your thoughts and ideas”. – Shamala K S

“We are lucky for being part of the ASSAR project in IIHS because other researchers here don’t have the same opportunities. We have the luxury to define our research, try it out and modify it if something did not work as planned, like in the FGDs. We are lucky to have good leaders in our team – Sumetee has provided us with the space to find what interests us within this project and pursue it, over and above our research expertise. Amir is open and a teacher at heart – he likes to give guidance to all of us.” – Chandni, Prathigna


“There are many role models that one can look up to in ASSAR: for every aspiration that we have, there is someone. And it is not just about research methods, it can also be about leadership examples – like managing across different teams and cultural ways – or taking advantage of having Jesse teach you about stakeholder mapping to further our RiU skills. If you are open minded there are a million things to learn – this project can provide a perfect opportunity for early career researchers to really take off if they want to.” – Prathigna Poonacha


“The quarterly regional meetings have furthered the teams’ and individuals’ ability to work in an interdisciplinary manner. Not only is this critical in IIHS, but working with IITM and ATREE, for example, or WOTR, has helped to see how science-based and practice-based organisations approach problem-solving” – Amir


“The project has provided the team with the opportunity to fine-tune or develop new skills or pursue related  learning opportunities, including from external courses. For example Tanvi was encouraged to do a course in GIS for spatial mapping, given her interest in that, while Ritwika has learned about budgeting as a proxy for responding to climate change. Deepa, before engaging in the TSP, went to do a course on participatory techniques to understand the power of working in groups, while Kavya learned about climate justice, which has expanded her knowledge and contributed to new research ideas.” – Amir


“People in the team have also presented at domestic conferences, e.g. Ritwika won the first prize at a conference, despite initially not feeling confident to send the abstract”. – Chandni


“Because of my role, I have learned about how to manage large projects across geographies and disciplines. There have also been a couple of opportunities for formal learning, e.g. the UEA gender course, which taught me about new methods and ways of doing research, which was not my focus before.” – Prathigna


“I am in touch with Blane and Jesse through twitter – we tag each other about new papers or articles. It is informal, but it opened the door to ask Blane to review a paper because I knew we are in the same field. With Jesse, there is a sort of camaraderie by indirectly being in touch.” – Chandni


Learning from people like Colleen and Bettina about running an organisers’ group check-in when facilitating a meeting, or all the different facilitation techniques, has been great. We will take these lessons into our future jobs, being more empathetic to people, using different ways to communicate...” – Chandni, Tanvi


“Gradually, more junior researchers are provided with the opportunity to lead work and be fully responsible for meeting deadlines and delivering the output. This way, they can plug in with leaders in different fields, like Ritwika in the water governance work with Gina, or Harpreet that has submitted an abstract for a conference organised by Nitya.” – Chandni, Ritwika


“I sit with each of the junior researchers to help them develop their workplan. We go through multiple revisions, visualising activities over one year. These need to include research, institutional building activities, admin tasks (e.g. Tanvi writing the updates for the PSC each month), learning and development (which must cover 20% of their time and include something that each of them can teach at least three people in the rest of the team, based on their strengths).” – Amir


Reaping the fruits: Personal gains

“When I joined, I wanted my thinking to be integrated and multidisciplinary. I felt that this was missing in my Masters on natural resource management, since I was alone in it, and due to its duration. Because of the way ASSAR is structured, the integration and interaction of people from different disciplines that I sought, has now happened. As a researcher, my approach to research is changing and I feel more sure about it. For example, now I feel confident about ways of seeing and perceiving topics under different themes. I want to start my PhD next year and now I have a better idea of how to frame it so that it is useful and not just lies on a shelf – I have developed that type of confidence. This mainly happened thanks to working closely with more experienced researchers like Chandni, Amir and Prathigna, helping with setting up the TSP with Deepa, participating in workshops and events, and learning by seeing the way the research framework has been designed into different streams”.  – Ritwika Basu


“I did not know anything about GIS before, but I learned with a Masters student from Berkeley who visited IIHS, and now I am guiding the GIS component of the urban ecosystem services work. I want to work on climate change issues in the future and these learnings (GIS, Land Use and Land Cover, etc.), as well as the exposure to the social side of things through a multidisciplinary, multi-perspective approach, fits with my interests and where I want to go in terms of understanding hydrological systems and ecosystem services”. – Kenrick


“Before being part of the project, my research outlook was not as rigorous as now. I attribute this to peer learning in the team, interacting with a diverse set of colleagues with different backgrounds and experiences, discussing how to conduct rigorous research, framing questions, etc. Some part of this experience has convinced me to do a PhD...” – Prathigna


“By being involved in the urban and rural work, I got to engage with migration and themes that are new for me and I interacted with people who have migrated into cities. I now want to explore these for further studies, e.g. spatial distributions. I also learned about new aids that can be used during FGDs, e.g. using pictures for risk mapping, which ensure better participation of people.” – Harpreet Kaur


“When I joined the project, I thought I would soon go back to my practitioner roots. But now I am sure I want to stay a researcher, ASSAR has strengthened my belief in that. I like to have people to aspire to – female profs like Gina and Nitya who are researchers, activists, believe in the importance of RiU and have families!” – Chandni


“This project, because of its ‘multi’ aspect (disciplines, organizations, professionals, etc.), has opened my mind to a lot more possibilities in the world – one does not need to be either a researcher or a practitioner – they need not be exclusive. In terms of a career, there are so many trajectories one can pursue.” – Prathigna


“I like that we are not just thinking about research – we are looking at different aspects, reaching out to different stakeholders from organisations to communities, and thinking about how to approach and communicate with them. Normally research institutes just focus on certain types of outputs, yet it is good for researchers to think about other forms of dissemination tools (e.g. videos) - beyond jargon and using different ways. It’s also interesting to see how the different regions approach these aspects, their dissimilarities and similarities in research methods and comms tools…”. – Tanvi


“The focus and attention given to impact and RiU seems supported throughout, from the top all the way down. This is different to what I am used to.”  Deepa


“Throughout the duration of the project and because of the RiU component with Oxfam, and my own experience in research, I have started questioning the usefulness or futility of pure research – the whole peer-reviewed aspect of reaching out to other academics… I have become critical of how the academic world works and have learned to see the value and necessity of RiU, rather than just saying it.” – Prathigna