In the final weeks in India, the work shifted towards writing a case study with Golda. After site visits in all five programmatic areas of SST, we chose to focus on SST’s varied health initiatives. Though there were many to choose from, we narrowed our gaze on the SST anemia camps, concentrating on the cultural, psychological, and environmental factors that influence women’s health seeking behaviors (HSB).
My first lesson in doing research on site for a non-governmental organization (NGO) in a small village is I always need to be flexible. This means that when the circumstances change, the plan for the study may change too.
In the classrooms at Columbia we read about scientific studies with confidence intervals, control groups, sample size, reliability, and validity; however, we found that in the short time we were in Padavedu, we had to craft our methodology based on what was logistically possible. Because the camps were offered two times a week, we felt this would give us a clear idea of when we could conduct interviews and collect data. We had also established a relationship with the doctor at the SST hospital and hoped that she would allow us access to interview some of her patients, therefore giving us the ability to reach a different group of people who had been diagnosed with anemia.
What we did not anticipate was that medicine for the camps could run out, causing the camps to be postponed for two-weeks. So we changed our game plan and reached out to the SST staff to conduct interviews within their panchayats. We also asked staff about the possibility of acquiring quantitative data that had been previously collected.
Again, we learned the importance of being nimble when we found that we had to continuously edit our questions throughout the process. At the beginning, we were finding that the same questions about procedures and policies might elicit many different responses. We revamped questions and revisited subjects several times to triangulate our answers.
On a daily basis, I balanced building relationships with investigating people’s lives. Both are important in order to develop trust and thus collect accurate data for a case study. What I found especially salient was that collecting qualitative information is impossible without understanding the context and making a genuine connection with the audience, which is what I gravitate towards in my practice.
In addition to the need to be flexible, I learned that I must keep an ongoing journal of each day. In these entries I made notes to myself about what we actually did and also included reflections on my experiences. I found that these were extremely helpful to look back upon in order to both process my experiences as time went on and keep a log of our activities. Each day was packed with so many interviews, site visits and meetings that they would have blurred together in my memory if not for the journal.
As part of note taking, also crucial in doing international work is developing a process for defining commonly used terminology. I spent a lot of time in the first week in the field trying to sift through translation and strong accents to really understand what was being said. In an attempt to respect boundaries and not constantly ask what every word meant, I was a little (or, sometimes, very) confused. For example, the word “lakhs” was used frequently at our first SHG meeting in Padavedu. Finally I asked what it meant, which was “one-hundred thousand,” and I was able to fill in the holes in my notes.
At the end of each day, I would try to work with an SST staff member to review terms with which I was unfamiliar. By quickly learning the basic lingo of the NGO, you can catch on to the staff’s shorthand. Even though I sometimes felt that I was being a nuisance, the SST staff was always eager to help me catch up. In addition, this time was often spent enjoying an evening “tiffin” (snack or meal) together, and the company was always the best part.
Field Director Mr. Krishnan would periodically inquire into how our work was going, and if we needed anything to carry on our studies. I always enjoyed these meetings; the fact that we had to explain the case study’s methodology, even when it felt like the work was not moving at exactly the speed we would have liked, made us feel we were accountable for our work. The act of explaining the project to people who have played a role in the process is another golden resource. In these discussions, certain inquiries often lead to uncovering new information and context. NGO’s are in constant motion and it is unlikely that staff would have the time to write a comprehensive report to prepare a researcher to begin their work; part of our job is to parse through information that may be disclosed in a piecemeal manor. If one derives joy from investigation, this can be a rewarding process.
In assessing an organization’s initiatives, social workers are taught to use the strengths-based perspective, as we would when working with a client one-to-one in a clinical context. SST is abundant with incredible programs and successes, and in reporting on their work, it is crucial that we not only focus on potential areas of growth, but on the areas in which they have had profound impact on their constituents’ lives. Ultimately, viewing an NGO’s practices in their entirety, especially with a global perspective, helps the organization fine tune their outreach. However, when looking at a program and identifying gaps that exist, we must also be aware of what is truly sustainable in that environment. Taking into account the advantages and limitations within a village’s environment is critical to avoid imposing programs that would not support the community’s needs.
Our endless discussions about health initiatives of SST, anemia, anemia camps, and HSBs slowly turned into a study that we hope will be useful to SST. The individual staff members were our motivation at all times, knowing that whatever we could produce in the end was a way to help strengthen what was already a successful and impactful organization. Our efforts were immeasurably facilitated by the educators at SST; the staff always encouraged us to be part of their work in each site visit, over each meal, and in each conversation. Because SST’s culture allowed for the staff to share views and experiences with us as interns, this case study grew to be the work of many different people.
In the week before we left Padavedu, Golda and I disappeared into our guesthouse to compile our project whenever we had a moment. Although spending this time away from our peers and friends was hard, we wanted to give SST our best work. At the same time, we were never left alone for too long: our colleagues would check on us for meals or just to say hi, children would stop by during their breaks from school, and our neighbors would visit each night to share a laugh. It was in these moments of connection that I learned that whatever the outcome of this research project developed in our seven weeks of exploring community development in Southern India, as social workers, in order to understand and respond to community needs, it was essential to share time and space with the people of Padavedu.