By Karolina Kluczewska, PhD student at the University of St Andrews
While conducting my non-academic secondment, I have spent half a year working at the Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia (EFCA) – Tajikistan. EFCA-Tajikistan is one of the biggest local civil society organisations in the country, implementing projects in the fields of anti-corruption, rule of law, communities’ development and good governance.
During the time I have spent at EFCA-Tajikistan, I have been developing project proposals related to the prevention of domestic violence, legal reforms, drug reduction and cultural preservation. Simultaneously, I have been conducting part of my PhD research on development aid in Tajikistan. In my PhD, I am looking at the negotiations of donors’ and local ideas in the context of development aid, and how these negotiations are then translated into practice on the ground in Tajikistan. Therefore, EFCA-Tajikistan has been a perfect place for activist research on the visions, disagreements and practices which can accompany development aid.
There are several implications that such a methodology has had on my research. Firstly, working in an NGO has allowed me to gain insights with I would not have been able to gather otherwise. Without being involved in the design and implementation of projects, I could not have understood how civil society organisations in Tajikistan navigate between, on the one hand, the constraints from donor agencies and international organisations which usually have a very limited idea as to what women’s lives or models of governance should look like in aid-receiving countries, and on the other hand, the vision of the state promoted by the country’s authorities. And, finally, how in such an environment, civil society organisations manage to promote their own ideas.
Secondly, activist research as a way of producing knowledge has consequences for the positionality of the researcher. While working in the civil society organisation, I was treated like one of its employees. I was assigned tasks, and had to fulfil them working together with my colleagues, as part of a team. Thus, activist research is a way of conducting research together with people, and not exclusively about people. Working alongside other employees reduces the chance that the researcher will objectify them. It allows the researcher to overcome the division between the researcher and the researched, between the actions on the ground and the academic reality.
Finally, activist research allows the researcher to give something to people who are at the focus of the research, and not only to take information from them. I have treated my work in the civil society organisation as part of a dissemination strategy of my PhD research. In this way, the critique of development aid which I am writing, has had an actual impact on the work of a local civil society organisation. On a daily basis, I have engaged in discussions with my colleagues about which projects should be developed and how they should be implemented. Sharing these often contrary ideas among people of different professional backgrounds and with different priorities and visions influences the trajectory of a local organisation, and as a result affects the communities where projects are implemented.