Guest Blogger: Xeno Acharya
As an MPH student at University of Washington, Seattle, I have often wondered if Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) is a philosopher’s stone in the academics’ head. Having worked in Ethiopia and Sudan (as the researcher) and having been born and raised in Nepal (as the researched), I have come face to face with both sides of this idealistic myth.
In short, CBPR is a research method that has three core elements: participation, research, and action. It emphasizes “authentic partnership” between the researcher and the community, in which perspectives, knowledge, resources, and skills of both are combined.
It is important to remember that most of the time it is the researcher that initiates the research, no matter how participatory. For purposes of convenience, let’s call the researcher M and the researched N. M brings in research funding, manpower, technology, and white man’s knowledge. N (hopefully) brings in local experience, networks, subjects, manpower, and consensus to have been intervened/researched. When I was in Sudan and Ethiopia, I was a Caucasian-looking male who was struggling with the language and cultural nuances, but who was also clearly better paid than most staff working in the same company although I neither had the educational background or the experience the local staff members did. My positionality affected the way my colleagues spoke to me about their work and about themselves, and no amount of CBPR could overcome that.
In Nepal, too, the same power dynamics played out. Although I am a native there and speak the language, I look “white,” and the clothes I wear and the way I walk scream the fact that I have clearly not been around in Nepal for a while. I work for a small non-profit based in Portland, Oregon, that runs a school for untouchable refugee children in Kathmandu. When I visit the school every couple of years, I get the attention (I like) from kids and parents alike, not just because I am the founder but also because of the same power dynamics that comes back to bite at me again and again. So I have settled for the fact that the imbalance is always going to be there no matter what. To me, CBPR is a theory that can never fully come to fruition. Like communism, the idea itself is good and is meant to do well, but a hundred percent CBPR is only a goal to strive for, never a reality.
That said, I think CBPR is still an idea to strive for. There are things I (as a researcher) can change to reduce the imbalance of power between myself and the researched/intervened, and they are still important to do. Reflecting on my own positionality and being aware of this power dynamics is something that I can constantly incorporate in my work; so can you!
Xeno Acharya, originally from Kathmandu, Nepal, is an MPH candidate at the University of Washington. In Nepal, he has worked with local NGOs on awareness campaigns on disability among children, taught in mobile schools for displaced populations, and currently runs a school for children of victims of the civil war (1996-2008) through Namaste Kathmandu; he has also worked on short-term projects in Ethiopia and Sudan. He is currently a research assistant in the Health Systems Strengthening division of a Seattle-based non-profit called International Teaching & Education Center for Health (I-TECH) and is interested in infectious disease prevention, refugee populations, and health systems strengthening.