We nor go taya (we will never tire) – lessons from a recent project in Sierra Leone

By Regina Bash-Taqi, Muallem Kamara, Alhaji Sawaneh and Anais Bash-Taqi (IfD) with Katarzyna Kubacka (NFER)

Thursday 30 June 2022

In times of crisis, children and people with disabilities suffer disproportionately. As public health and education systems try to respond to the general population's needs, those groups are most at risk of exclusion from response efforts. As such, timely access to high-quality data about the needs of such populations is vital for programme managers and policymakers.

An endline evaluation of the Girls' Access to Education (GATE) Girls Education Challenge (GEC), conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in partnership with the Institute for Development (IfD) in Sierra Leone on behalf of Plan International, was able to provide such evidence safely through robust planning and adherence to partnership principles.

This blog will look at some of the practical lessons learned from the data collection experience which took place in Sierra Leone and involved vulnerable learners and different school stakeholders.

Complementarity and mutual respect: a recipe for solid partnerships
Partnerships are the cornerstone of NFER's international work. Different organisations bring complementary skills and expertise, strengthening outputs and leading to mutual capacity building.

During the pandemic, limitations to international travel meant that, as the local partner, IfD’s role was more important than ever. Through regular virtual sessions, careful listening, and appreciation of each other’s expertise, the NFER and IfD teams developed strong bonds and a desire to deliver.

Careful planning: considering the context
Local safeguarding expert, Dr Bintu Mansaray, led the development of the safeguarding materials, together with NFER and IfD. Through this process, NFER and IfD ensured the content was appropriate for the Sierra Leone context, and particularly for research with vulnerable participants. Both teams used their combined expertise, pulling from the experience of the IfD field researchers, to ensure they were well prepared to comply with the COVID-19 protocols at the time.

Training: Adjusting to virtual delivery
During the research, travel guidelines prevented the NFER team from travelling to Sierra Leone, with both organisations having to rely on frequent remote communication instead. This meant NFER also had to deliver the field-researcher training virtually, which would usually have been conducted in-country with IfD.
To meet this new requirement, NFER adapted the training in the following ways:

  • Adjusting session duration: training was broken down into shorter sessions, over more days, to minimise screen time and help participants stay focused.

  • Intentionally planning for full engagement in the virtual setting: NFER included fun icebreaker sessions, scheduled regular breaks, and incorporated practical exercises done in virtual breakout rooms. These activities help enormously with information uptake.
  • Sharing training materials with participants ahead of time: NFER prepared the training materials with inputs from IfD. They ensured the language was accessible to the field researchers and only included the most pertinent information so as not to overwhelm participants. IfD shared training materials with the field researchers ahead of each session.

  • Built in time for reflection: NFER conducted a follow-up session roughly a week after the main training to summarise the main lessons learned and answer field researchers' questions about the research. Many of them had questions following their reflection on the training content so this additional session allowed them to go into the field feeling thoroughly prepared.

Local knowledge: Critical to effectively accessing communities
The NFER partnership with IfD and the experience of their pool of field researchers from across the different regions of Sierra Leone meant the whole team was well placed to tackle unforeseen field challenges. Below are three examples of this:

  1. Unexpected infrastructure challenges
    While experience had prepared the research team for bad roads, they were challenged by uncharacteristically heavy rainfall for the time of the year. Field researchers were able to connect with local communities and benefit from the shelter and advice they offered.
    Similarly, when they found themselves in areas with poor phone signal, local people directed the team to the best spots allowing them to access the team WhatsApp group and provide a situation update.

  2. Being responsive to the situation
    Although visits had been arranged and re-confirmed in advance, the IfD team arrived at one school to find the children engaged in another event.
    This meant the children had to do interviews during their lunch break and could not go home for lunch, which is common in poor rural communities where parents can't afford a packed lunch. The team, being aware of the context, organised for the children to have lunch at school. At IfD, field teams are always empowered with small amounts of emergency cash.

  3. The nuances of local languages
    Despite having local field researchers, one researcher found the specific vocabulary of Mende in that part of the country to be different from their own. A team member was able to step in to help so they could fully understand the respondent.

Working in such a dynamic context – both the work in the field and within the wider context of the pandemic – was a valuable learning experience for both NFER and IfD. As noted earlier, even with detailed planning, careful consideration of different scenarios and a strong partnership, there will always be unexpected challenges. However, thorough preparation remains vital as it allows the partners to get to know each other and build trust – this foundation has proved essential to the teams’ ability to effectively meet the challenges that arise in the field.

This experience has taught NFER and IfD the value of iteratively learning from each step of the research and taking these lessons into consideration ahead of the next stage. The challenges also strengthened the partnership and renewed NFER's and IfD's commitment to working together, and with other partners, to continue to deliver practical insights that can drive improvements for all learners.