The SevenSenses Challenge is a 12-week Participatory Action Research education programme for students, post-graduates and professionals who aim to experience Participatory Action Research in the field while at the same time working on their own personal and professional development.
A Challenge always derives from a community issue defined by the local people experiencing the issue. The issue may be related to poverty, (public) health, nature, human rights and many other things. The Challenge concept is unique in that it is designed to focus purely on local demand rather than donor demand.
An international, multi-disciplinary team of people outside as well as inside the community, perform Participatory Action Research on the identified issue at location. Challenges so far have been carried out in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil and Zambia.
The aim of a SevenSenses Challenge is two-fold. Firstly, the Challenge aims to empower local people to find the best suited local assets to tackle the addressed issue, boosting their independence from traditional paternalistic western aid. Secondly, the Challenge gives students and professionals the opportunity to experience the impact of Participatory Action Research at location and offers them the opportunity to grow professionally as well as personally.
This Participatory Action Research education programme is called ‘The Challenge’ for its intense character. As a Challenge participant, you are dared to challenge your boundaries and presumptions in multiple ways. The Challenge is a period of hard work in a probably yet unknown community to you. You will be challenged in a cultural, social, personal and professional way. Former Challenge participants come home revived with new worldviews and experiences, ideas for their future career and memories they will never forget.
As far as societal history goes, there is a huge gap between (scientific) research and practical outcome. On the one hand, research has always been seen as a scientific exercise executed by academic professionals, often lacking access to the practical realisation of positive societal change. On the other hand, solutions for societal change often lacks proper research into the issue, with failing projects as a consequence. Participatory Action Research connects the two, so we get the best of both worlds. Let’s zoom in to the two extremes, to see how Participatory Action Research makes the connection and discover how the Challenge concept adds to that.
Academic research is very much dependent on institutional supply. Scientific researchers focus on gaps in the literature and/or where financial support can be mobilized. The end result is a report with recommendations on e.g. policies that have to be developed top-down. This process often lacks the link with societal needs on different layers.
First, on a demand level, the development of the research is often not focused on the actual local demand or need, missing an important opportunity to solve a pressing real-life societal issue.
Second, on the data collection level, research methodology is often determined by the researchers, without consulting ‘the people to be researched’ on what is ethically or culturally appropriate. With this, they risk inappropriate or low-quality research including desirability bias, lack of attendance or a limited response rate from the side of the research population, and other discrepancies.
Third, on an outcome level, data are often analysed by the researchers and turned into recommendations for institutional professionals. The research population (the ones ‘researched’) are often left behind without any insight in the final results and recommendations, which limits their ability to solve the issue. On the institutional level, these recommendations often end up on a shelf doomed to get dusty, as the management level is too busy to realisze recommendations if at all funding or other resources are available to do so.
So who is the one and only winner then? The literature! The gap in the literature was neatly filled up by the researcher. Literature, which in turn is only read by academic people who happen to understand the technical language. Who in turn come up with new research to fill a new gap that emerged and the cycle starts all over again.
“Imagine if alle these research projects done in the past were focused on actual, localized societal needs, and action emerging for this research would be directly realized by the local people. Wouldn’t the world look totally different?”
Participatory Action Research in particular, and especially in the form of the SevenSenses Challenge, addresses this issue on all levels mentioned above.
First, on the demand level, a Challenge always arises from a local demand to solve a common shared societal issue in a community, as opposed to a demand derived from a gap in literature or from a funding agency. This is how SevenSenses can release itself from the funding agency chain and operate independently, focusing on real-life social issues and change that matters.
Second, on the data collection level, Participatory Action Research is such an adaptive process, that even the research process itself is being determined by the local context. In a SevenSenses Challenge, the team works together with two researchers from the local community. They are not necessarily researchers with a diploma. They are people who know the community well, who know local cultural customs and traditions and who know what research methodology would be ethically appropriate. Together with these local researchers, based on your first informal findings in the field, you determine the final research methodology. As such, you get the best suited methodology for your action research with the highest probability of active participation from the local people, and the most optimal, real-life, unbiased data.
Third, on the outcome level, there is a big difference between regular scientific research and Participatory Action Research. Regular scientific research generally ends with a research report for institutions. In Participatory Action Research the research results are presented to the community during the PAR process. The next step in PAR is to reflect on these results with the different stakeholders involved and proceed towards co-creating solutions to the issue(s) addressed. Together with the local people you determine the conditions under which the locals can confidently realize the solutions and these solutions are implemented within the same PAR process. The research report then becomes more of a by-product, sharing experiences of the process.
Let’s place development aid on the other extreme end of the research – practical outcome scale. As stated before, since it’s very existence, development aid has mostly been practiced top-down, by people who decided ‘what was good for others’, as in: without consulting them first. Although nowadays much more participatory approaches are used in which locals decide what is best for themselves, the traditional mere top-down way is still practiced today worldwide, unfortunately.
Local Non-Governmental Organisations often have very limited staff capacity and are dependent on volunteers who may not always be as committed and knowledgeable as paid staff. With a high volunteer turnover, it is often hard to make proper progress on a project. The local community keeps seeing new people coming in; they may be tired of having to tell the entire story again and may face difficulties trusting the new volunteers on their skills, agenda and time. All this seriously impairs the quality of the development project.
Local NGOs also often lack funds for proper (action) research. Pushed by the –mostly short term oriented- goals of their funders, they often implement top-down designed projects without consulting the local community first. If the donor wants a primary school, they will build a primary school. If the donor wants an orphanage, there will be an orphanage. The before- and after pictures of such buildings are very popular, to show the public they have done ‘good’ for society. As such, the ‘rich’ decide what is good for the ‘poor’. The effects can be disastrous, known as volunteerism or what I call ‘the orphanage syndrome’. These phenomena both are caused by the discrepancy between the interests of the ‘rich’ and the needs of the ‘poor’.
“The ‘orphanage syndrome’ is a phenomenon where development aid is driven by finances rather than societal needs. Unfortunately, there are many of these types of development projects, with hazardous effects on society.”
Through Participatory Action Research, a societal issue is properly researched before any solution gets implemented. As such, PAR is a holistic approach that takes into account cause-effect relations of the issue addressed, history, culture, social relations, the current versus the desired situation, the strengths and opportunities of the community, solutions to the issue as proposed by stakeholders, conditions under which these solutions can be put into practice and more. All these things take into account the different perspectives of all stakeholders. Only as such can we get a complete picture of the issue. When stakeholders understand this complete picture, four interesting things start to happen. First, stakeholders gain mutual understanding of other stakeholders’ perspectives and their corresponding behaviors. Second, as all stakeholders have provided information based on their knowledge, a process called social learning emerges in which they learn from each other, which enriches their knowledge of the issue. Third, new solutions arise as multiple solutions come to the surface and new connections are made between problems, assets and solutions. Fourth, as there is more transparency about problems, assets and solutions and new opportunities come to the surface, the willingness to cooperate to tackle the societal issue increases.
Through these four phenomena and presenting your results during your PAR process, a solid base is established upon which a project (the co-created solution to the societal issue) can be realized. This greatly reduces any chance of failure, on the level of 1) fulfilling societal needs, 2) cultural and ethical appropriateness of the solution, 3) equality (reducing the disadvantage of certain stakeholder groups and subsequent acts of envy) and 4) feasibility of the project.
Let’s get back to the mere top-down issue of practical outcome described earlier. A top-down approach is practically impossible in PAR. The opposite of the top-down approach is the bottom-up approach, which basically means that the ‘bottom’ of society -citizens- create solutions. PAR involves all stakeholders, including people from the ‘top’ and the ‘bottom’. I hope one day we will get rid of these terms, as they imply innate hierarchy, something by far not of our times anymore.
Bottom-up is a negative term, as it suggests that citizens are the riff-raff of society. For the above reasons, I would like to introduce the PAR approach as a ‘Community-Up approach’.
Community-up means the entire community, including citizens and governments and other ‘Top’ institutions, and all in between. The advantage of this community-up approach is that all stakeholders are involved in the co-creation of solutions, which creates that solid base I mentioned earlier, limiting the chance of failure to an absolute minimum.
Let’s also zoom in on the issue of NGO’s lacking manpower for proper research. This is where the Challenge concept comes in. The SevenSenses Challenge connects research capacity in the North with societal issues anywhere in the world. There are numerous students with great ambitions to finalise their study on an interesting societal issue overseas, or professionals who want to have more impact in society with their knowledge and skills. The Challenge concept connects the two. Through the SevenSenses Challenge, local NGOs do not have to hire expensive researchers for this PAR process. Challenge participants pay to join the SevenSenses Challenge and in return receive professional training and workshops in PAR, development aid, intercultural communication, and intensive one-on-one support in personal and professional development.
Then there is this endless struggle for NGOs regarding funding. They often lack funding and when there is money, the NGO is often squeezed between societal needs and the goals of the funding agency. Unfortunately the funding agency usually wins. SevenSenses only works with funding agencies that explicitly dare to let go of their specific goals and accept that the SevenSenses Challenge only focuses on societal needs as formulated by the local community as a whole. They also accept that solutions are co-created by that same community and only them, as local stakeholders of the societal issue. In other words, the funding agency accepts that at the start of the Challenge, the solution is yet unknown. They invest in the PAR process; the fact that the co-created solution is often a fraction of the budget that would be required in case of a top-down project, is an added bonus and a happy surprise for the local NGO as well as the funding agency.
Through the Challenge concept, SevenSenses aims to create a worldwide reduction of dependency on traditional paternalistic western aid. The term ‘western aid’ is terribly old-fashioned and people in the developing countries (also a terribly outdated word) are sick and tired of all the paternalistic ‘help’ –read: interference- of ‘the rich’. Applying PAR in as many places as possible should generate enough empowerment of local people to tackle societal issues with local means, manpower, talent and all other things that are abundantly available at location. From there, this will likely work as a metaphoric ‘vaccine’ (vaccinated people protect the unvaccinated): the empowered people empower the ones not (yet) empowered.
Since the SevenSenses Challenge is such an intense program, we offer extensive support before, during and after the program. In detail, the Challenge package contains the following:
In the Netherlands, you will:
At location, you will:
When you come back home, we offer support to help you find the right track to continue your career. You will have:
Long story short, the SevenSenses Challenge, on the one hand, empowers people to tackle community issues worldwide and on the other hand, is an extraordinary experience for you as a (young) professional, boosting your personal and professional development in a way you will remember for the rest of your life!
Check out this video of three Challenge programmes in 2015 in Kampala Uganda. Fun and hard work combined! https://player.vimeo.com/video/129959624
In our SevenSenses Action Research Academy we train professionals in coordinating a SevenSenses Challenge. So, you will be guiding an international, multidisciplinary team at location in your action research, while you also perform action research activities yourself. Do you see yourself more as a Challenge Coordinator than a Challenge participant? Please let us know via firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for the possibilities!
 A stakeholder is defined as someone involved in, affected by, knowledgeable of, or having relevant expertise or experience on the issue at stake (Cuppen 2012). So, these are all people who are directly or indirectly involved in a societal issue. These are for example the inhabitants of the area where the societal issue is taking place, local community leaders, local NGOs, policymakers and civil servants.
 By ‘rich’ I mean the people having direct access to financial means. This may be the funding agencies or western people visiting a developing country. By ‘poor’ I mean people who do not have the financial means to exercise power, and who are often pushed into a certain direction which is not directly their ideal one, but it at least delivers some income for the time being. However, the main reason why ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ are between single quotation marks is because the terms rich and poor are relative. Talking e.g. about happiness, who would be the poorest?