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Sounds Good in Theory—South African Student Field Research in Local Communities

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Maggie Callahan
May 16, 2019

By partnering with several South African NGOS—including Development Action Group, Democracy Development Program, Islandla Institute and the Good Governance Learning NetworkThe University of Western Cape provided a transformative field research experience for students, and by extension, citizens. Through the Collaborative Programme in Applied Learning for Civil Society Practice, post-graduate university students were given the opportunity to conduct field research in political science by observing development problems targeting vulnerable South African communities.

Students were given the opportunity to make manifest their classroom studies and observe theories at work in the real world. As social science continues to develop its real-world application, the opportunity for students to practice this skill is imperative to their success. Applied social science research continues to shape the practice of social programs. In theory, this process makes social programs more effective and perhaps more ethical.

For example, students worked with Development Action Group (DAG), an NGO working with community leaders and organizations across South Africa to unlock opportunities to access basic services, land, tenure rights and affordable housing.

Students went on two field visits to sites where DAG operates. At one site, Khayelitsha, DAG operates an Informal Settlement Engagement program that seeks to engage with community leaders to encourage them to be involved in their development plans. Students met with the community leaders that have been involved in DAG’s programs and had the opportunity to ask them questions about their community’s development and the role of DAG in this development.

Students were able to pinpoint discrepancies between the theory and application, which had led to gaps in programming and a limitation of questions asked in the crafting of Khayelitsha’s development program. Students asked questions regarding how the current community leaders had been anointed and how their roles were prescribed; in both cases, neither seemed to emerge from a participative process. Students also noted further gaps between NGOs and formal government structures, as well as the proper role an NGO should play in the development process.

At the other field visit, Salt River, students observed DAG’s ongoing mentoring program. This program seeks to engage community leaders to combat the ongoing gentrification and displacement that has accompanied the development of this Cape Town suburb. Using these site visits, students were asked to apply the theories they have been studying in their program to the programming and organization as a whole.

Students found that the programming did not reflect the needs of the community. There were discrepancies on finding and forging consensus and unifying different purposes. The students also noted the widespread apathy that typified training on the part of community members. They found an interesting relationship between displacement, racism and the state.

In each of the above cases, students were able to ask informative and piercing questions of the NGO and its programming. These critical analysis skills and ability to transform theory to practice are priceless for social science students. Though these insights are helpful, it remains to be seen if the NGO and its programming will be altered as a result.

These vulnerable communities, because of their close proximity to Cape Town, have been researched incessantly to glean insights to inform development practice. But residents note that no observable change has happened as a result of this research. Students performing field research in vulnerable communities sounds good in theory. But if the results of their research never come to fruition, the vulnerable community may have been unintentionally exploited for the benefit of student research experience.

To learn more about this case visit https://participedia.net/en/cases/university-western-cape-student-learning-through-community-participation. To read about other innovative applications of public participation visit, www.participedia.net

Author: Maggie Callahan is a master’s student of public diplomacy at Syracuse University and a graduate assistant for the Participedia Project at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She holds a bachelor’s in political science and economics from Mercer University and has worked in Georgian and Moroccan nongovernmental organizations and the American government. Follow her on Twitter: @laissezmaggie 

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