Meaningful Change or Temporary Solution? Exploring Community-Based Participatory Research in Kenya

Casey TokeshiLeland, Updates

Above: Casey Tokeshi (third from right) shares a meal with colleagues in Kenya. Casey was placed with the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT in Nairobi, Kenya.

In the first year of my fellowship, I participated in two projects in the Vihiga and Kisumu Counties of Kenya to measure the effectiveness of community-based participatory research and its role in international development. Community-based participatory research requires members of the community to play an integral role in defining a project’s scope and sustaining the project’s life. It aims to minimize power imbalances by relying on collective decision-making and cultivating equitable ownership throughout the project and its outcomes.

In Vihiga, a recent two-year project aimed to increase diet diversity and nutritional outcomes through education and small-scale household farming of traditional leafy vegetables (TLV). I conducted a qualitative study to understand the project’s impact on local farmers.

In the Kisumu food system lab, a four-year, baseline study was conducted to improve TLV and fish value chains. This project aimed to improve the diets of urban informal settlement consumers by increasing the production and consumption of TLV and fish. My role was to manage the food environment study where I mapped 2,900 Kisumu’s urban informal settlement vendors, interviewed 170 vendors, and held eight key-informant interviews. Additionally, I supervised TLV and fish value chain assessments that measured five different components: retailers, processors, wholesalers, distributors, and producers.

Throughout these experiences, I witnessed implementation challenges of community-based participatory research within developing communities. Ultimately, the two challenges highlighted below express that there is no one-size-fits-all implementation solution within international development projects. When Western organizations attempt to apply an impersonalized solution within developing communities, the result is often disjointed and uncoordinated.

As the use of community-based participatory research increases, it is important to measure its effectiveness in global projects. Does this method move towards meaningful change in international development? Or is this a temporary solution to a system that is inherently and purposefully inequitable?

Two Challenges

Challenge #1: Research Exhausts Communities

Many global projects remain in a perpetual state of “in development.” Involved communities, ones who are often subject to numerous development efforts, experience a multitude of outside organizations that start projects and offer brief and unsustainable solutions. These communities are left with ideas and a lack of capital and resources to sustain the project until another organization steps up, ultimately repeating the cycle. Community-based participatory research and other international development research methods can exhaust involved communities as they answer the same questions year after year and do not see a sustained and tangible result of their efforts.

Additionally, research often requires treatment and control groups. Involved communities in treatment groups typically benefit from these projects while control groups are left without support. Food security and hunger are both immediate and long-term issues. Testing strategies where one group is ignored for research purposes demonstrates a counterintuitive framework.

Challenge #2: International Development Research Relies on Cheap Labor and Replicating Systems Oppression

Community-based participatory methods often underpay participants. Contractors used in research are expected to work more than eight-hour days on an income that does not consider the rate of inflation. However, they, like many underpaid workers around the globe, are not allowed to demand fair compensation because many employers will respond by outsourcing cheap labor. This further perpetuates a systemic power imbalance as it encourages racial class hierarchy within international development and grounds. Ultimately, these behaviors encourage dehumanizing and harmful perspectives within communities, further highlighting a lack of project progress.

Proposed Solutions

Solution #1 Project Scope

Projects should have defined immediate and long-term goals, a comprehensive project scope and ample investments to create, sustain and complete a successful community project. Currently, agricultural nutrition-based projects primarily focus on relatively long-term solutions. While community farming can be extremely valuable to increasing food availability and accessibility, it does take time to effectively establish food sources and value chains. Short-term support while crops grow should be an essential consideration.  Vulnerable individuals may not be able to wait for crop yields and will be unable to participate in projects—leading to further inequities. As climate crises worsen, this problem will continue to grow. Defined short- and long-term hunger solutions should be a primary consideration in community projects.

To reduce inequity, projects should focus on including diverse vulnerable groups. Presently, vulnerable groups like disabled and elderly individuals are typically pushed to the outskirts of society and are frequently omitted from community improvement projects. Fundamentally, if development is not for the betterment of the whole of society, it is no longer considered “development.” Rather, it is the willful abandonment of those who do not fit into the paradigm of Western desires. Exclusion reproduces colonial hierarchies that value people based on labor output and abandons those deemed “unproductive” to market norms. This current status quo is unacceptable and does not yield an equitable or inclusive future for communities.

To address this problem, we must actively reject conceptions of what is “useful” and the capital-based value systems we consequentially place on humans. By doing so, we refocus our attention that all human life is meaningful, regardless of ability to contribute. Global, international development projects need to be formulated to be able to garner diverse participation of all abilities and ages throughout the community.

Solution #2 Investing in real-time practice of Localization

The USAID defines localization as “the set of internal reforms, actions, and behavior changes to ensure development work puts local actors in the lead, strengthens local systems and is responsive to local communities.”1 Under the definition, USAID names the above promises to serve as a global advocate and thought leader. This definition is clear in its intention to determine who remains with power to make global decisions and therefore who controls what international development is in the current practice of “localization.”

Based on my experiences, I believe localization means placing trust in the people where we are working. What can localization really mean within the current confounds of international development? What does it have the potential to look like in a system where the power and money is held by the West? Or, is it another limitation on the world set by the West as a continuation of the same practices of Western hegemony with extra steps?

There is an opportunity to evaluate and redefine international development. If we seek to localize communities, are supporting organizations incorporating Western bias into the project? This is necessary in seriously localizing development because oftentimes, development in the minds and practices of a lot of these organizations means, “how comfortably western is this society?” In the history of this global project, what is the amount of history, culture, and lives we have lost due to the “modernization” or westernization of the world? I don’t mean to discount the survival of people throughout time as culture and people are not static. But the continued loss or erasure or suffocation of people is not going to peacefully develop the world into a better place. It’s going to develop the world into one fit for Western white taste.

#3 Encourage Ethical Organization Participation

We need to be critical and serious about what global equity looks like starting from within. Organizations should assess and understand the practical applications of their work. It’s easy to tell people to farm and center around the community when international development itself often is a competitive hierarchical environment for its own workers.

International organizations in developing countries often create environments of hierarchy and inequity and carry that into global projects We need to be serious about educating workers throughout international organizations regarding gender, sexuality, health, disability, racial, and class equity. By offering consistent education and creating space for open discussions, we will be able to foster an environment for ethical and equitable practices.

Questions for organizations to consider

Are all employees knowledgeable about equity and how it relates to their workplace’s everyday actions?
Are there mechanisms in place to call in those who are unaware or protect those in the workplace when calling in fails?

Additionally, on a systemic scale, there needs to be a reassessment of how international development funds are allocated. Organizations, including donors to project implementors, should consider equity regarding their resources, including appropriate compensation for workers. Ideally, project money should be in the hands of the communities as much as possible to identify community-specific needs and build trust.

The highlighted issues of international development often mirror the same problems in Western societies—societies that sort themselves into a hierarchy of have and have-nots: racist, anti-black, classist, patriarchal/misogynistic, ableist, white-western-defined lines. The Western imperial core, through its dictation of who is worthy, skillfully shields itself from self-criticism while also feeding into and necessitating its own racial class hierarchies and poverty. This is the power of the Western bourgeois. We advertise poverty and give it purpose—to sustain the bourgeois imperial core. Ultimately, the West can effectively market this hierarchy to the rest of the world through various modes of economic and socio-political strategies, including international development.  To work towards an equitable world, it is necessary to interrogate and open this discussion toward direct action against these systems of oppression.

Ultimately, we must continue asking questions, assessing, and reformulating global projects in the international development space. This includes projects that involve immediate and long-term action plans and unconditional support of communities that are overexploited. We must continue to ask, “What does meaningful development look like?” By asking questions, the answers will guide us to where we want to go.



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About the Authors

Tokeshi headshot

Casey Tokeshi

Leland Fellow

Casey is from Los Angeles, California. She graduated from the University of Washington in June 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts in both Medical Anthropology and Global Health, and Political Science, and from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in May 2021 with a Master of Health Science in Environmental Health with certificates in Food Systems, Public Health, and the Environment; and Climate Change and Public Health. Between undergraduate and graduate school, Casey was a Peace Corps volunteer working as an English Teacher and Teacher Trainer in Bangil, Jawa Timur, Indonesia. As a graduate student, Casey worked as a research assistant under Dr. Anita Shankar working on research surrounding personal agency in international development and assisted in projects involving the effects of clean cookstoves and empowerment training interventions on gender based violence. Her master's thesis explored the socio-ecological health impacts of U.S. militarism and imperialism in Korea. Casey's primary interests are in sustainability and justice.

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