In August 2017, fleeing atrocities committed by Myanmar’s military, almost a million people from the minority Rohingya community sought refuge in camps on the Bangladesh side of the border shared by the two countries. Years later, the majority remain, unable to return due to persistent threats of violence, compounded by new economic and political crises. Lack of sufficient resources and infrastructure to accommodate Rohingya in Bangladesh, combined with increasingly restrictive measures deployed by local authorities around the movements and freedoms of refugees, have led to a protracted humanitarian and human rights crisis in this border region.

An integral part of humanitarian crisis response, but one that often receives less attention is the task of gathering insights and evidence to build contextual analysis that underpins the delivery of support. It can be challenging to undertake research in situations of protracted crisis, in terms of accessing target respondents, responding to rapid changes and unpredictability, ensuring representative sampling, and maintaining ethical practices and avoiding harm. The need to produce timely, efficient and robust data must also be balanced with the need to ensure that the research methods employed are inclusive, sensitive and appropriate for the environment.

In this context, The Asia Foundation and the Center for Peace & Justice at Brac University formed a research partnership, collecting data on the experiences and perceptions of camp residents to contribute to improved humanitarian response and service delivery. The partnership produced a set of approaches for carrying out research that emphasizes trust-building and collaboration with target groups.

The methodological approach is tailored to working with respondents who have experienced extreme conflict-related trauma, seeking to engage them directly in all stages of the process, from research design to data collection, analysis and verification of findings. The introduction of feedback loops in the research design, explicit opportunities for respondents to review work, not only contributes to their trust in and ownership of findings but also strengthens the validity and nuance of the research outputs.

The outcome of employing this approach enables greater participation of the affected population in the generation of knowledge and solutions about the issues facing them, despite increasingly restrictive policies and directives applied to refugee camp governance.

This effort links with trends in global aid and humanitarian policy around the need for localized responses. Localization recognizes that affected populations know their own needs and priorities, and that local responders should be empowered to address them. The advantages of this shift are manifold, from ensuring more equitable decision-making to improved effectiveness of aid responses and resource distribution. The potential for localization principles to extend into the humanitarian research sector merits further exploration. Experience shows that participatory approaches are possible even in severely restricted environments, such as during a pandemic or in crisis settings.

A detailed practice paper outlining the community-driven research approach developed by The Asia Foundation and Brac University’s Center for Peace and Justice is available here. The partnership is part of the UK government-funded XCEPT program’s local research network.