Field Research with VSO Kenya

Leadership in Action (LiA) Final Reflection
Field Research with VSO Kenya
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My Leadership in Action (LiA) project was based in Nairobi, Kenya where I worked for VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas), an international development charity, as a field researcher. The focus of my placement was to produce two reports: A case study evidencing the role of women’s collectives in promoting active citizenship and social accountability, and a learning exercise detailing how VSO project activities have increased access to education for children with disabilities in Turkana West, Kenya. To facilitate the write-up of both reports, I conducted a document review, developed data collection tools for focus group discussions (FGDs) and key information interviews (KIIs), and carried out fieldwork in three counties across Kenya (Kilifi, Turkana and Makueni). Following completion of both reports, I presented my findings – including areas of success and recommendations – to key stakeholders within VSO.

Going into my LiA project, my main goals were to:

  • Build relationships with colleagues and gain a greater understanding of how they work within the Kenyan context (and how their work/approach differs depending on the county).
  • Develop my own research and communication skills – interact with a wide range of people including primary actors, duty bearers, volunteers and project officers (POs).
  • Understand how implementation and research are linked to achieve the targeted outcome for primary actors.
  • Improve adaptability within changing environments through conducting fieldwork in various locations.
  • Gain a greater understanding of how to build a career in international development and the various opportunities within this sector.

Completing fieldwork in three counties – all with very different local contexts and communities facing distinct challenges – meant I had to quickly become comfortable working with a wide range of people and l learnt to adapt my communication style to the situation at hand. The field visits and interviews were definitely one of the highlights of my placement, and it was during these where I most understood the importance of connecting research with implementation. Whilst collecting quantitative data is important to ensure that a project is reaching the required people, gathering qualitative data allows members of the community to present their own views and recommendations on how project activities can be enhanced to empower the most marginalised in society.

Figure 1: July 2023, Kilifi County – FGD conducted with Kidundu Mtongani Environment Conservation Group (women’s collective).

When back in Nairobi after completing my primary research, I triangulated the data from all three counties and worked to formulate both reports. I found that the most noticeable changes for women’s collectives following VSO project activities had been realised with women working to manage their own finances through table banking and actively engaging duty bearers when required. Evident examples of this included proposals submitted to local government for funding and successful reporting of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) cases. Focusing on inclusive education in Turkana, positive outcomes that resulted from VSO trainings delivered to the local community were reduced stigma associated with disability in the host community and refugee camp, increased enrolment in primary schools as well as more inclusive learning environments fostered by teachers. 

Regarding the sustainability of my work in Kenya, both reports included key takeaways and recommendations which the POs will take forward when designing project activities for the third year of the ACTIVE programme. Recommendations I provided included delivering sessions on marketing and branding to support women’s groups in expanding their economic activities, and training people with disabilities (PWDs) to deliver sessions on social inclusion as they are able to act as role models. Furthermore, the case study on women’s collectives will be used as evidence for the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) (provider of the ACTIVE grant). This case study for VSO Kenya works to demonstrate that ACTIVE is, ‘contributing to positive change through building primary actor voice and ensuring the accountability of duty bearers.’

Figure 2: July 2023, Turkana County – FGD conducted with Akistamun Women’s Group.

Although moving to a new country and being the only international volunteer was initially daunting, it forced me to find new ways of exploring a city. Having solo travelled before, I missed the buzz of hostels and constant interaction which living alone and working in a new place doesn’t necessarily bring. Once I found my feet in Nairobi, I began to explore the many coffee shops and museums, and had the chance to go on my first safari in Nairobi National Park. Exploring wasn’t limited to the capital; travelling for fieldwork meant I had the chance to visit the Kenyan coast and more remote areas in Northern Kenya, including Lake Turkana and Kakuma (where we were based in Turkana for our fieldwork).

Figure 3: August 2023 – View over Kilimani, Nairobi from one of my favourite cafes.

Figure 4: July 2023 – Nairobi National Park.

As someone who loves to travel and experience new cultures, I couldn’t have asked for a better LiA project. I learnt a huge amount from working with the POs and the ways in which they navigate interacting with communities who face a multitude of challenges. By the end of my time with VSO Kenya, I only wished I had longer! I had finally started to get to know Nairobi, found my favourite cafes for working around the city and had many more places on my list to see! I felt I had only just scratched the surface with my work and that I had so much to learn with regards to the execution of VSO projects. I would love to work with VSO again in the future and engage further with programme design and see how actions are brought about following research reports.

Figure 5: July 2023, Turkana County – FGD with VSO’s Implementation Partner, OPPEI. 

Figure 6: July 2023, Kilifi County – Fieldwork surroundings.

At the end of my placement, when I looked back on my initial goals, I realised I had achieved many without even realising. The nature of my LiA project meant I was given a significant amount of responsibility early on and I was encouraged to take ownership of my research right from the beginning. As a result, I built relationships with colleagues to understand more about the background of VSO project activities and worked closely with them when out in the field. Conducting interviews and travelling to various regions meant my communication improved and I had to adapt to changing situations, and thoroughly enjoying the whole process signalled to me that a career in international development could be very possible. I loved the flexibility of fieldwork, the variety of the work, and most importantly the people who all had their own unique background and skillset. A key learning I have taken from my VSO colleagues is that being a strong leader requires a variety of personal and professional qualities, and what distinguishes certain people is being able to draw upon and utilise whichever skill is most relevant to a given scenario, rather than approaching several situations with a blanket approach.

Figure 7: July 2023 – Visit to Lake Turkana, Eliye Springs.

My summer working with VSO has been an incredible experience. I’ve been able to develop my research skills, undertake fieldwork and work closely with colleagues to create reports that delve into the intricacies of VSO project activities. Interacting with a wide range of stakeholders and learning more about the world of international development has been a fantastic opportunity. I would like to thank VSO, the LSE Laidlaw Team and the Laidlaw Foundation for making this project possible; I thoroughly enjoyed my time and am hugely grateful for all I have learnt.

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