Partnering with INGOs: fieldwork and beyond

Aisha Hutchinson, a research fellow within the Institute of Applied Social Research (IASR) and a member of the International Centre (IC), reflects on working with an International Non-Governmental Organisation (INGO) to better understand the cultural and religious mechanisms which affect early marriage in refugees currently residing in Jordan and Lebanon. The aim of the project has been to develop a ‘win-win’ partnership to create research knowledge and practical application/tools.

When putting together my application for a post doctoral fellowship from the British Academy on early marriage and early childbearing in Islamic contexts, I promised that ‘fieldwork’ would be a central part of the research methodology. The study involves systematic mapping of English Language and Arabic literature on early marriage and Islam, policy analysis and qualitative data collection with young people and their families, along with other stakeholders in Jordan and Lebanon. The aim is to develop a culturally relevant framework of the risk and protective factors impacting on early marriage informed by Islamic thought and community processes. Thankfully, Terre des hommes (Tdh) – Laussane Foundation, a child focused Swiss INGO, had already agreed in principle that I could work with them ‘in the field’, if the funding was agreed.

From the beginning, as we negotiated the contract, Tdh saw the value of my research proposal and sought to develop a ‘win win’ relationship. This meant guaranteeing that the research aims and objectives would lead fieldwork activities. It also meant ensuring the research process and ‘findings’ contributed to specific project and tool development, wider programme strategies, evaluations and learning and development priorities. Therefore, both of these elements have been explicitly included in the Terms of Reference (TOR), and resources were allocated (time, money, training, expertise and staff capacity) to reflect this.

On recent preparatory visits to Jordan and Lebanon, I realised more than ever how this research could not be done without the involvement and partnership of an INGO. Tdh engages with thousands of refugee families across Jordan and Lebanon, and will support sensitive and appropriate research engagement with the ‘hardest to reach’ of families. Providing a pathway to families in this way is particularly important given the sensitive nature of the topic for discussion. However I also realised that this research could not be done without partnership with a researcher like me, with research skills and experience that are embedded in a professional value system complemented by critical thinking. Largely due to demanding workloads, fast timelines and limited research knowledge within INGOs, additional capacity is needed to undertake systematic and rigorous activity which has explicit goals of knowledge building and testing. This kind of knowledge is badly needed to underpin evidence-based practice and stimulate critical engagement with complex social practices and problems.

As a social worker, ensuring that an ‘applied’ aspect is built into the research process is a core value.  Ensuring that there are clear ‘pathways to impact’ is an important research priority too: impact in relation to social policy and programmatic responses to early marriage that translates into increased social well-being for young women and their families.

There are likely to be some challenges in our project’s partnership over the next three years as we balance what might be competing organisational and research priorities – however we are hopeful and committed to making it work!

For more information on this project get in touch with Aisha at