Friday, July 4, 2008

Development ideals and master's theses

Earlier this week on a conference call, my co-investigator on the project we're working on shocked me into embarassment. He spoke of the importance of involving the National AIDS Council in all steps of our project, adding that we should avoid conference calls from Americans to Americans -- calls like, well, the one that was taking place right then.

The reason this embarassed me so much was that I had been totally preoccupied with fighting for my own place in this project. As a student, it's hard to have one's voice heard against those with more experience, more letters after their names, and more publications under their belts. I never wanted to carry out a project on my own, because, let's face it, those letters and publications do mean something, and whatever project I worked on singlehandedly would be bound for disaster.

But I didn't want to end up anyone's research assistant, either. With so many high-profile scientists on the project, I could picture myself relegated to a position as someone's errand-runner, reporting back every day, until my job was done and the real, higher-level analysis fell onto someone else's plate. So I'd begun to assert myself, to think of the project as "mine", to plan out the next steps quickly so that I could retain some control.

The problem was, any project that has as its goal improvements in the health or well-being of a population really should belong to that population, and not to some ambitious master's student. In my determination to make this project "mine", I'd lost sight of the fact that the problem, its study, and its eventual solution, is all theirs. This project belongs to the people of Mozambique, and to claim otherwise is to do the Mozambican people, and the entire ideal of international development, a huge disservice. If any interventions, and the research they are based on, are to be successful, they must come from within.

And so I am learning to be at peace with a master's project that has two levels: one, the research itself, which I am aiding in the execution of; and the other the process of working with individuals within governmental and non-governmental institutions, of understanding people's concerns and interests and finding solutions together. It is both a great challenge to find the time and energy to work with others on their terms, and a relief to know that the burden of this research is not on my shoulders alone. I am learning to love my role as consultant to Mozambique, and whatever happens with the research, I know there will be good stories to tell at the end of the process.


Che said...

Hmmm... this makes me think... not just about thesis, but about what we're doing in general. I know you'll figure it out, though! Is it bad that my thoughts about thesis are, generally, "Eh, it'll happen"???

Rica said...

I think it'll happen, too. And besides, we've got tons of time -- a whole other year+. And yeah, the whole concept of research is getting a little fuzzy to me right now. There's a whole research community that needs hard data to do anything, and then there are people who live and observe what's happening and know what the research community wants to know about 5 years before they do. I guess as a scientist I like having the data, too, but sometimes it seems a little backwards.