Managing cross-country research projects
By Rejoice Shumba 
Salah E Mohamed, VOSESA Coordinator, during his presentation on managing cross-country research projects.
Conducting a cross-national study in the developing world is a multi-dimensional task that requires time and resources. It also necessitates the designing of research tools that are adaptable to diverse social and cultural contexts, in order to harmonise concepts and measures and provide a reasonably acceptable level of cross-national comparison by co-ordinating data collection and analysis, validating the findings of the study, and exploring viable ways to disseminate the results.
These were the key issues discussed in a presentation by Salah E Mohamed (VOSESA Coordinator) at the workshop on civic service and volunteering in southern Africa. The workshop, which was organised by VOSESA in March 2007, was the final phase of a research project on civic service and volunteering in five southern African countries: Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. As a co-ordinator of the project, Mohamed was responsible for administration, co-ordination of the data collection process, liaising with country researchers and compiling quarterly reports for the sponsors and partners.
In his presentation, Mohamed divided the research process into four phases: preparation, implementation, completion and dissemination.
During the preparation phase, the main challenge involved developing research questions and designing adaptable research tools. Although the five countries involved in the research are in the same region, they are very different in terms of political, economic and social development, as well as communication infrastructure. To meet this challenge, the senior research team developed a detailed proposal that contained a conceptual framework for the study, its aims and objectives, the research methods employed, the deliverables and a time-frame. A lead researcher for each country was also identified on the basis of academic experience and knowledge of the field.
To make sure that, as far as possible, researchers in the different countries gathered the same type of information, detailed instructions were developed for conducting fieldwork. Key readings were identified for the researchers. A detailed interview schedule and focus-group discussion guide was also developed, which were ultimately adapted to suit local conditions. For example, in Malawi, following pilot interviews, the research team adapted the interview schedule to take into consideration both issues of language and the context of the study.
During the implementation phase, the major challenge was co-ordinating data collection and analysis and harmonising concepts and measures. Standardised data collection methods were developed in order to ensure uniformity. The research team for each country formulated a research plan which was examined and approved by lead researchers. Each of the country researchers also had to submit four quarterly progress reports during the period of the project. The reports were the main tool for accountability and keeping the overall study on course.
After the data was collected and analysed, draft reports were submitted and comments were provided by lead researchers. This was an important quality assurance mechanism but it was challenging in terms of the time required to provide feedback and check responses.
On completion of the country reports, a research meeting was organised in August 2006 at which the reports were presented and discussed. The validity and value of each study was established through a process of examining how credible, transferable, dependable and conformable the study is. Participants in the meeting collaborated to generate insights for the cross-national synthesis report on the study. The meeting was the first time that all the researchers met each other and it was an important step in forging closer links and common understanding of what the team was doing, as well as exploring the potential for future collaboration.
After the completion of the study, it was essential to ensure dissemination of the findings to a wider audience. A dissemination strategy was developed which included:
- publishing a special joint edition of the Social Work Practitioner-Researcher and the Journal of Social Development in Africa. This contained articles on different aspects of the five-country study on service and volunteering.
- publishing the special edition journal, the five in-country reports and the cross-country synthesis report online, so it will be freely available.
- marketing the special edition on VOSESA and GSI database in order to make it available to a wider range of policy-makers, practitioners and academics.
- the organising, by VOSESA, of a three-day capacity-building workshop on service and volunteering in SADC, where the findings of the study were presented to participants from Africa, as well as to international delegates.
 Rejoice Shumba is the Project Coordinator at VOSESA.