Photo by Gautham Krishnaraj in Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia
Gautham Krishnaraj is a 2017–2018 Aga Khan Foundation Canada International Youth Fellow, 2016–2017 RBC Students Leading Change Scholar, and recent MSc Global Health Graduate (McMaster University). He currently resides in Mombasa, Kenya where he is working with the Madrasa Early Childhood Program, an Aga Khan Development Network Initiative.
There’s something special about the “Z” countries. Often overlooked despite tremendous sights for tourists and rich potential for cultural exchange, they are unique places that not everyone sets out to see. Zambia was an unexpected destination (with a layover in Zimbabwe, but I’m not quite crossing that off my list) during my eight month journey as an Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) International Youth Fellow, working with the Madrasa Early Childhood Program – Kenya (MECP-K). I am here to provide documentation and reporting support while two MECP-K colleagues are conducting the final support visit in a Care for Childhood Development (CCD) consultancy project with the Luapula and Firelight Foundations. Our work centres around teaching new caregivers (with children 0-3 years old) the importance of play, touch, and stimulation in the critical early years of life. We do so through community based CCD Counsellors, who have been trained in CCD and have engaged their local communities over the past year.
Over the past two weeks, we have observed and mentored our CCD Counsellors interacting with caregivers in Lusaka, Kitwe & Kabwe, as well as more rural communities in Ndola, Rufansa, and Kapiri Mposhi. Covering three provinces and hundreds of kilometers, I can attest to the fact that Zambia is very much, as our local partners have noted, a country under construction. Crimson sunsets are dazzling through the copper dust of the daily grind. It is a beautiful place to have my first true “field experience” of conducting research, although it has not been without its challenges.
This is an internal ethical dilemma that long predates my arrival in the field. My aspirations are, primarily, humanitarian. I believe that humanitarian health care is the bleeding edge of the aid sector, engaging when local systems are completely overwhelmed by a disaster; man-made or natural. It feels somewhat easier to justify the thousands of dollars spent on humanitarians’ travel, insurance, prophylaxis, R&R, lodging etc., when you know that the local providers are acutely in need of immediate external support.While I recognize and grapple with the challenges of this short-term dialogue of urgency, I struggle far more with the challenges that arise in the context of International Development. Many large organizations, even those starting with the good intentions of building sustainable programs, inevitably fill roles that make it impossible to leave. But eventually they must. Vacuums follow. While I am certain that these questions have have been raised countless times prior, and will be raised countless times to come, it begs the question of a better alternative. I remember reading once that Aid is a sector we all wish didn’t exist, because it recognizes our collective failure to create an equitous global society. Can we do more than wish? How do we contribute without feeling/being complicit?
My role here of documenting feedback on the CCD program involves conducting video recorded interviews, and taking plenty of photos. I’ll discuss consent shortly, but every caregiver and counselor signed consent forms before I pulled out my camera. One challenge I did not expect was that during the vast majority of interviews, with the camera clearly visible and me indicating that I had started recording, many women start to breastfeed. I fully support and believe in the importance of de-stigmatizing and normalizing breastfeeding, as it is a most natural part of life. However, all but one of the participants were interviewed were young (16-21 year old) mothers, so using video footage that very clearly shows the whole breast introduces some problems. Am I complicit in the stigmatization of breastfeeding by not using that footage, especially as breastfeeding is a critically important aspect of care for Early Childhood Development? The legal age of consent here is 16, but what happens if the reporting video I will make is circulated elsewhere in the larger Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN)?
On Communicating Consent
Finally, and most critically, few of the rural caregivers had a strong grasp of English. Despite the consistent presence of a translator, and despite all of the CCD Counsellors speaking English fluently, one cannot help but wonder how much is lost in translation. This is particularly important when considering consent. Explaining the purpose and/or potential applications of research can be difficult even in a common language; add in translation and the situation is rife with chances of miscommunication. I have never felt entirely sure that the participant understood why three people had come all the way from Kenya “just to see how they play with their baby”. Indeed, the mere fact that we had come from afar may pressure the participant’s perceived ability to decline participation, further exacerbated by a potential sense of obligation based on existing relationships with the CCD Counsellors. It is hard enough to rapidly build rapport and comfort between researcher and participant in English, and immeasurably more so in a few scattered words of Bemba.
While it’s not possible to fully address ethical challenges A-Z, I did my best to keep my camera stowed until the forms were signed, to sit on the ground with the participants, and to capture them in their best light. Under the brilliant Zambian sun, the latter wasn’t hard at all.
The views expressed here are entirely those of the author, and do not represent the views or opinions of the Humanitarian Health Ethics Network, Aga Khan Development Network, Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Madrasa Early Childhood Program Kenya,