Socializing Evidence for Participatory Action (SEPA)

A CIET fieldworker shares evidence from a study with a group of women in South Africa

Communication is essential for any development project. However, development agencies, governments, researchers and academics disagree about the purpose of communication and how to better communicate with people. Some think in terms of “dissemination;” others talk about “social mobilization,” “social marketing,” or “knowledge transfer.” Many seem to believe in a higher knowledge that comes from science and should go straight into people’s minds and change their lives.

CIET understands communication as a way to bring community voices — particularly those of the most disadvantaged — into planning. As researchers, we build partnerships with  communities to help them identify and solve their development challenges on their own terms and in a sustainable manner, based on a participatory search for, as well as open circulation, lay interpretation and collective discussion of, local evidence. We call this process SEPA: socialising evidence for participatory action. The detailed analysis of SEPA’s foundations and practice shows the common traits and differences between it and other health and development communication practices.

CIET’s SEPA process takes several forms depending on local characteristics, the specific problems being addressed, and local actors’ circumstances and priorities. However, there are certain common components that characterise the process:

  1. Evidence gathering. This includes both quantitative and qualitative information about the problems that motivate community action, the resources available to deal with them and the costs related to different options. Every CIET project includes an initial measurement, or baseline, which provides the initial evidence and allows us to evaluate the impact of interventions.
  2. Presenting and sharing baseline data with all stakeholders. It is essential to present the evidence adequately, both its content and form, without interpretations or judgements that may condition the participants. The aim is to inform and foster reflection and dialogue based on local data and in an environment that respects all interpretations. This is done through focus groups, home visits, community meetings and other activities, depending on the circumstances of each project. Insights from these discussions help to enrich understanding of the data.
  3. Action oriented workshops and discussion groups. Once the analysis is complete, we share the new evidence with working groups of people who will be key to solving the problem. Among important considerations for these groups are the costs and benefits of what is already being done in the community as compared to other alternatives.
  4. Disseminating the evidence within and among communities. We work closely with the communities to design communication strategies and tools to reach different audiences. Communications modalities are adapted to the circumstances of each project and include face-to-face contact (home visits, spontaneous dialogues) and contact through groups (peer-to-peer, community meetings, etc.), using popular art forms (murals, quilts, socio-dramas, songs, puppet theatres, etc.), audiovisual formats (videos, presentations) and online resources (blogs, social networks and websites).
  5. Developing and strengthening capacities to collect and use evidence. This process does not imply imposing the ideas and knowledge of external agents. Instead, it seeks to foster an exchange of knowledge and experiences with local evidence as a starting point. In all cases we promote “learning-by-doing” and collective reflection about the best techniques and methods for taking concerted action. In this context, we prioritise the development of local human resources, capable of carrying out research, communication, planning and intervention processes based on their own communities’ evidence and resources. In the Camino Verde project, for instance, volunteer brigades have been brought together and prepared (men and women; adults, youth and children) to visit homes and schools, carry out peer-to-peer monitoring activities and participate in community activities.
  6. Strengthening the means and flow of communication. The recurrent nature of the SEPA process and the participation of multiple local actors contribute to improving communication channels and the flow of information, both horizontal (such as between neighbourhoods or communities) and vertical (with local public services and governments). These resources tend to favour the emergence and development of new research and action initiatives.
  7. Evaluating changes and building on results. New measurements allow us to evaluate the result of the actions that are undertaken. The evidence obtained feeds back to new cycles of reflection, dialogue, planning and action in the communities.

Within this context, CIET limits itself to facilitating research, communication and decision-making processes, without imposing interpretations, courses of action or ways of organizing that are foreign to existing social networks and leaderships. At all times, we promote the self-determination of communities, cultural safety, respect for dissent and solidarity between different social actors. As the autonomous community action process gains strength, we reduce our role as facilitators, with the aim of promoting sustainable self-management beyond the intervention period.

A more detailed synthesis of SEPA’s theory and practice (see document)  shows points in common and differences with other health and development communications practices.

CIET has helped to facilitate SEPA experiences in Canada, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan and South Africa.