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Volume 44 Number 3
Edited by Kahaema Byer
For this issue, authors Khalifa, Mohamed, and Abdel-Malek draw from their experiences as Community Psychology students in Egypt to provide an analysis of the challenges of needs assessment, with emphasis on considerations for this work across developing and developed nations. Two responses to their article follow. Volino-Robinson and Ballard highlight the similarities in the challenges faced in Egypt to those experienced working with diverse communities in the US. They conclude with a strong call to action for students not to conform to the status quo of Western, Eurocentric means of conducting research but rather to carve out much needed indigenous approaches. Authors Mihaylov and Perkins advocate for a more generalized, cross-cultural approach in support of the experience of the authors. They simultaneously provide a challenging, critical analysis of the potentially subversive tools within community research as a discipline.
Written by Salma K. Khalifa (email@example.com), Salma N. Mohamed (firstname.lastname@example.org), and Tiya Abdel-Malek (email@example.com), The American University in Cairo, Egypt
A needs assessment is a methodical process used to evaluate and analyze the needs of an individual or a group and to determine which methods would be optimum for improvements. This form of research is commonly conducted for the use of public and nonprofit sectors to serve individuals, educational institutions, organizations, or communities by identifying problems that could be sustainably addressed through strategic planning and suitable implementation of tailored programs. When the needs are clearly identified, sufficient resources can be allocated to developing a practical and relevant solution. Needs assessment can also be used for existing programs to evaluate the results and decide whether the designed program is still relevant and also whether it addresses the needs of the group or not. The differences between the current conditions of the group and their desired conditions have to be adequately measured so that the needs could be effectively identified (McDavid & Hawthorn, 2006).
A needs assessment is not necessarily an evaluation of the current state of affairs, nor is it the anticipated one. Rather, it serves as a platform between what is available and what is eventually desired. Understanding a group’s needs is not only a complicated process, but also a very important one. Charlotte Towle, social worker and author of Common Human Needs, argued that people have different types of needs, and that unless the basic ones are met, people will never be able to realize their full potential. Additionally, she argued that people often ignore the interrelated nature of the needs of humans and that unless people have their needs addressed, they will not reach independence (McDavid & Hawthorn, 2006).
The process of implementing a needs assessment varies from one circumstance to the other, but there is a general framework for community psychologists to utilize. Generally, community practitioners make use of a variety of research tools such as interviews, surveys, and focus groups. Once the data is collected, it is then analyzed, sometimes using both qualitative and quantitative methods. Finally, a report detailing the action plan is produced. An implementation strategy should set clear goals to achieve and these goals need to be bound by a specific timeline (McDavid & Hawthorn, 2006).
Just like any other discipline, the field of community research differs from country to country. This paper aims at examining these differences in relation to developing versus developed countries. In an effort to illustrate these differences, two examples of needs assessments that were conducted in Egypt are going to be used as illustrations. These needs assessments were student projects as part of undergraduate community psychology courses.
The first needs assessment was about unemployment in Egypt and the reasons behind high rates of unemployment of residents living in informal settlements. The project was done in collaboration with an Egyptian nongovernmental organization (NGO) and it aimed to identify the residents’ behavioral patterns, strengths, and employment preferences. Based on the findings of the needs assessment, recommendations were offered to the NGO regarding appropriate employment training programs for the communities and how to provide them with employment services. The assessment process included an extensive literature review, primary research through interviews with experts on the topic, focus group and surveys with residents of the informal settlement, and a review of the employment trainings offered by the NGO.
The second project from which examples will be drawn is a needs assessment that was conducted for a program developed by mental health professionals at the Ministry of Health’s General Mental Health Secretariat. The main aim of the program was to provide mental health services to Egyptian citizens whose lives were negatively affected by the Revolution of 2011 and its aftermath, including the stressful events and insecurities faced in the post-revolution era. The purpose of this needs assessment was to determine the Cairo community’s need for mental health services as well as to assess how the project can be efficiently designed to provide the necessary help. The data for this study was collected using both surveys and focus groups.
Before delving into the comparisons between developing and developed countries, it is important to point out several distinctive aspects of the nature of community psychology research in Egypt. Knowledge of such aspects will help enhance one’s understanding of how the field of community research in general is different in Egypt as opposed to in other countries.
Community Psychology as a Field
In contrast to community research in a developed country, community psychology is a completely new field in Egypt that requires extensive development. In fact, psychology as a discipline is a relatively underdeveloped in the region (Mohamed, 2012). As a result, most Egyptians are unaware of the existence of a field like community psychology. For this reason, community research (such as needs assessments) that is based on community psychology concepts are not at all common.
Another difference between research in developed vs. developing regions involves the establishment of institutions that specialize in research and data collection. In the U.S. for example, there are many research centers that support community practitioners in terms of accessing and collecting relevant information. In Egypt on the other hand, such centers are not as available. For this reason, practitioners in Egypt who seek to conduct community research may find it more difficult to do so due to the lack of availability of data.
The History of Research in the Lower-Income Areas
Finally, when conducting a needs assessment, it is important to understand the history of research in communities that are being assessed. Unfortunately, as we have learned through our collaboration with various low-income communities, many of the beneficiaries have grown so accustomed to receiving aid from researchers and data collectors, that many have developed a dependence on the services. As a result, they appear to dramatize their suffering such that practitioners would perceive them as deserving of the aid services that could be provided. Many volunteer to participate in focus groups for example because they believe that their participation will earn them various benefits or rewards (such as food or money for example).Consequently, it is important to question the validity of the responses given by respondents.
Similarly, when researchers are initiating collaboration with community members, they may sometimes find that there is a general sense of cynicism regarding the benefit that the community will actually gain from a particular study. The reason for this is that unfortunately, these communities have often already had disappointing experiences with researchers in which they were promised benefits that were never delivered. As a result, many of these community members often distrust the researchers who approach them.
Since these issues of cynicism and dependence are concerning, it is quite important to put a stop to the cycle of misinformation that is making community members skeptical about the benefits of community research. If this is achieved, it could help make communities more open to future research. Furthermore, since another problem is that often recommendations that are suggested by researchers or practitioners are not utilized, this needs to change. One of the main reasons for this is the lack of resources - the money available is quite often much too little to fund the recommendations that are suggested by needs assessments, even if these recommendations are seen as important, helpful, and useful. This scarcity of resources is an example of a main difference between community research in developing and developed countries.
Comparing Resource Availability in Developing versus Developed Countries
When comparing the process of conducting needs assessments in different countries, it is important to consider the systemic differences that exist in developed countries as opposed to developing countries. In the United States for example, there are various institutions that provide the public with accessibility to all kinds of data such as that of national substance abuse levels, poverty levels, and the prevalence of mental health issues. Furthermore, there are websites that facilitate public access to such information. This facilitates needs assessments as it allows community practitioners to access data that could help guide their research.
In developing countries like Egypt on the other hand, such public records are usually unavailable, or alternatively, unreliable, inaccurate, or even outdated. Additionally, publications of scientific studies in academic journals (particularly those which fall within the realm of the social sciences) are not very common. As a result, when conducting a needs assessment in a developing country, the information that is retrieved by data collectors might be inaccurate or incomplete due to the lack of reliable information databases. For example, during the post revolution mental health study, we experienced difficulty finding publications that discussed the effects of post-revolution events on civilians for our literature review.
Just as research data is difficult to access in developing countries, volunteers are another resource to which data collectors have limited access. This is yet another area of difference between research in developed and developing countries. For example, in the United States youth are frequently encouraged to participate in a variety of volunteer work programs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S., during 2012 the volunteer rate was 26.5% (“Volunteering in the United States”, 2013). Consequently, this provides nonprofit organizations and community practitioners with access to volunteers who would be willing to assist in the needs assessment process.
In Egypt however, such a culture of "volunteerism" is generally not present within the academic and professional realms. In a nationally representative study conducted in Egypt, it was found that only 2.3% of youth (those between the ages of 10 to 29) were involved in volunteer work. It was also found that among those who were not volunteering, 3% had tried to find opportunities for volunteer work. Furthermore, 29.4% of those who were asked why they do not volunteer, claimed that they do not know where to go to volunteer (El-Kogali & Krafft, 2011). This lack of access to volunteers can be quite problematic, particularly in countries with weaker economies (like Egypt for example), since financial resources are not always available to hire staff and data collectors. Consequently, an increased availability of volunteers would make it more financially feasible for community researchers to maximize their output. This proved to be the case in both projects we conducted since the NGO and Ministry of Health staff were already occupied with other responsibilities which meant we had to find alternative personnel for the data collection process.
Another problem that may be experienced by community practitioners with regard to volunteers is that even if they can be accessed , many lack the skills necessary for data collection activities such as interviewing and surveying. Consequently, researchers often need to train the volunteers on basic skills such as how to respond to questions they may be asked or how to handle delicate situations. During the post revolution mental health needs assessment, this was a particularly critical issue, as the topics we were assessing were of a sensitive nature (particularly in relation to the issue of trauma). We decided to provide volunteers with training on how to interact effectively with the participants and how to handle crisis situations.
Another example of problems of resource availability in developing countries like Egypt involves limited finances, which impacts the entire process including compensating volunteers. It is sometimes difficult to determine what the most appropriate method of compensation is, especially when the budget available for the research is limited. We faced this dilemma while we were conducting the mental health needs assessment. Because our budget was limited, we identified a different method of compensation. We asked the volunteers – who were university students – what they would prefer in return for their efforts. Volunteers requested training on critical thinking skills. We thus learned of the importance of asking volunteers for feedback regarding their preferred method of compensation.
Compensating volunteers is just one example of how financial limitations can affect the research process. Another example of a financial problem that could face an Egyptian community practitioner that would not necessarily face a practitioner in a developed country is the fact that there are few institutions that offer grant funding. Furthermore, because of political issues that arose during the aftermath of the revolution, several funding sources have been eliminated due to the fact that the Egyptian government has blocked foreign funding. However, during the mental health needs assessment, we were fortunate to conduct the study as a community based learning course at the American University in Cairo and received funding from the institution’s civic engagement department. Had this needs assessment been conducted within the broader professional context however, funding would have been much more difficult to secure.
Cultural and Political Influences on the Needs Assessment Process in Egypt
Issues such as low access to volunteers and limited finances are examples of “tangible” problems that are faced by researchers in developing countries. But what about the challenges that are created by less obvious forces such as culture and politics? One very important aspect of research that must be taken into consideration is how cultural contexts can have substantial impact on the needs assessment process.
The Applicability of Western-based Research Tools
In conducting needs assessments in Egypt, we realized that some of the concepts we learned from our assigned community psychology course textbooks were not as applicable within the cultures of developing countries. One distinctive example of this was the use of scales in surveys. We found that many participants in Egypt found it particularly difficult to understand how to respond to questions that involved rating scales. As a result, within the samples of both projects, there was a lot of missing data. This problem stems from the fact that rating scales are not used very often within the Egyptian culture. For this reason, for many of our respondents, the scales in our surveys were an unfamiliar form of questions. Consequently, the questionnaire devised for the unemployment study incorporated a scale asking people to rate how hopeless they feel. It was evident from the results that many respondents found it difficult to express how hopeless they felt using the scale that was provided. In addition, it is likely that even those who understood what was being asked of them might have had a difficult time figuring out which ratings best matched their experiences.
Similarly, the use of questionnaires when conducting research in certain cultures can sometimes be challenging. This is because often participants seem to feel obligated to deliver certain responses, especially if they feel that the researcher is expecting a particular response. For instance, some might feel the need to dramatize their suffering so that researchers would direct their attention to the issue which these respondents feel are most important. Others might feel reluctant to reveal information about themselves, particularly if the issue being discussed is of a culturally sensitive nature. For example, during the unemployment project, the questionnaire included a scale that asked respondents to rate how they perceived their own levels of religiosity. Many respondents reported very high ratings. The problem was that the responses we received might have not revealed the actual levels, but because religion is such a sensitive issue in Egyptian culture, many participants might have indicated high ratings so as not to appear immoral.
Aside from issues regarding rating scales and truthfulness, survey questions can also be problematic in the sense that respondents may not always answer them in the expected manner. For example, while conducting the needs assessment for trauma that followed the revolution, we noticed a survey in which a woman did not answer how old she was. Instead, she wrote that she had a certain number of children and that she had two jobs. This response implied that perhaps this woman didn’t know what her actual age was (which is not uncommon in Egypt). It also highlights another problematic issue which is that participants may at times provide false or irrelevant information because they do not want to leave the question unanswered. For example, when one of the participants was asked about his recommendations for tackling unemployment in Egypt, he answered by explaining his life situation and talking about his education and the fact that he is underpaid and overqualified for his job. This shows that some people may perceive survey questions as an opportunity to share their stories and talk about themselves rather than actually answer the required questions.
Language and Literacy Issues
Language can sometimes be yet another culture-bound barrier when collecting data in an area like Egypt. This can particularly be attributed to the high prevalence of illiteracy in the region. Today the literacy rate in Egypt is 72%, with male literacy rate at 80% and in 2010 the estimated literacy rate for women was 63.5% (CIA). It should be taken into account that these figures are likely to be inflated since many Egyptians do not learn to read and write during their elementary school years. In fact, during the unemployment project we discovered that almost all of the respondents who resided in the low-income area we targeted were illiterate. This was particularly problematic as the data collection process was extremely time-consuming as many of the questionnaires had to be read aloud to the participants by members of the data collection team.
Furthermore, literacy is not the only linguistic challenge faced by community practitioners in Egypt – because spoken (colloquial) Arabic in Egypt is different than classical and Modern Standard Arabic, many less educated participants find it difficult to fully comprehend the formal wording that is often used in surveys and questionnaires. As a result, in both projects constructing the surveys and preparing questions for our interviews was a challenge because we were concerned that respondents would not fully understand what is being asked of them. Consequently, there is a large number of people who are unable to understand classical Arabic. The resulting problem is that participants who are unaccustomed to classical Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic find it difficult to complete surveys that are written in that form.
Gender and Socioeconomic Issues
Unfortunately, even once the challenges related to the construction of research tools are overcome, community practitioners still face additional challenges regarding the data collection process itself. There are cultural issues related to gender that have to be taken into account when conducting research in more conservative communities such as those that are found in the Middle East. For example, in patriarchal cultures such as the Egyptian culture, being a female community practitioner might come with challenges. This is especially the case when dealing with the particularly conservative subcultures that exist within low-income communities. In such settings, female community members might feel uncomfortable when interacting with male data collectors and the same applies for male members with regard to female data collectors. Furthermore, female researchers might experience obstacles in communities which have a more confined and restricted perception of the role of women. For example, men might feel that it is inappropriate for female researchers to be openly interacting with others. For this reason, in the unemployment study, we made sure to conduct focus groups that were gender-segregated. In addition, we insisted on recruiting male volunteers for the post-revolution mental health assessment in order to assist us when collecting data from male participants.
Moreover, many of the community members with whom the needs assessments were conducted are culturally different when compared to researchers. For example, often they tend to have different ways of dressing and talking, and generally a different way of interacting with others. This is another important consideration related to the process of data collection in low-income areas. For this reason, when conducting the mental health study, we asked volunteers to collect data in the areas in which they were residents because we felt that they would appear less “out of place” in these areas than would members of our team.
Social and economic characteristics of a community are also cultural factors that must be taken into account. In societies that are highly stratified in terms of social and economic classes and in which the gaps between the socioeconomic classes is quite wide, community practitioners have to keep these divisions in mind when interacting with people coming from diverse backgrounds.
Another aspect of research that may differ from country to country due to cultural and political differences is the issue of safety. This doesn’t only refer to physical safety but also political safety since the Egyptian government doesn’t allow for research to be conducted in public areas unless researchers submit a proposal for permission. This is more common in countries with oppressive governments that monitor research in case results do not conform to the governments’ ideologies. Developed countries on the other hand tend to have a more free and open attitude towards research in the sense that studies that generate new information are valued and encouraged.
Unfortunately, governmental constraints on research are not the only political barriers encountered by researchers in developing countries. With regard to political unrest for example, the safety of researchers and volunteers conducting field research in the streets becomes at risk. This was another one of the challenges faced during the needs assessment which was conducted after the January 2011 Revolution, since there were areas that had to be excluded from our sampling process due to the street clashes that were taking place as a result of political unrest. In addition, both studies involved focus groups that took place in low-income areas where security tends to be generally unstable due to low police presence and high crime rates.
Furthermore, because of cultural issues related to sexuality, female researchers may find themselves exposed to sexual harassment. A news report published during April 2013 made reference to United Nations claims that as many as 99.3% of women, in Egypt, have experienced some form of sexual harassment (El-Dabh, 2013). For this reason, because we were targeting low-income areas for both projects, we refrained from collecting data during the evening and instead only surveyed people during morning and afternoon hours. In addition, we intentionally conducted our work in groups and tried as much as possible to have a male member in each group.
With regard to research in developing countries, there are many potential methods that can be employed to help develop and improve the field. Our experiences with needs assessments in Egypt have been insightful. The information we learned can be used to inform and guide the development of research in Egypt where such improvement is direly needed. Not only would such improvements apply to the process of conducting needs assessments, but we believe they would also help improve the quality of our results.
Drawing from our experiences in both needs assessments, we present a few recommendations for community practitioners engaging in similar work in Egypt as well as other countries. As a start, we would recommend current and future practitioners to contact their local governments and urge them to update their archives and statistics. It would also be useful if practitioners could volunteer to help governments compile such records, as this would help provide a rich and reliable information infrastructure for future practitioners.
Moreover, our experiences with research in Egypt brought to our attention that the methods we learned in our coursework at the American University in Cairo proved relatively inapplicable, particularly since course texts were designed based on Western understandings of research. For this reason, we think it would be beneficial for alternative reading materials to be complied to better suit the cultural and political characteristics of developing countries like Egypt. Such materials could provide guidelines for community practitioners on how to tackle the various challenges that accompany the application of needs assessment in less developed countries.
In addition, we believe that collaboration between NGO’s and community practitioners could improve the efficiency of research. We recommend that NGO’s interested in beginning a project seek out experienced community practitioners and similarly, independent community practitioners should identify NGO’s that are experienced in the particular field in which they are intending to venture so that they would be provided with the appropriate guidance. Such changes if implemented would help conserve time, effort, and most importantly, scarce financial resources.
In conclusion, it is evident that there are several systemic changes that need to be applied to the field of needs assessment in Egypt to make it a more productive, efficient, and valuable sector. Such adjustments would help raise the standard of the region’s scientific contributions to the field of community psychology.
Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]. (2013). The world factbook: Egypt. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/eg.html
El-Dabh, B. (2013, April 28). 99.3% of Egyptian women experienced sexual harassment: Report. Daily News Egypt. Retrieved from http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/04/28/99-3-of-egyptian-women-experienced-sexual harassment-report/
El-Kogali, S., & Krafft, C. (2011). Social issues, values, and civic engagement. In Survey of young people in Egypt. (pp. 131-145). Cairo: Population Council
McDavid, J. C., & Hawthorn, L. R. L. (2006). Program evaluation and performance measurement: An introduction to practice. California: Sage.
Mohamed, W. 2012, (March). Psychology in Egypt: Hopes and challenges. APA Psychology International “Newsletter”. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/international/pi/2012/03/egypt.aspx
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Statistics. (2013). Volunteering in the United States, 2012 (USDL-13- 0285). Retrieved from website: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/volun.pdf
Written by Rebecca Volino Robinson and Maria Ballard, University of Alaska Anchorage
Kagitcibasi (2007) defined the terms Majority World and Minority World to capture the numerical reality of our global population distribution. The numerical Majority World includes economically disadvantaged nations (also known as the Developing World) and other marginalized populations living within Minority World contexts. The numerical Minority World (also known as the Developed World) exerts a powerful Eurocentric bias in realms of politics, economics, and scientific inquiry (Kagitcibasi, 2007). The authors of the main article describe ways in which conducting needs assessments in a Majority World context – Egypt – compare to conducting needs assessments in more resource-laden, Minority World contexts. Reading this paper revealed a strong argument for operationalization of an indigenous Egyptian psychology and further rejection of the dominant psychological paradigm as a “universal truth”.
The empiricist roots of modern psychology are firmly grounded in European philosophy (Wertheimer, 1999). The questions of ontology and epistemology are often answered by assumptions of objectivity and universal reality. Psychological research has followed this line of thinking, favoring quantitative and experimental methodology over qualitative inquiry. The tension is mounting, however, toward a more constructivist, even transformative research paradigm. Questions of constructive reality challenge the empiricist roots of modern psychology. Qualitative inquiry is gaining in popularity and acceptance, and visual methodology is finding way into participatory, action-research paradigms.
The authors’ description of the Egyptian context includes lacking research infrastructure, resource limitations, and cultural and political influences on the needs assessment process. These cultural and political influences include problems with applicability of Western-based research tools in the Egyptian context, language and literacy barriers, gender and socioeconomic considerations, and safety issues. Moreover, the authors mention community members being skeptical about the benefits of community research, making it difficult to collect the necessary data for needs assessment.
In some ways the author’s description of contextual influences on research reflects our work with marginalized populations in the United States (US). While the US clearly provides a foundational research infrastructure, obtaining research funding for projects proposing qualitative, mixed-method, and/or participatory-action research designs continues to be difficult. Funders often place value on empiricist models of psychology, overlooking the clear necessity for participatory and constructivist research designs. This dominant research paradigm finds a way into research around the world making contextual factors appear to be barriers, when in reality these are the issues that are likely most important to achieve a clear understanding of needs and experiences of people living in context.
This response is a call to action – conducting needs assessments in the Majority (or developing) World is indeed different that conducting needs assessments in Minority World contexts. The Minority World continues to represent the “status quo” against which Majority World research is often compared. While the comparison is important to understanding differences, it fails to produce the contextual strengths associated with indigenous psychology and research methodology. The challenge for you, students, is to not conform. You are pathfinders in a new Egyptian psychology – this is an opportunity to foster indigenous ways of knowing and prevent colonialization through the dominant research paradigm.
Kagiticibasi, C. (2007). Family, self, and human development across cultures: Theory and applications (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Wertheimer, M. (2012). A brief history of psychology (5th ed.). New York, NY US: Psychology Press.
Written by Nikolay L. Mihaylov, and Douglas D. Perkins, Vanderbilt University, USA
Salma K. Khalifa, Salma N. Mohamed, and Tiya Abdel-Malek present an engaging account of their experiences and reflections from applying community research methods and concepts in an unfamiliar context. Being students at the American University in Cairo (AUC), they are at an advantage as mediators between the positions of researchers trained in the US tradition of community psychology, and of cultural insiders who attempt to make a change in their communities, which, as Kurt Lewin said, is the best way to understand something. The authors’ aim with the submitted text is to examine the differences in community research between developed and developing countries. To achieve this aim, the authors reflect on their experience in two needs assessment projects in Egypt and in their training in community psychology at the AUC. Their struggles with research in a novel setting and the creative ways they overcame the difficulties is a fascinating story that enriches and fleshes out previous reflections on community research in non-Western contexts (e.g., Reich et al, 2007).
The text presents the comparison of community research in developed and developing countries with regard to community psychology as an academic discipline, the availability of scientific data, financial and human resources for research, the dispositions of researched communities, and finally, the cultural and political circumstances, which include language and literacy, socioeconomic, gender, and safety issues. These elements of a community research context are described by examples from the personal experience of the authors.
Concrete experiences are the necessary element of research, but they also beg the question how generalizable their deductions are to other contexts, people, or practices. With the aim of the text being so ambitious, it seems that some important assumptions were made, viz. generalizing needs assessment to community research and the Egypt–United States comparison to a developing–developed countries one. The aim of this response is to complement the conclusions of the authors with a perspective using more generalized (and less experiential) lenses of community research and the North/West–South/East comparison. The lead author of this response a Bulgarian PhD student in a community research and action program at a US university who is conducting research in his home country, and he grapples with similar questions as the three original authors.
A broader community research approach can frame communities and researchers as having more agency and more critical attitude toward the existing context. Examining critically the developed-developing countries contrast can emphasize some differences while question others. The authors describe how communities have developed dependence on incentives from researchers and that they seem to dramatize their conditions to attract resources or services, while at the same time many community members are skeptical about the community outcomes from the research. The depicted situation is very similar to the quandaries researchers in disadvantaged communities in the North/West face, and the concurrent questions of ethics, impact and transformative vs. ameliorative research. While the topics of individual incentives and expectations in research fall into the category of well-known threats to validity such as reactivity and experimenter expectancies (Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002), the self-presentation of the community as a needy one seems to be an understandable strategy for marginalized groups who do not get any other opportunities to have their voices heard by policy-makers or society at large. These phenomena are not less common in richer societies; they might be better addressed by going beyond needs assessment to even more participatory and, especially, action-focused genres of community research, instead of by focusing on the richer context. A similar point can be made about the use of “Western-based research tools”, which is subsumed under the cultural specifics of Egypt by the authors, but from an outsider perspective looks more like issues of familiarity with scales, experimental expectancies, operations-related validity threats, and verbal literacy – all well familiar to US researchers.
With regard to the availability of resources for community research, a distinction is needed between the context-specific overall scarcity of resources (as in Egypt), and the more universal situation of community research and action as a potentially subversive and challenging practice that inevitably gets meager support from the usual sources of money and power – governments and corporations. Granted, a non-democratic government can suppress community research, even small, nonthreatening community needs assessments (especially when conducted by nationals who may be perceived as “Western influenced”; see Robinson & Perkins, 2009 for a more internationally collaborative example of this), thus making organized forms of our profession all but impossible, but it can also facilitate injustice explanations and community mobilization because of the clear enemy it represents. This is the experience of Latin American community research and action (Montero, 1996), and by looking beyond institutional forms of community research we can start seeing alternative pathways to do it. On the other hand, North/West researchers are in a sense co-opted by public policy because of the structures of prioritizing and funding research, and thus their agenda is dictated to a great extent by existing power structures.
These reflections come easier from a cultural outsider’s perspective because of the advantage of cross-context comparison. The authors, being cultural insiders, did a good job at recognizing the differences within the Egyptian culture, which might be indiscernible for outsiders. And sometimes they might have seen cultural differences where an outsider sees class or socioeconomic ones. I would be curious to read more reflections about how different community research forms resonate with the cultural toolkit of the studied communities: with familiar organizational and social practices, with shared myths, explanations and narratives about communities, with key research issues like expertise, authority, knowledge, power, (in)dependence. Certainly, such questions can be addressed only with a broader approach than needs assessment, drawing also on more participatory and phenomenological methods. At any rate, a logical next step seems to be to critically examine and reflect on one’s own position as a researcher. What are the implications of being a student from the American University in Cairo: what kind of community researcher is produced in the intersections of profession, career position, gender, and US-modeled training? What forms will community research and action take to be adequate to the community-researcher relationship? And what are the boundaries of her or his agency and responsibility to create those new forms? Our Egyptian colleagues are on an exciting journey.
Montero, M. (1996). Parallel lives: Community psychology in Latin America and the United States. American Journal of Community Psychology, 24(5), 589-605.
Reich, S., Riemer, M., Prilleltensky, I., & Montero, M. (2007). International community psychology: History and theories. New York: Springer.
Robinson, J., & Perkins, D.D. (2009). Social development needs assessment in China: Lessons from an International collaborative field school in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. China Journal of Social Work, 2(1), 34-51.
Shadish, W. R., Cook, T. D., & Campbell, D. T. (2002). Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for generalized causal inference. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
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