Sri Lanka fieldwork helps shape career path

Jasmine Edwards reflects on her 2018 research visit to Sri Lanka to interview female farmers receiving aid from a New Zealand government programme. Jasmine says the visit, which was made possible through a Foundation Postgraduate Research Grant, helped her bridge the gap between academic research and real-world practice, paving the way for her current career working for an international NGO.
Jasmine being embraced by a woman

Jasmine says connections rather than data collection defined her field work

Fresh king coconuts sliced open, small bananas picked straight from the tree and crunchy lentil vada were offered in abundance when I visited Sri Lanka for my master’s research. The generosity of people, who welcomed me into their homes, shared their stories and insisted I try the fruits from their gardens, made my research experience so much more than data collection. Connection, rather, was the defining part of my field research.

The lasting impressions of fieldwork have shaped my path ever since: as I finished writing my thesis, delivered presentations on my research, moved city and started a new role in the development sector.

In October 2018, I carried out field research on international aid in the post-conflict zone in Sri Lanka as part of my master’s degree thanks to support from an Asia New Zealand Foundation postgraduate research grant. 

I interviewed female farmers in the Northern region who are part of the Tamil ethnic minority. Tamil women in the North are often considered the worst-affected group by the three-decade-long conflict. Poverty levels in this part of the country are disproportionately high, and the aid project on dairy farming that I researched is part of efforts to rebuild livelihoods.

I wanted to share the farmers’ stories through my research. Often monitoring of aid projects captures large-scale and quantitative data, such as how many people are participating and how much income the livelihood activity has generated. My research, however, focused on gathering small-scale qualitative data through interviews and photos taken by farmers. 

This allowed deeper understandings of female farmers’ perspectives of how they had been affected by the aid project. In addition to economic impacts of the project, I researched farmer’s views of social and environmental impacts, which are also important aspects of sustainable livelihoods and wellbeing.

A woman lighting incense at a shrine

A woman performing a puja (prayer ceremony) to Hindu deities at her family shrine

Knowing that people have more money doesn’t capture other important information like the stories women told of feeling proud of providing for their children’s education or reclaiming dignity because they no longer need to beg for money.

I heard stories of the long hours foraging for cattle feed and the extra demands of caring for cows that are not suited to tropical climates – but that, despite the challenges, their livelihoods are more resilient.

I also heard about the challenges of growing crops as the impacts of climate change intensify, and cattle shelters that have been built but can’t be used because the soil holds the water in the monsoon. I heard about the tensions between increasing income for women and traditional household roles, all while dealing with the psychological aftermath of war.

In exploring these impacts, I had the opportunity to connect with many different people, from farmers and locals in rural jungle areas who had never met a foreigner, to aid workers, agricultural specialists and government officials. As well as giving me valuable cross-cultural experience and an understanding of development in practice, this research helped me to develop stakeholder engagement skills that made a real impact in the development sector.

When I returned to New Zealand, I presented my key research findings to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The holistic emphasis - considering social, gender, environmental and economic factors - and some of the risks my research highlighted led to new aid funding for activities to support social and gender equality outcomes within the project. Also, in response to my research findings, the aid programme adopted a gendered approach in planning and implementation in similar dairy development projects in other countries in both Asia and Africa. 

I really value how the Foundation’s postgraduate field research grants enable opportunities for students to create connections and, in this case, even bridge the gap between academic research and real-world practice and policy. Research grants also provide such an excellent chance to develop relevant, useful skills for employment after finishing study.

My practical research experience definitely shaped the pathway I have taken since completing my degree and helped me to develop the communication and engagement skillsets I use in my current role working in the development sector. Also hugely relevant is the flexibility, creativity and problem-solving skills that fieldwork demands. This type of resilience and adaptivity is really valued by employers.

A group of people standing outside, some of them playing instruments

Jasmine: "The connections I made thanks to this research experience inspire and motivate me to work in humanitarian development."

In my current role in the communications team at New Zealand Red Cross, I often reflect on the relevance of my fieldwork in Sri Lanka: building relationships with people from diverse backgrounds and across different organisations, communicating effectively and compelling action were key parts of my master’s research and are key parts of my work. 

People are interested in hearing about real experiences and stories, and doing fieldwork gave me a strong base from which to develop community engagement and communication skills. As I interview people for stories about New Zealand Red Cross’ work or am out meeting people from different organisations, I am reminded of interviews and people I connected with in Sri Lanka – finding common ground as we travelled dirt road mazes, getting trapped by monsoon rains making for much longer conversations than expected and snakes interrupting interviews.

The connections I made thanks to this research experience – working alongside passionate people involved in international aid projects and being invited into local people’s homes –  continue to inspire and motivate me to work in humanitarian development. In the words of my friend in Sri Lanka, “You are the first [foreign] person I’ve brought to my village. Come back to Sri Lanka again with your family.”