Talking to Tamils: sharing research findings with the ‘researched’

Nicholas Van Hear

Sri Lanka: Administrative Map - District: Jaffna (as of 20 of May 2008). Map from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Sri Lanka: Administrative Map – District: Jaffna (as of 20 of May 2008). Map from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Funders of research are keen that we communicate our findings to ‘users’ so as to have ‘impact’. The vogue term these days is ‘Knowledge Exchange’. But much stronger than the obligation to funders is surely the moral imperative to let the subjects of one’s investigations – who may or may not be ‘users’ – know what you have found out about them. But how to do this?

Here I reflect on a couple of experiences of trying to communicate some of the findings of several years of research on war-affected communities in Sri Lanka.  In particular, in conjunction with a Tamil friend and colleague, Paul Sathianesan, I have been exploring over the last five years or so how the diaspora has helped to shape recovery in a town called Urumpirai near Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka.

Photo by Nicholas Van Hear
Photo by Nicholas Van Hear

The town of perhaps 15,000 inhabitants was historically quite prosperous: its rich red soil is good for growing vegetables and especially grapes. The place had a vibrant civic and cultural life.  But its people suffered much during the war years, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the place was taken over at various points by the Sri Lanka armed forces, the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers), and the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (an ironic misnomer). During the war years Urumpirai had a reputation as a Tiger stronghold, and indeed the first Tiger to be killed in action came from there. Many of the populace, especially those with means, left for western Photo2NvHcountries during the 26 year long civil war; and apart from occasional visits, very few have come back. Other, less well-to-do families have sent one or two members abroad – to the Gulf or perhaps western countries – and some of these households have done quite well out of the remittances sent back. The upshot has been a somewhat hollowed-out community, with a potentially influential diaspora spread in the UK, Canada, Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Australia, the Gulf, and other places.

Since the end of the war in 2009, when the LTTE was defeated by government forces, the community – like many others in north and east Sri Lanka – has been trying to recover, sometimes with the help of the diaspora. It was this ‘diaspora engagement’ that we were investigating with a view to seeing if it could be made more effective five years on from the end of the war.

Revelations in Romford

My Tamil colleague is from Urumpirai, but left as a refugee in 1985 and has since lived in East London. In December he and others hailing from Urumpirai organised a get-together of former residents of the town and their children at an entertainment complex in Romford, deepest Essex. The event was mainly a cultural affair to showcase the talents of youth in particular, and so featured music, dance and comedy sketches. Paul asked me to speak a bit on our research, so as to encourage more diasporans to chip into efforts to help the place recover after the war’s end. But how to address a gathering of some 300-400 people who were there to enjoy themselves – and not necessarily to have a white man from Oxford remind them of the distress that they had escaped?  In the event, the talk was well-received, with enthusiasm from older and Photo3NvHyounger members of the audience alike coming through afterwards. In retrospect I think they appreciated news of their home town from an outsider who – partly as a result of that outsider status – had visited the place much more often than they had been able to in recent years. As befits the literal idea of ‘knowledge exchange’, it was a mutual sharing of ideas and experience, accumulated over time by both the ‘researcher’ and the ‘researched’.

Locals and diasporans together and apart

About a month later I found myself, again with Paul and this time also an Indian educationist, Savitha Palliyil, addressing a group of 20 or so community leaders in Urumpirai itself. The meeting was again set in motion by Paul, and included local school principals and community centre animators from both wealthier and poorer sides of the town. The wider, national context was a recent presidential election which had ousted the authoritarian and ethnically partisan Rajapakse brothers from power and installed in office an unlikely coalition stretching across the political and ethnic spectrum – an electoral feat achieved without substantial violence, about which Sri Lankans should rightly be proud. There was an air of optimism throughout the country in the wake of the election, which was closely followed (as it happened) by a visit by the Pope, serving almost to sanctify this triumph of democracy.

Photo4NvHOur main point at the Urumpirai community leaders meeting was that our research had revealed a wide range of educational and other useful initiatives supported and promoted by the diaspora over the years, but that there was need for greater coordination of them – a commonplace but necessary call in such settings.  After we spoke, there was a lively discussion about the pros and cons of diaspora engagement in the town and whether it helped or hindered local efforts.  Then, somewhat to our surprise and great satisfaction, the twenty or so community leaders there and then formed a committee to coordinate and shape local and diaspora-supported recovery efforts, as we had gently suggested they might do.

Photo6NvHThe proof of success will be whether the new committee can not only pull together but also pool efforts to revive the town. But we left with a sense of optimism that had been missing from a beleaguered community for some time. This modest collective advance was probably partly down to our engagement over quite a long time, together with the strong commitment of local and diasporan partners.

Serendipitous ‘knowledge exchange’

So perhaps it is easier than it might appear to have research make impact – at least on the surface.  If you are lucky and the timing falls right, you can have some influence.  The circumstances for ‘dissemination’ are not always of one’s choosing, so you must seize the day.  Of course the real test is whether, how deeply and how durably change can be effected, and the question is the degree to which research can help with that process and make a difference.

The research whose findings we were trying to communicate (Diaspora engagement in war-torn societies) was funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Leverhulme Trust through the Oxford Diasporas Programme.  We are also grateful to Cathrine Brun, Leslie Fesenmyer and Giulia Liberatore, and to Munas Mohammed of the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), as well as a number of Sri Lankan research assistants who shall remain anonymous, for essential contributions to this project.  For Compas knowledge exchange activities, check