A mule in the Siberia Cienaga district, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Photo by Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

The disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused us all to adapt our priorities and activities in response to the new challenges we face. Across the Drugs & (dis)order partnership, this need to adapt has manifested in a range of ways.

Our project, of course, is part of the world-wide shift to home-based, virtual working. It is always worth re-stating that this presents far more acute challenges for those in places – Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar – where bandwidth and data are restricted, and has been relatively straightforward for those already set up for it.

In the UK, the SOAS Drugs & (dis)order team has adjusted some of its ways of working. We are having more frequent meetings, aiming to ensure better communication and substitute for the in-person, informal exchanges that take place in the office. Conversations with our funder, GCRF, are ongoing, and the project’s budget has been restructured to allow for as much flexibility as possible, in support of the kind of adaptation that is proving necessary in the field.

Adapting research to new circumstances

Perhaps the greatest need for adaptation has been around field research. In Afghanistan and Colombia, carefully planned fieldwork visits have been postponed. Remote data collection is being approached in a number of different ways.

  • In Colombia, the CESED, Universidad de los Andes team is piloting the application of different sections of their planned survey instrument by phone, while the Universidad Nacional de Colombia team is discussing how fieldworkers may be able to keep field diaries.
  • In Afghanistan, the OSDR team has carried out some guideline interviews by phone, facilitated by local middlemen.
  • In Myanmar, the SHAN team has done some remote collection of data on the impact of COVID-19 on drug users and their families, and is also reflecting on whether some of their planned qualitative research could be replaced with a quantitative online survey if the situation does not allow planned fieldwork to go ahead.

As well as altering plans for new fieldwork and considering remote data collection, teams are working on analysis of data already gathered. In Colombia, one of the threads of Universidad Nacional’s research has adapted its methodological expectations by taking a decision to make do with a smaller number of interviews than originally planned, and to use data from interviews carried out for other purposes that contain information relevant to the research question.

Of course, the pandemic is also raising a whole new set of research questions in the borderlands of Afghanistan, Myanmar and Colombia where our project is working. These include analysing cross-border movements as borders open and close in response to the pandemic, the effect of structural inequalities between centres and borderlands on pandemic response, and the responses of non-state armed groups. All of our country teams are reflecting on how our research can include these new substantive issues.

Virtual learning, capacity-building and engagement – plans and dilemmas

Across the board, plans for capacity-building have altered from face-to-face to online. From GIS mapping to life histories to knowledge exchange, different consortium members are working virtually, actively exploring different modes of interactivity. We are grappling in particular with ways of enabling the group work and peer learning that usually takes place in our annual face-to-face partner meeting. 

Planning for uptake and engagement events is also taking into account the need for virtual approaches. Our panel at the World Bank’s virtual Fragility Forum is being recorded as a podcast, while the launch of our Voices from the borderlands flagship report will be a webinar, supported by a wider range of multi-media content than originally planned. Here, the challenges are about managing virtual platforms effectively across time zones and bandwidths, using technology effectively to create high-quality outputs, and engaging those who need to hear about our research despite webinar fatigue and an overwhelming focus on the pandemic.

In terms of research-based engagement and advocacy at the national level, Christian Aid Colombia’s plans to contribute to a campaign against the stigmatisation of coca growers in Colombia also shifted online. The campaign, #RostrosQueSiembran (Faces of Growers) relies in part on data from the Universidad Nacional’s survey of crop substitution. It was delayed only slightly, running for the whole of May and combining webpages, social media, radio and online newspaper articles. This adapted approach allowed both broad reach and the engagement of new actors in the debate. Work with the coca-growers’ association is now focused on whether the sub-national advocacy campaign planned as a follow-up is possible to carry out virtually in remote borderlands with poor infrastructure, and how a planned training programme for legal facilitators can go ahead.

Altered politics: challenges and opportunities

Responses to the pandemic are shaping politics, policy and public spaces in very different ways across the world. This will have implications both on the processes and narratives we are trying to influence with our research, and the strategies that are available to us for doing this.

In Myanmar, consortium members observed that the government may be more open than usual to public participation in its COVID-19 response. A meeting with a top-level official saw a more open attitude, there has been some relaxation towards the armed conflict, and some freeing of people incarcerated for drug-related offences. On the other hand, the mechanisms of international NGOs and donors are weaker; their hands are tied by financial and travel restrictions.

By contrast, in Colombia, there has been a distinct change in public space. Public protests are severely limited both in cities and in the countryside – an important shift for those opposing either governmental repression or forced eradication of coca. The pandemic has resulted in a narrative shift which legitimises government authority: the government is suddenly ‘taking care of the interests of the people,’ and there was a significant upsurge in the popularity of the President at the beginning of the lockdown. The shift in narrative obscures increased and sometimes extreme repression, particularly in the countryside. It also reduces the possibilities of mounting opposition to policies related to drugs and health.

Many stakeholders involved in influencing policy have observed that the pandemic has resulted in policy processes becoming more opaque: that important decisions are being taken behind closed doors, that influencing decision-making is becoming even more reliant than ever on personal contacts, and that the power of the media to lead rather than follow the conversation has diminished. This challenges us to rapidly find new ways to offer our expertise and knowledge to the policy stakeholders that we are seeking to influence.

This blog is based on responses to an email to all consortium partners requesting information on adaptations to Covid-19 and new substantive research themes. Responses were received from: Sai All, Ana Arjona, Richard Brittain, Karen Brock, Veerle van den Eynden, Jay Kubler, Adam Pain, Frances Thompson Lynce, Ghulam Rasool and Susana Vesga. Also included were comments from Dan Seng Lawn and Francisco Gutierrez made during the first meeting of the Drugs & (dis)order Covid-19 work group.