Overcoming research delays in times of COVID-19

In these times of COVID-19, SUMERNET researchers explain the challenges they face in their research projects.

Phan Thanh By Phan Thanh - Jan 7, 2022

SUMERNET projects faced many challenges with doing research during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the Mekong Region. The various measures placed by governments to control and lessen the impacts of the pandemic have resulted in travel restrictions, prevented project teams from organizing field visits and interviews, and curtailed physical meetings and workshops.

Moreover, SUMERNET’s boundary partners comprising line agencies and local officials did not have the time for coordinating with researchers since they were occupied in deaing with the pandemic.

However, despite these challenges, the research teams found many ways to continue their research projects.

Different ways to deal with the challenges

Some of the methods used by researchers to address the challenges were: strengthening teamwork, effective communications, and strong collaboration with their boundary partners both in the country and across the region. These helped to keep the projects to keep moving ahead using online meetings and workshops even though many of the planned physical and field activities were delayed.


Group photograph of participants during the virtual inception workshop with donor agencies (top left), boundary partners (top right)  and study partners (bottom), GIRA project {Date: January 19, 2021}

For many project teams, many planned offline meetings and field trips became online meetings. Many field visits were delayed, or data collection methods were changed. For example, in the case of Dr. Duong Van Nha’s project Bringing more than food to the table: precipitating meaningful change in gender and social equity-focused participation in transboundary Mekong Delta wetlands management, the inception workshop for researchers and partners was switched to an online meeting while offline meetings with boundary partners and key informants became limited. However, the project’s close and strong relationships with local government officials in the local areas helped the team to collect data and maintain relationships with their key informants

Dr. Duong Van Ni, team leader of the project titled The role of wetlands in water security for the Mekong Region said: “We have close connections with local partners, so they facilitated us to implement our activities in the field… We encourage our boundary partners to connect with the community and local agencies to overcome the barriers.”

Dr. Kaviphone Phouthavong, project leader of Enhancing aquatic habitats in upland environments said: “We are working closely with local communities and maintain good relationship with the villagers and local authorities.”

In terms of teamwork, factors such as competence and the interest of researchers are an integral part of the project. Many project teams agreed that without good teamwork and frequent meetings among the team members, it would be difficult for project members to stay connected and work towards their common goals.

Dr. Paul Pavelic, project lead of Identifying barriers to sustainable and inclusive groundwater use for marginalized rural communities in the Mekong Region said: “We ensure the project team meets together regularly to ensure that the ‘glue’ that holds us together is maintained.”

Good communication among the research team and stakeholders helps in maintaining an effective, open, and honest communication among team members and stakeholders. When information related to project activities and phases is transparent among all project members and stakeholders, project implementation will be easier.

Dr. Lam Vu Thanh Noi, project lead of Integrated assessment of domestic water accessibility for vulnerable communities in the Lower Mekong Basin said that "It is important to coordinate and communicate both with our teams and the local stakeholders in the study area.”

Some of the other strategies to cope with the pandemic included having a diversity of expertise to support the project, grabbing the attention of different stakeholders on the research topics, finding partners who have a good experience with data collection, and having good mentors from SUMERNET.

Alternative solutions for fieldwork

Some alternative options for fieldwork and data collection include conducting desk research, phone interviews, meeting with partners online, seeking help from local partners to help conduct field surveys and providing secondary data in the local areas.

Dr. Paul Pavelic mentioned that “We have decided to delay our field work and do online desk research along with phone interviews so that people don't need to visit the field. We have collected much more detailed data now.”

However, changes in research methods and data collection needs to be done with care as these would affect the content and credibility of the research. Moreover, online interviews still face many challenges especially for rural communities that may not have good access to internet and computers. In addition, cultural and political factors in the region such as the need for face-to-face discussions with local authorities or to provide paperwork before contacting local communities also poses a challenge as mentioned by Dr. Bui Duc Tinh, the project lead of Collaborating Water Management for Small-Scale Hydropower Dams in Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia.

This blog is an output of the SUMERNET Fellows. An online survey was conducted to get answers from 11 project leaders in June 2021 about their experiences and challenges in dealig with research during the pandemic.

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Building research for policy towards sustainable development in the Mekong Region

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