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The Center for Refugee and Disaster Relief


Training in Qualitative Research Methods for PVOs and NGOs:

Resource for Participants Attending the PVO/NGO Training in Qualitative Methods
January 2000 Edition

 by William Weiss, Paul Bolton

Center for Refugee and Disaster Response
Department of International Health
Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health


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WHAT is the Resource for Participants?

This participant’s manual is a companion document to a trainer’s guide, Training in Qualitative Research Methods for PVOs & NGOs: Trainer’s guide to strengthen program planning and evaluation.  The trainer’s guide provides lesson plans for a set of training sessions over a 12 Day training period. This participant’s manual includes key reference materials, handouts of information discussed in the training sessions, data collection forms, instructions for group activities and assignments, and examples of notes of qualitative data collection activities.

WHY was this training package (trainer’s guide, participant manual) developed?

There are three main reason’s that we developed a training package in qualitative research methods for PVO/NGO programs.  These are the following: (1) improve participation of beneficiary populations of transition, development and relief programs; (2) improve cross-cultural communication between program beneficiaries and program staff; and (3) improve quality of program planning and management.  Each of these is discussed below.

1. Improve participation of beneficiary populations of transition, development and relief programs.

A consensus is emerging among humanitarian agencies of the need for increased program participation by affected populations.b  This is partly to improve program sustainability through increased local cooperation.  Agencies also acknowledge that increased participation supports the right of communities to have a voice in programs that affect them, and are a means toward recovering self-reliance.c   This is especially important in transition and relief programs that serve very vulnerable populations where means of self-reliance have been seriously challenged, destroyed, are only beginning to recover.

In developing countries many or most humanitarian assistance programs involve people with little education.  Therefore special methods are needed to allow program beneficiaries to participate as partners with outside agencies.  Many of these agencies have begun to use qualitative data-gathering methods to achieve this.  Qualitative methods focus on gathering in-depth information about a population through in-depth interviews with selected knowledgeable community members.  The methods are designed to elicit information without leading informants, and to enable the user to interpret the information with as little cultural bias as possible.  They do not generate numerical data, and are therefore within the reach of less educated people.  Instead, qualitative methods generate verbal data to explore why a situation came about. 

2. Improve cross-cultural communication between program beneficiaries and program staff.

International aid flowing from developed to developing countries necessarily crosses cultures.  Programs funded by this aid are often implemented by persons of different culture and circumstances than those receiving the assistance.  The greater the differences the greater the potential for misunderstanding and poor communication.  These misunderstandings can go undetected until they result in program difficulties or failures.  Our experience is that poor communication can deny to affected populations an accurate voice in programs that affect them and their future.  Humanitarian agencies may waste resources on programs which are ineffective or even harmful because staff do not understand what is acceptable to local people or the real causes of their problems.  The danger is there wherever humanitarian assistance crosses cultures.  When realized it commonly results in frustration on both sides, program failures, loss of opportunities for self-reliance, waste of resources, loss of life, and ultimately disenchantment on both sides.

The issue is not just one of good translation.  Even when translation is literally accurate, the real meaning of communications on both sides is easily misunderstood if there is no appreciation of how the other person perceives the world.  In other cases direct translation is not possible.  In Angola we discovered that people in a malarious area do not recognize malaria as a distinct illness.  In our discussions with local people translators resorted to the Portuguese word for malaria without making this clear to us.  The problem was only recognized by means of qualitative methods.  Without this information a program purporting to address malaria would have made no sense to the local population.  

3. Improve quality of program planning and management

Qualitative research activities are needed throughout the life of transition and development programs or during relief programs following the acute emergency phase.  This need begins with the planning stages through monitoring and evaluation.  Qualitative research methods can be used for the following planning and management tasks:

  • identify and understand the beneficiary population’s overall priorities for action and the ranking of different sector issues (e.g., health, water, income, food, crop production) among priorities;
  • identify and understand the beneficiary population’s specific priorities within a specific sector such as health;
  • identify and understand the underlying reasons for problems before developing solutions;
  • identify and understand the beneficiary population’s language, concepts and beliefs surrounding specific behaviors/situations targeted for change; and,
  • assess stakeholder reactions to our programs to adapt implementation and evaluate (subjectively) the immediate effects of our program.

Currently many PVO and NGO programs do not systematically use qualitative methods to carry out the above tasks.  Other programs fail to carry out some of these tasks altogether.  This guide was written as a ‘step’ towards systematic use of qualitative methods to carry out the above planning and management tasks by all PVO/NGO transitional and development programs, and relief programs following the acute emergency phase.

WHO will be the participants of the training?

This training is designed for persons who will design and lead qualitative studies for the purpose of managing a relief,  development or transition program at the community level.  Usually, these persons will be program officers, management information system specialists, and educators working in community-based programs.  Participants usually will be staff or partners of private, voluntary organizations (PVOs) or non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  The training design also assumes that participants will have completed secondary school or equivalent and can write fairly well in the national language.

WHO is this guide to be used by?

The trainer’s guide is for use by persons who have prior training or equivalent experience using qualitative methods and  providing adult education and who will be training others in qualitative methods for use in program management.

WHAT are the specific purposes and objectives of the 12-day training?

The 12-day training course provides skills in designing and carrying out a qualitative study useful for program management (planning, monitoring and evaluation).  The methods included in the training are a sample of commonly used qualitative methods: structured and unstructured interviews, participatory learning methods, group and individual methods.  The cross-section of methods covered in the training should give participants skills and confidence to use and adapt other qualitative study methods and approaches found in the numerous qualitative study guides currently available on a variety of health and development topics.  The specific objectives of this 12-day training course are to provide the knowledge, skills and attitudes to do the following:

1.   Use key qualitative research methods useful for programming;

2.   Manage and analyze qualitative data;

3.   Design/lead qualitative studies for program management purposes.


[I].  Harvey P, Campbell W and Maxwell S.  Rehabilitation in the Greater Horn: A report to CARE.  Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. November 1997.

[I].  Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response,

This participant’s manual is the fourth edition of a manual that  was developed and then continuously revised following training of field-level staff working in rural Angola, Mozambique, and a resettlement community in Sudan.  Each training involved a qualitative study designed and conducted by project staff with coordination, training, and supervision support from the authors.  The original edition of the manual was taken directly or adapted for field staff from a graduate course, Qualitative Research Methods,  taught by Joel Gittelsohn, PhD. at the The Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.

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