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The Center for Refugee and Disaster Relief


Training in Qualitative Research Methods for PVOs and NGOs:

A Trainer's Guide to Strengthen Program Planning and Evaluation
January 2000 Edition

William Weiss and Paul Bolton

Center for Refugee and Disaster Response
Division of Community Health & Health Systems in the
Department of International Health


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WHAT is the trainer’s guide?

This guide is a resource for giving staff and partners of PVO/NGO programs the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for carrying out qualitative research for program management purposes.  The guide provides guidance on preparing the training and lesson plans for training sessions over a 12 Day training period. This training includes basic qualitative principles and methods, management and analysis of qualitative data, and design of applied qualitative studies to answer programmatic questions and make programmatic decisions.  Note that this trainer’s guide is a companion document to a participant’s manual, Training in Qualitative Research Methods for PVOs & NGOs: Resource for participants attending the PVO/NGO training in qualitative methods.  The participant’s manual includes key reference materials and handouts of information discussed in the training sessions.

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.i  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.ii   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.  An example from a livestock provision project to returnees in Eritrea is illustrative.  According to Kibreab:

“The assumption that the majority of the returnees would want to return to their previous occupation and lifestyle... was misconceived because it disregarded the considerable degree of social and economic transformation the refugees had undergone in exile... During this period, not only had the vast majority been sedentarized, but they had been deriving their livelihoods in a variety of ways including crop production, participation in labour markets both in urban, semi-urban and rural areas, and self-employment in diverse off-farm income-generating activities.  A sizeable portion of the refugees had been urbanized and had become accustomed to public utilities such as access to health care, education, clean water, and transportation.  Most of the facilities in the refugee settlements or camps were also perceived to be superior to those the refugees expected to find in rural Eritrea.  Thus, the assumption that reintegration assistance packages should aim to enable returnees to resume their pre-flight occupation or to regain their lost lifestyle is a misconception... It is an imperative that the design of reintegration programmes should take into account the changes refugees undergo in exile.”iii

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.

This trainers guide is the fourth edition of a guide 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 guide was an adaptation for field staff of a graduate course, Qualitative Research Methods,  taught by Joel Gittelsohn, PhD. at The Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.

[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.

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

[iii].  Kibreab G. 1999. The consequences of non-participatory planning: lessons from a livestock provision project to returnees in Eritrea.  Journal of Refugee Studies. 12(2): 157.

Download "Training in Qualitative Research Methods for PVOs and NGOs"

  • Day 1:
    Overview of Qualitative Research
    Interviewing Principles
  • Day 2:
    Interviewing Techniques
    Preparations for First Field Exercises
  • Day 3:
    Timeline and Walkabout Exercise
    Team Interaction Meeting: Timeline/Walkabout
  • Day 4:
    Training for Free Listing
    Free Listing Exercise
    Team Interaction Meeting: Free Listing
  • Day 5:
    Venn Diagram Exercise
    Team Interaction Meeting: Venn Diagram
  • Day 6:
    Pile Sorting
    Team Interaction Meeting: Pile Sorting
    Community Mapping
  • Day 7:
    Matrix Ranking
    Team Interaction Meeting: Matrix Ranking
    Focus Group Discussions
  • Day 8:
    1st Key Informant Interview
    Team Interaction Meeting: 1st Key Informant Interview
  • Day 9:
    2nd Key Informant Interview
    Team Interaction Meeting: 2nd Key Informant Interview
    Case Narratives
  • Day 10:
    Coding and Data Management
    Group Analysis
  • Day 11:
    Feedback of Results
    Report Writing
    Designing a Qualitative Study
  • Day 12:
    Exercise: Design a Qualitative Study
    Presentations of Qualitative Study Designs
    Evaluate the Training Workshop

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