Research Officer Mariana Climent (left) visited Cecosesola before they received the Award in 2022.

Research on the ground: when the nominees’ fields of work become also ours

News 07.08.2023

Researching nominees for the Award is an essential part of Right Livelihood’s work – something we have talked about in the past with our Head of Research, Adam McBeth. This time, we are focusing on a very particular aspect of this process: the field visits. 

We do not visit every nominee: we usually undertake such field trips when the desk research is not enough to understand clearly the nominees’ work in their local context and its impact on their environment and communities.

For at least two years, country visits were not possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But now that travelling is again possible, research trips have resumed, and our Research Team is back on the road, making good use of this opportunity. Come along for this exciting conversation with our Research Team, Adam McBeth and Mariana Climent Vargas, who will give us a taste of their travels around the world. Welcome on board!

Right Livelihood: In 2022, Right Livelihood’s Jury selected two organisations that you had visited just earlier that year. Tell us about these Laureates! 

Adam McBeth: Yes, I had the chance to visit AFIEGO in Uganda, an organisation doing incredible work in raising the voices of local communities who are being impacted by unsustainable development practices, such as the East African Crude Oil Pipeline or EACOP. They not only take cases on behalf of the communities in national and international courts but work with them to raise awareness and capacity to stand for their own rights in the face of state and corporate pressure. They were, indeed, one of the four Laureates awarded last year.

Mariana Climent Vargas: I travelled to Venezuela to learn more about Cecosesola, a network of community organisations from low-income areas that produces and provides affordable goods and services to more than 100,000 families across seven Venezuelan states. I had the chance to witness how transformative their process truly is. Their approach to economic and social organisation inspires everyone who gets to know them: that things can be done in a different way.

RL: Is there a memorable moment from each of these visits that you can share with us?

AM: Going with AFIEGO staff to meet with community members and community-based organisations was certainly a highlight. Getting to speak with the community and hearing how they have worked together with the organisation to defend their rights is something we could only experience from being there. To see how they work with the communities gives a whole different meaning and connection to their job.

MCV: In Venezuela, we were invited to join one of their monthly meetings, which took place in one of their food markets. We were surrounded by trees and we had the chance to see how the non-hierarchical approach works in practice. It was truly amazing to see how they implement their way of thinking in conflict resolution, budget discussions and new project ideas. We were in small groups in a circle and everyone had the chance to speak. I even felt part of the discussions! Everyone could participate and raise their voices, from the food producer to the cashiers and the doctors working at the clinic.

RL: Are the nominees aware of your visits or do you drop by spontaneously? How do you manage the language barriers when they exist? 

MCV: The nominees are always informed of the visit before going. It is important to know that they will be in the country, as we need to have an interview with them and, in some cases, visit communities or projects that they are involved with.

AM: When we do not speak the same language as the nominee, or of their beneficiaries, we arrange with an interpreter for a translation, or the nominee can suggest a trusted colleague that can do the translation. Of course, there are challenges that come with the language barrier, but we try to flag these before traveling so that we can guarantee that the information doesn’t get lost in translation.

RL: How do you prepare for a field visit? What do you need to take into account before traveling to research a nominee on the ground?

AM: We firstly have to conduct a risk assessment based on the country we are visiting, the profile of the nominee, and the profile of the researcher. If the level of risk is deemed to be manageable, then we begin the process of planning all of the travel logistics which come with a trip, as well as arranging meetings with external experts and the nominee.

RL: Has it happened that you found yourselves in an unexpected situation? 

AM: In one visit, we ended up spending an entire day with the nominee at an airfield waiting for the rain to clear. In the end, we had a lot of time to talk together but after hours of waiting, we weren’t able to take the plane and had to adjust the rest of the trip together.

MCV: It happened to me that, traveling on a boat with one of the nominees, we got caught in a thunderstorm. It was supposed to be the dry season so we did not come prepared for heavy rains. All the clothes in my luggage got soaking wet. Thankfully, we managed to arrive safe to our destination. But we had to get really creative to work those days.

RL: “Field visit” may give the idea of going to natural environments to see grassroots movements, is it always like that?

AM: A country visit is probably a more appropriate term. The visits can involve a range of scenarios and environments, from the offices of nominees and different organisations to embassies, meetings in informal locations, or visiting communities and projects in more remote locations. In each case, it really depends on the nature of the work of the nominee and what is necessary for us to see.

RL: Have you ever experienced the feeling that those you visit make efforts to be liked by you? 

AMB: Nominees are more than often very hospitable and accommodating during our visits. However, it is done in a friendly and welcoming manner. We also make our role and position clear to the nominees that we are there as impartial researchers and that the ultimate decision for the Award and their candidacy lies with our Jury members.

RL: Apart from getting to know the nominees’ work, what have you learned during the country visits? 

MCV: There are many skills that you develop while on these visits. They require very complex logistics that we need to prepare in advance, as well as some skills to interview and adapt to unexpected circumstances. Personally, I have learned to be very organised and, at the same time, accept that the plan will always change. I have also learned a lot from the communities I have visited, sometimes you get inspired by their different ways of living, organisation and their attitude towards life.

AM: I agree with Mariana, you can take a lot away from the visits beyond knowledge of the nominee’s work. You are able to experience different cultures and contexts, especially depending on the length of the visit. You also have plenty of opportunities to develop your interview and interpersonal skills, while learning to actively listen and engage with people who have been victims of human rights and environmental violations.

RL: In spite of being in many places, we know you can only speak openly about nominees that are later selected as Laureates. Of the current 190 Right Livelihood Laureates, how many have you visited? How is it for you to meet them again at the Award Presentation? 

AM: You’re correct that we keep all visits confidential and, unfortunately, not all nominees that are visited end up receiving the Award. I have now visited four nominees who went on to receive the Award. It is always a real pleasure getting to reunite with the Laureates again and to see them receive the Award. In a sense, it is a validation of your work, but you also understand more acutely what it means to them to be receiving it and what impact it can have for their work moving forward.

Find out more about our Research Team:

Adam is from Scotland and joined Right Livelihood in 2017. He is currently Head of Research, but started as a research trainee and has held various research roles during this time, with a brief period working on advocacy. In a previous interview, he described how Right Livelihood vets nominees.

Mariana is from Costa Rica and joined Right Livelihood in 2022. She works as a Research Officer in Geneva. Earlier this year, she informed us about the nomination process and how Right Livelihood looks for new Laureates.

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