When I speak to Brian over Skype, I find him in the African Union’s Mission on Ebola in Ethiopia where he is currently helping to ensure that young people are a key part of the on-going response to the epidemic. Back in his native Uganda, he works with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement trying to strengthen the links between governments, international agencies, academia and youth organisations.
“I felt: why hasn’t this come before? But this project hasn’t assumed that there are no researchers in these countries – it is about what we can do to build on that and go further.”
Led by Restless Development, War Child and Youth Business International, and implemented by Youth Policy Labs, the research will explore the problems and challenges faced by young people – and crucially the spaces and opportunities for things to change. A team of 19 young researchers will co-design the specific research questions and methodologies before conducting the research in their sub-regions.
What comes across clearly from our conversation is the bridge that Brian tries to build between “professionals” and young people – indeed, it was this that formed his Masters in Public Health thesis on peer education. “Peerness” is his term of choice for explaining and understanding the level of connection, understanding, and empathy between researchers and their field of study – in this case, young people.
“Seriously, when you take the existing research that is done, that we read, and that we use, it is all done by people who don’t have the “Peerness” with young people.”
Though the concept of peer research isn’t new, too often young people are involved as subjects of research rather than as leaders of a study – something that Brian is determined to change. When I ask him about what he thinks the benefits of peerness are, the response I get reminds me that I’m speaking with a Doctorate candidate (in Public Health from the University of Sydney) and a university lecturer in Uganda,
“I haven’t done research on this…but I have a hypothesis! Young people will find the research more credible, they will open up, they won’t be judged, and their responses won’t be readjusted to fit. If we’re collecting the right data, we might come to the right conclusions.”
It is this collaborative and youth-led approach to research that Brian is keen to build at the Global Labs – and beyond. At a personal level, he is hoping that a network of youth researchers – professional researchers who are young – emerge from the Labs, to “understand different approaches, critique each other’s work, learn new tools, and bridge the gap between young people and the big professionals.”
When we begin philosophising about the role of research, we get lost in a debate on the tension between research and advocacy. How can we conduct fair research when we are also advocates of specific policies to improve the lives of young people? Or more specifically in our conversation: how do we undertake research on topics – like LGBT youth – that the government or authorities don’t want to hear about?
“The good thing with research is that it isn’t loose politics. It’s factual and evidence-based. If we find the evidence for an existing problem, we have to think about how we are gong to translate the evidence to ensure it can influence the policy implementers. And we have to disseminate the results in understandable ways, not just in a big academic journal, but in thinking, how can my grandmother understand this? Or a local young person? Then research can make a difference.”
And Brian is certainly keen to make a difference. As someone currently working on the Ebola response, having previously worked with UNAIDS (as a researcher for their excellent CrowdOutAids work), and undertaking a doctorate in youth sexual and reproductive health, his passion – tragically – comes through when talking about the limited data and research on causes of death for young people – and crucially what can be done to prevent them.
“Research helps to answer the questions of what have we not done, what do we need to improve the outcome, and what are the baseline indicators. From this we can learn from the mistakes that we have made – and the ones that we might make in the future – and solve both ends of the problem.”
But despite his experience, Brian wants to learn: “You don’t become your own Albert Einstein. You need to learn about what other people are doing.” The Global Young Researchers Labs has been designed to support – not create or replace – the wealth of experience and knowledge of young researchers around the world. It is with Brian’s philosophy in mind that the co-convening organisations will approach the Labs, the research and the follow on advocacy campaign.