25 years of ICDI: “If you mobilize the community, nothing is impossible”

Reflections on community based research in practice.


A blog by Dr. Margaret Kernan, Senior Programme Manager (ICDI).

Knowledge and research is an important part of what we do in ICDI. In our collaboration with local partners we strive to link community-based knowledge and practice with academic, scientific knowledge. The kind of research we do is designed to generate learning locally and to inform programmes so that children’s well-being is improved.

Twenty-five years ago in June 1994 in an address at the Conference of the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development in Amsterdam, ICDI’s Senior Associate Nico van Oudenhoven referred to the then “new” notion of NGO staff as ‘activists who think, or thinkers who act’. As we mark our 25th year it’s a good moment to critically reflect, along with one of our partner organisations, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in Ethiopia, on the process of doing research and ‘thinking and acting’ together and how this can make a difference in children’s lives.

Between 2016 and 2018 ICDI and ESD jointly undertook an action research project, which came to be known as ‘Happy Young Learners’, about the psychosocial well-being of young children in two regions in Ethiopia: Amhara and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region (SNNPR). Not only were we interested in finding out more about the psychosocial well-being of young children there, we also, based on our findings, wanted to improve the quality of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) provision in the two regions.

The project involved training local postgraduate education and psychology students to interview teachers of 1000 five-year-old boys and girls using the UPSI-5 tool (Universal Psychosocial Indicator for 5-year-old girls and boys). This tool, which was developed by ICDI, is designed to ascertain the psychosocial well-being of large populations of 5-year-old children. The project also involved public meetings and seminars for parents, educators and officials to discuss the project both at the beginning and at the end of the process, where follow up actions were agreed upon. Smaller discussion groups were held with mothers and fathers, teachers and teacher trainers, which helped interpret the findings.

The project also created local ECEC committees comprising of teachers, principals and parents, to develop and carry out action plans in preschools focused on improving their quality with attention to making use of local resources. Finally, we captured the key messages of the project in a short documentary film.

Nine months after the project ended, I reflected back on the process and its impact with Aemiro Mussie, ESD’s Programme Director and Andinet Sehalu, Project Manager of ‘Happy Young Learners’. I asked them both who they felt the research had actually most benefitted.

‘The children, the teachers in the participating schools and the parents, in that order’, Andinet replied without hesitation.

Aemiro expressed it as follows: ‘Before we started this project teachers were unaware about the importance of play for children’s learning and how to create attractive learning environments free from hazards’.

Aemiro also described how the interviews with the data collectors had an eye-opening effect on teachers.

‘Actually’, Aemiro continued, ‘this is a new perspective in Ethiopia, especially for teachers. And the gaps in teachers’ knowledge about the importance of social and emotional well-being, which was identified in the research, informed the training we were then able to provide for teachers’.

We also talked about how ESD, as a relatively small organization in Ethiopia (it has a total of 50 staff spread across three offices), had benefitted from the project. According to Andinet the ‘Happy Young Learners’ project brought a new idea and new approach to ESD, which is to mainstream children’s psychosocial well-being across all their projects and initiatives. Both Andinet and Aemiro believe that the experience has been significant also in solidifying their reputation as a knowledgeable and effective NGO in Ethiopia.

So what part of the jigsaw puzzle which made up the ‘Happy Young Learners’ project did they think was most effective in bringing about change?

Both Andinet and Aemiro highlighted the final seminar, which brought together teachers, parents and government officials as being key as ‘an alert to paying more attention to play and psychosocial well-being’.

Aemiro: ‘We convinced district education officials that they needed to include attention to psychosocial well-being in the teaching and learning process and now it is one of the pillars for all schools and preschools ’.

Aemiro also emphasized that every step in the process was crucial – from motivating and training parents and teachers to changing their behaviours and practices using photo and video material, and involving community members in making improvements to the preschool environment.

Aemiro: ‘If you mobilize the community, nothing is impossible. You can bring about real and sustainable change’.

In the spirit of acting and thinking together we also discussed what we might do differently. One issue we all agreed on that next time we need to also capture children’s views about their well-being directly, rather than relying on teacher or parents’ perspectives and assessments.  Another suggestion from Aemiro was to create an infographic to summarise the whole process, so that others could learn from the experience. 

Because of the ‘Happy Young Learners’ project young children are given more opportunities to play and learn indoors and outdoors at preschool, and less time is spent in passive formal learning activities. As a result, teachers and parents report that children are happier, have better communication skills, are better able to play with their peers and have improved self-confidence and health.

Happy Young Learners was financially supported by Dioraphte Foundation