Diversity and Democracy

Developing Sustainable Partnerships for International Community-Based Research

My first trip to Belize was in December 2005. After my faculty partner (who had conducted an exploratory trip) stepped off the initiative thirty-six hours before departure, I arrived in the jungle with a team of students from Defiance College's McMaster School for Advancing Humanity. We had little logistical information and no established on-site partner, but we had made lodging arrangements with the NGO Programme for Belize (PFB) at the Hill Bank research station.

On arrival, I had a frank conversation with Ivan Gillett, the PFB ranger who had guided us to Hill Bank. I told Ivan that the McMaster team wanted to mobilize student and faculty research to work with communities at the periphery of the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area (RBCMA), a 260,000-acre sustainable forestry reserve that PFB managed. In response, Ivan revealed that PFB was struggling because those periphery communities, prohibited from using the land they had once farmed and hunted, felt animosity toward PFB's work. Ivan suspected that bringing researchers to help the communities move toward more sustainable development would assist in illustrating PFB's positive impacts.

This conversation initiated our journey toward creating research partnerships not only with PFB, but also with local villages, schools, farming communities, agricultural cooperatives, and farmers. Over time, the McMaster School has built an ongoing initiative in Belize where multidisciplinary teams of students and faculty work with community partners to conduct research that effects positive change. These research partnerships have been critically important to the McMaster program, to PFB, and to the periphery communities themselves.

As of 2012, the McMaster program has facilitated over ninety individual but interconnected student and faculty research projects across several communities in northern Belize. Students and faculty collaborate in year-long learning communities to further these community-driven projects, with each year's participants working with a network of new and established partners during a two-to-three-week site visit. (I described the McMaster School, for which I am the administrator, and the Belize initiative, for which I am a faculty fellow, in detail in the Fall 2009 issue of Diversity & Democracy.) The McMaster School now has initiatives in Belize, Cambodia, and Ghana, each of which has evolved in response to location, culture, opportunity, partnerships, and personalities.

Since my first trip to Belize, I have learned much about developing sustainable, community-based international partnerships. While each is unique, the McMaster School's sustainable partnerships share some inherent characteristics:

  1. All partners (both from the college and in the community) are committed to building on the strengths of the community and of the researchers.
  2. All partners are willing to make significant investments in student learning by providing input on undergraduate research and contributing to students' development of cross-cultural knowledge.
  3. All partners are willing to invest in joint projects with positive measurable outcomes for human well-being.

The framework described below and illustrated in Figure 1 provides one approach to developing such partnerships. I created this framework in the context of the McMaster School's international collaborations, but I invite readers to apply their own experiences in refining and modifying its tenets to fit their needs.

FIGURE 1. Framework for Partnership Development


Exploration Phase

  • Survey of partnership and site potential
  • Survey of logistical feasibility

The key to success when exploring potential partnerships is to do more listening than talking. Meet face-to-face with potential partners to learn their goals and objectives, concerns and challenges. It may be helpful to conduct a conversational survey or a SWOT analysis (assessing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) that culminates in a village or school meeting attended by all stakeholders. Each individual project should be predicated by such an evaluation process.

The exploration phase should also include a survey of logistical feasibility. Start small (for example, by limiting the targeted geographical area) to maximize resources and give adequate attention to each initial partner. Shift resource allocations over time to create more opportunities in and around the original site.

During our first visit, PFB connected us with several possible partners in the agricultural communities bordering the RBCMA, and we decided to conduct a conversational survey of agricultural practices to learn more about the issues facing these communities. Our survey revealed that farmers were concerned about the high cost of fertilizer and interested in reducing those costs. These findings framed our work in the focus phase during our second visit.

Focus Phase

  • Evaluation of the potential to effect change
  • Evaluation of the match between needs/issues and resources/expertise
  • Evaluation of the potential for mutual benefit (student learning and community impact)

An initiative's aims and projected outcomes should establish parameters for the focus phase's evaluation process. For McMaster initiatives, the goal is to identify a need that can be realistically researched and remediated with the expertise and resources available. To align with our goals, a research project needs to produce change, remediation, or improvement through collaborative knowledge creation that substantively incorporates undergraduate research without requiring more resources or expertise than our team can provide.

Students from different disciplines can participate in the focus phase by helping to evaluate the potential of multidisciplinary solutions to address a partner's challenges. This exercise can underscore the multifaceted nature of complex real-world problems: the team may discover that partners and projects overlap, and that even partners with distinct agendas operate within complex social systems. By developing partnerships with a diverse set of on-site stakeholders, the research team may be able to address overarching issues (see sidebar on page 19).

In my experience, community partners are very willing to work with faculty and students to ensure that research has positive impacts for both students and the community. Community-based knowledge not only contributes to each initiative's effectiveness, but also enhances the potential for student learning. Students learn flexibility as they adapt conceptual knowledge to realistic constructs, and they grow intellectually and personally by viewing information or data from a perspective that is different from their own.

These principles applied to our work with Belizean farmers, who possess significant agricultural expertise but often lack access to information that the McMaster Program is well-positioned to provide. Having identified the farmers' concerns about fertilizer costs during the exploration phase, we decided in the focus phase to conduct a soil nutrient analysis to determine whether changes in fertilizer use might be merited. This project would make use of students' research skills while simultaneously addressing the farmers' needs and PFB's priorities. We thus began conducting soil sample evaluation during our second trip to Belize, bridging the focus and investment phases even as faculty and students began the exploration phase anew with different sectors of the community.

Investment Phase

  • Building a foundation of trust
  • Moving toward a collective goal with effective incremental outcomes
  • Assuring repeatability through a commitment of time, effort, and resources

While sustainable partnerships often evolve through personal ties between individuals, it is important to proactively establish a foundation of trust through relationships that are both personal and institutional—for example, by sending both new and established leaders on visits to an initiative's site. Balancing investments in interpersonal and institutional relationships can allow for broader participation over time and help secure the project's long-term sustainability.

Sustainable partnerships require incremental development toward a collective goal, with small steps evidencing positive impact over time. It is important to keep the incremental nature of this work in mind when measuring community outcomes, which will likely manifest one family, one school, one village at a time. Substantial results can also be obtained one student at a time. International community-based research combines several elements of what George Kuh has called high-impact educational practices, including community-based learning, diversity/global learning, and undergraduate research (2008). Requiring intentional commitment to tasks, interaction about important issues, and engagement with individuals from different cultures, these practices provide students the opportunity to apply their knowledge, skills, and dispositions in different settings. The overall impacts of these practices on student learning will grow as more students participate.

To secure the long-term impact of incremental gains, the investment phase needs to establish a basis for repeatability: a willingness to invest time, effort, and resources that can pay dividends. The longest-lasting partnerships often generate the greatest impacts, the deepest research opportunities, and the greatest potential for student learning.

Our work in the investment phase with Belizean farmers resulted directly from our soil analysis, which clearly indicated overfertilization. We communicated these findings to the farmers and advised them about optimal fertilizer use. Once the farmers began implementing our recommendations and seeing cost savings, our reputation spread throughout the community, and more farmers approached us to request soil analyses. They also began identifying additional research questions for students to explore, eventually leading to a series of projects focused on such issues as water quality and entrepreneurship development in communities bordering the RBCMA.

Sustainability Phase

  • Reevaluation of overall goals
  • Assessment of outcomes via feedback from all stakeholders
  • Repositioning the project to evolve dynamically

In the sustainability phase, program leaders ensure that the initiative, now firmly established, will not stagnate but rather adapt in response to changing issues, modes of engagement, and priorities. In this phase, program leaders reevaluate project goals in light of evolving factors.

It is critical to include feedback from partners in the assessment process. After helping to facilitate change, step back and allow the community partner to adjust and reassess. This process preserves the partner's right to steer the course of the continuing project. Having multiple partnerships in a single geographic location can be critically important at this stage, preventing the institution from becoming totally dependent on any one partner for project ideas and, conversely, community partners from becoming dependent on the institution for solutions.

Students can assist with the assessment process by conducting community impact surveys and site condition assessments, comparing their findings to information gathered during the exploration and focus phases. For example, later this year, a McMaster student scholar will conduct an impact survey using a modified version of an earlier assessment to determine whether outreach to communities on the periphery of the RBCMA has continued to reduce animosity between these communities and PFB.

In addition to measuring community impact, it is critically important to embed assessment of student learning at all phases of the initiative—pre-trip, on-site, and post-trip. In the McMaster program, we assess student learning through a series of writing, video, and discussion prompts, as well as through students' research projects. We also use the Cross Cultural Adaptive Inventory developed by Kelley and Meyers to assess changes in students' ability to function effectively in another culture. Our assessments have shown that students are gaining a greater understanding of their professional roles in a global context and an enhanced sense of efficacy, empathy, and responsibility to positively impact humanity.

Our work with agricultural communities in Belize has evolved along with the farmers' changing questions and priorities. Our relationship with PFB has also evolved as the NGO assists us in navigating logistical challenges, reviews our research findings, and provides feedback on the future direction of projects. Despite what initially seemed to be diametrically opposed goals, PFB and our community partners have now developed areas of notable synergy through their work with McMaster Belize.


Negotiating long-term partnerships in small developing countries has inherent challenges, but it is possible provided your initial experience builds trust in the community. We and our community partners have now reached a place of true collaboration, where we jointly create knowledge and seek solutions through scholarship and practical application in context.

Project Examples:
Research to Improve Economic Development

Over the years, the McMaster School for Advancing Humanity has worked with an agricultural village in Belize on a series of research projects addressing the village's economic challenges.

  • Several biology students and a faculty member from physical sciences have worked with farmers to monitor soil nutrient levels, limit chemical fertilizer use, and control pests naturally, reducing both monetary costs and negative environmental impacts.
  • A psychology major helped develop a women's group that started a small restaurant in the village. A business major is continuing the project by helping the women's group develop a business and marketing plan to secure profit margins.
  • A business student worked to develop a pipeline to US markets for art and indigenous crafts, monetizing a valuable activity that formerly seemed like a luxury to community members.

These efforts are improving educational opportunities for both McMaster students and Belizean students, with reductions in poverty allowing more families to send their children to high school.

—Mary Ann Studer



Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Mary Ann Studer is dean of the McMaster School for Advancing Humanity at Defiance College.

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