From experience to knowledge: a participatory action-research

What's the link between the occupation of a hospital in Colombia, a popular health committee in DR Congo and a South African patient movement that advocates for access to medicines? To address this question, Viva Salud participated in a four-year action-research led by the People's Health Movement, that helped to understand how to make activist practice more effective and build a global social movement for health for all.

In our current post-1980 era of neoliberal globalisation, the social and political pathways towards Health for All are increasingly determined through pressures, barriers and opportunities operating globally as well as nationally and locally. A critical priority for the Health for All movement is therefore to develop the capacity to act as a global social movement.

If this is true, it is important to start connecting the dots between the local struggles and the global processes. In other words, we have to ask ourselves: what's the connection between the occupation of a hospital in Colombia, a popular health committee in DR Congo and a South African patient movement that advocates for the right to HIV treatment? How can these struggles add up to a social movement that is able to have an impact on “the causes of the causes” of ill health?

This is the question underlying the very existence of the People's Health Movement (PHM), a global network of networks to which Viva Salud is affiliated. In order to address this question, PHM builds knowledge and experience from its action – in countries and at the international level – on a daily basis. However, in 2014 we felt that a more structured exercise could help us understand better how to strengthen our activist practice, and we undertook a four-year participatory action-research. In this approach to research, the focus is on what you do and how you do it (how you organise a campaign, how you disseminate your views and engage new activists, etc.), so the views and experiences of the activists are at the center.

As part of Viva Salud, I've had the opportunity to participate in the action-research, facilitating workshops with local groups and movements involved in the struggle for Health for All both in DR Congo (with our partners Etoile du Sud and Codic) and in Italy. I was impressed by the richness of the experiences of struggle in many different areas that are related to health (environment, food sovereignty, rights, etc.), and the possibility to connect through the action-research. The cycles of collective action and reflection helped us to share experiences on how we organise for action and to come to a common understanding about what works in which context.

Besides DRC and Italy, four other countries were also involved (Brazil, Colombia, India and South Africa) and the richness and diversity of the data collected is high, allowing to go beyond what works in a specific context and identify principles about how to make activist practice more effective.

Feeling that it was important to share our experience also in the academic space, we wrote a paper titled “Methodological challenges in researching activism in action: civil society engagement towards health for all”, which has been recently published on an international academic journal called Critical Public Health.

Have a look at the paper if you are interested in how a global social movement for Health for All works, and how it may work more effectively. The paper is particularly useful to those who are already engaged in activism, and may want to be inspired on how to learn in a structured way from their practice.

If you are interested in the full text of the paper, please write to me at If you want to know more about the action-research, the final report is available for free download at:


From experience to knowledge: a participatory action-research | Viva Salud


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