BYLINE: Angelita Faller

An interdisciplinary research team from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is investigating the personal transformation effects of Heifer International’s efforts to end hunger and poverty and build sustainable communities across the globe.

Heifer International has a vision to explore the nature of personal transformation around the globe and measure its impact at the individual level. UA Little Rock is investigating how Heifer’s techniques have affected communities by partnering with people living in rural areas to help them move out of poverty.

The research team includes UA Little Rock faculty Dr. Julien Mirivel, lead principal investigator and professor of applied communication, Dr. Avinash Thombre, professor of applied communication, Dr. Tusty ten Bensel, director of the School of Criminal Justice and Criminology, and Dr. Kirk Leach, assistant professor of public affairs.

Partnering with UA Little Rock are two senior staff from Heifer International – Dr. Mahendra Lohani, senior vice president of programs for Asia, and Dr. Benjamin Wood, director of monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning. The research team is working collaboratively to combine UA Little Rock’s expertise in this area with Heifer’s deep knowledge of program implementation.

The work is steadily progressing. Mirivel and Thombre traveled to Nepal in 2019 to meet with members of 10 communities that Heifer International has supported through 30 years of community development work. In 2021, researchers collected data in Bihar, India, and analyzed it for preliminary results. Today, the team is launching a follow-up survey in India to further understand the underpinnings of potential change within this specific context.

“Meeting community members in Nepal was a transformative experience for Avinash and me,” said Mirivel. “One of the community members told me if you want to make a change in your life, you can’t just focus on your family. You have to focus on community.”

The first goal of the research project is to understand the personal transformation that takes place in individuals as they move out of poverty and build sustainable communities. The researchers are also developing tools to assess personal transformation on a global scale.

“Understanding the dynamics of the process of how an individual undergoes specific behavior change and transforms themselves to a higher level of being is very challenging,” Thombre said. “Collaborating with Heifer International on this research project has been personally very fulfilling as we slowly uncover the layers of self-transformation.”

The researchers created a theoretical and methodological tool that measures self-transformation by focusing on seven core areas of personal change. The core areas include identity and self-perception, perception of others, communication competency, empowerment, leadership state, intercultural sensitivity, and civic and community engagement.

“We have worked together to develop a conceptual model of personal transformation,” Mirivel said. “Then, we developed a methodological approach that will help us create a personal transformation index to measure personal change. Originally, the plan was that we would travel around the world to collect data, but that changed due to the pandemic.”

In 2020, a third-party team collected 100 in-depth interviews and 800 surveys from women participating in Heifer International programs in Bihar, India, the third most populated state in India. Since the late 1970s, Bihar has seen lower levels of social and economic development than other Indian states, and has the country’s largest population living below the poverty line. Heifer International’s program in Bihar is supporting rural communities in targeted districts, using its values-based community development model, which includes training on the 12 Cornerstones. The research team is following up with program participants at key time intervals for the next several years.

As one participant stated, “I will earn money and leave all my assets to my children and grandchildren so they can have a comfortable life after my death. If I will plant a tree, then others will sit under the shadow of the tree.”

The research team is eagerly awaiting the results of the Asia region follow-up survey and the Africa region initial survey. The team has already presented preliminary results at the National Communication Association Conference and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. They will also present at the International Communication Association Conference, which is to be held in Paris in May. A series of publications related to this work are also in production.

“Heifer is very happy with the UA Little Rock research collaboration,” Wood said. “We can’t wait to see the findings of the research and have high hopes for an easy-to-implement tool that will enable us to quantify and capture personal change.”

The research, which is expected to be completed in 2024, is being supported by a $100,000 grant from Heifer International. In the future, the researchers will also conduct studies in Uganda and South America, providing data from three continents.

“This is an impressive interdisciplinary team studying the nature of personal transformation in multiple international locations where Heifer International carries out its life-changing work,” said Dr. April Chatham-Carpenter, chair of the Department of Applied Communication. “The purpose of the research is to create a Personal Transformation Index to measure the impact of Heifer’s work around the globe. Their team has already developed a theoretically informed model of personal transformation. This work shows great potential for impacting work across the globe on personal transformation.”

Once complete, Heifer will use the Personal Transformation Index as an internal measure to assess personal transformation in its programs around the globe. The professors’ work also received the Faculty Top Paper Award from the 72nd annual International Communication Association Conference held in May in Paris.