How to support research in Fragile States?

December 10, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

What, if anything, should academics, NGOs and funding institutions wanting to support researchers in fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS) do differently compared to their work in more stable contexts? Been thinking and talking to people quite a lot about that recently, and based on those conversations and some great #PowerShifts posts, here are some thoughts:

What do we mean by knowledge? Nothing much to add to Farida Bena’s great post on ‘who is an expert?’ and the dozens of great comments it provoked. I also worry that phrases like ‘knowledge ecosystem’ or (even worse) ‘capacity building’ could be construed as trying to introduce and support a Western-style research system of peer-reviewed journal articles, conferences and all the rest. That can feel very alien when you’re sitting somewhere like the DRC, where I went recently to work with LSE researchers. The risk is that ‘research‘ then becomes another form of isomorphic mimicry, a performative exercise to satisfy funders or departmental heads in northern universities, rather than a genuine effort to create useful knowledge that is relevant to the local context. What space is there for oral communication, tacit knowledge, or the importance of trust and intimacy in this ecosystem?

What do we mean by ‘fragility’? Syria, Somalia and DRC are so different that the term ‘fragility’ can easily obscure more than it clarifies. A simple 2×2 with local research capacity (eg a strong, functioning university system) on one axis, and levels of risk for researchers on the other might help. Feel free to disagree with where I’ve located the countries, and to add new ones!

Researcher risk against research capacity

States v Contexts: nation states may not be the best unit of analysis – from Myanmar to Mexico, there are many countries that have some fragile/conflict-affected regions, but elsewhere all is calm and relatively orderly. Is it better to buttress the research capacity outside the dangerous regions, and then support local researchers to operate in the war zones?

Individuals v Institutions: In many FCAS institutions are volatile and short-lived. Such places are strewn with zombie aid initiatives and acronyms. Two alternatives to creating more zombies: work with institutions that are likely to still be around in 20 years’ time (universities, faith organizations, professional associations) or recognize that the one unit that will surface again and again in different guises, even in chaotic contexts, is the individual – funding scholarships, mentoring networks, leadership programmes, communities of practice etc feels particularly well suited to FCAS.

Positive Deviance: Trying to influence policy in FCAS by churning out research based on evidence and importing ‘best practice’ from elsewhere has a pretty terrible record. Politics is often short term and driven by survival, greed or political pressure rather than a desire to be evidence-based (actually, the UK is not that different!). Best practice in one context is highly unlikely to provide a useful blueprint in another. So why not look for positive deviants locally, and research how they came about and whether/how they could be scaled up?

Fragile states

Public Authority: The nature of power and decision-making can be very different in FCAS. In Myanmar ethnic armed organizations run public services in large swathes of the country; in many African countries schools and hospitals are run by faith organizations. Traditional leaders and customary law often play a central role. If it wants to have influence, research needs to be designed with these other forms of ‘public authority’ in mind. Closer to home, aid organizations themselves can easily take on aspects of public authority, throwing their weight around and trying to fill the power vacuum left by an absent state – closer scrutiny of that process needs to be part of the research.

Money is Power: As long as research funding is mainly northern, power imbalances will dog and distort the research ecosystem. Research can become ‘NGO-ized’. Well-intentioned but naïve/ignorant white researchers with budgets will continue to bungee jump in and treat brilliant local researchers with networks, knowledge but no cash as mere ‘research assistants’. All the ‘capacity building’ in the world will struggle to change that, until the money pipeline flows differently.

Research in FCAS can be dangerous: If conflict breaks out, is it just the white researchers that get evac’ed out? What mechanisms are in place to support local researchers who get arrested, harassed or traumatized? Are female researchers more at risk?

Other thoughts?

December 10, 2019
Duncan Green