Next up in our series on the realities of being a researcher in the DRC, Élisée Cirhuza Balolage. Introduction to the Bukavu series here. Search on ‘Bukavu’ for the other posts in the series or see list at end of this piece. Reposted from the Bukavu series original.
While researchers from the Global North are granted a guaranteed salary, risk funds, and various forms of insurance, the same cannot be said for research assistants. The remunerative discrepancy between these two groups is a form of discrimination. It creates an imbalance between researchers from the Global North and those from the Global South – even as the two groups work together.
Besides salary, there is also the question of the research assistant’s working conditions. A lack of adequate financial resources for organising one’s work and tackling unforeseen challenges can make research activities very difficult, indeed. Academic institutions do not always take into account the various unpredictable expenses a research assistant or collaborator may face while in the field. Research projects in the Global South often take place in impoverished, unstable, and conflict-ridden areas. The presence of researchers in such zones can give rise to increased financial demands.
For example, during my most recent fieldwork in February 2019 in the Burhinyi chieftaincy of the Mwenga Territory in South Kivu, I had to stay in a hotel without electricity to save on field costs. Even so, I still had to transcribe my interviews each evening in order to capture the major events of the day and produce my daily reports. In these lodging conditions, it was difficult not only to properly reflect and write up my daily reports, but also to work through the mass of data in the time I had been allotted.
In 2018, a group of us carried out a study with a female researcher from the Global North, examining the revaluation of traditional music. While we recorded songs with traditional harpists, several inhabitants of the village of Cifuma showed up to the activity without having been invited. After the recording session, this audience demanded compensation. They heckled to the point of throwing stones at us, and shouted, “nashiye tulishiriki kwa ile kazi mutatulipa, mutu uziye pombe basi ya kasikisi, muko na pesa!” (“We also participated in this activity, you have to pay us. If not, at least buy some banana beer – you’ve got the money!”) Calming this crowd down proved very difficult, and our departure took place under a great deal of stress.
These conditions place the research assistant in a vulnerable and precarious position in which he or she must improvise, take risks with regard to personal security, and still manage to deliver field reports within the fixed timeline set by a given academic enterprise. In some cases, in the event of an unforeseen difficulty, a researcher’s life may even be put at risk because he or she has not been given the resources to resort to a “Plan B” for safety, or to escape from a dangerous situation in the field. Certain NGOs do, however, give their researchers a “security envelope” to allow them to deal with kidnappers.
In 2013, for example, a fellow researcher travelled to Masisi in North Kivu to carry out a study about displacement. At the time, there was a conflict underway between the Batembo and the Banyarwanda. Due to an inadequate analysis of the local security situation, he nearly died. The local leader who was showing him around was killed in these clashes. From my own experience, I vividly recall a study on Iko Island in the Kalehe Territory in 2018. We had to cross Lake Kivu in a dugout canoe with no motor and no safety equipment. First of all, the research sponsor’s schedule only allotted us a short stay in the area, and the budget did not allow for an extension of the deadline. In addition, the budget could not cover the cost of renting a motorboat – much less, an airplane – to cross over to the secure area. A simple wave would have been enough to drown us. I was so scared that I lost the courage to carry out my assigned research.
Having to work in such conditions may at times drive researchers to deceit. Sometimes they may provide poor quality data, when combining several studies for different employers. In other cases, a research assistant may be tempted into inventing false data, lacking the courage to collect the actual material given the difficult conditions encountered. When one feels disrespected, underpaid, and isolated, one may lose any sense of pride in one’s work as a researcher, instead succumbing to a purely functional attitude that treats the job as just another way to earn a few cents.
Academic and research institutions must take the lead in improving the remuneration of researchers from the Global South, by taking into account the complexities and risks that arise in the field. They must understand that better remuneration will improve the quality of results, strengthen the local researcher’s social security and stability, and also create an alternative for managing the requirements of the field.
Elisée Cirhuza is a researcher and programme manager at the Groupe d’Etude sur le Conflit et la Sécurité Humaine (GEC-SH)
Previous Bukavu Series posts:
When You Become Pombe Yangu (“My Beer”): Dealing with the Financial Expectations of Research Participants
Epistemological Rupture, Detachment, and Decentring: Requirements When Doing Research “At Home”
“Donor-Researchers” and “Recipient-Researchers”: Bridging the Gap between Researchers from the Global North and Global South
When Focus Groups Fail: The Argument in Favour of Involving Local Researchers in Project Design
How Researchers Navigate in Armed Conflict Zones: Some Do’s and Don’ts
Armed Guides and Otherness: Vignettes from the Field
We Barely Know These Researchers from the South! Reflections on Problematic Assumptions about Local Research Collaborators
North-South Power Differentials and Competition in the Research Business