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The ‘Black Market’ of Knowledge Production

April 2, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Researchers David Mwambari and Arthur Owor question the effect of money in producing knowledge in post-conflict contexts and argue that it restricts independent local research. These insights were developed at a recent workshop at Ghent University, which brought together Ghent-based researchers and a group of researchers, commonly called “research assistants”, from post-conflict and developing regions. 

In order to support more informed decisions about development aid and humanitarian aid in conflict and post-conflict societies, academics, policy makers, and journalists travel to these communities to collect knowledge. To gather knowledge, they will almost always rely on local people to facilitate their research: a driver, a translator, security personnel, a fixer, a research assistant, sometimes all rolled into one. One of our colleagues from DRC recounts his experience working as a local researcher here.

What separates the foreign “expert” from the local expert is, in part, money. In order to facilitate swift access to information, the foreign researcher spends money into the research environment, thus creating a peculiar market for knowledge production. Local researchers, working in their own right, lack such resources and cannot compete. Instead of acting as independent researchers, they must then accept the subordinate role of research assistant. The way that interviewees and local researchers are compensated provides a window onto the hierarchies of value in knowledge production.

Paying the interviewees

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The ethics of compensation to those being interviewed are unclear. Should participants and interviewees be paid for their time? In Uganda, due to high numbers of research projects implemented in one area often requiring the same respondents, the local research council has introduced a requirement to compensate respondents for their time.

A senior researcher from Belgium criticised this practice as ‘buying’ research, but local researchers all agreed that interviewees should at least be reimbursed for their transportation costs. The assumption here is that participating in research is voluntary and that people who have suffered often want to tell their stories.  Since the policy maker, the journalist and the academic are compensated in different ways (albeit in their diverse fields of interest) for reproducing and retelling these stories, why shouldn’t the owner of the story benefit from her/his own story? But this can also have unintended consequences: the amounts offered by foreign researchers have set an unsustainable precedent that has virtually shut out independent local researchers.

Paying the local researchers

The industry of knowledge production is rarely regulated in conflict or post-conflict contexts. Local or national governments are fragile or non-existent and therefore aid agencies, humanitarian organizations, local non-governmental organizations, individual academics or consultants regulate the payment to the service providers.  If rules do exist, researchers rarely adhere to them beyond filling out bureaucratic forms. The person with the money, usually the outside senior researcher, not only sets the standards and determines what questions are asked but also determines how money will be used, who is paid for what, and how much they receive.

In a study conducted in Northern Uganda, a colleague called the result a “black market of knowledge production”. In a workshop at Ghent University researchers from Belgium, Rwanda, Germany, United Kingdom and invited researchers from Kazakhstan, Philippines, Uganda, Peru, Bangladesh, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda, some pressing questions were raised.

The first was from a Rwandan participant who asked: “Who should regulate and determine how different service providers should be paid?” International experts in most cases are paid by aid agencies, they are put up in good hotels, and often have contracts that secure their jobs. As the colleague from Bangladesh mentioned, their assistants rarely have any paperwork or even a reference letter to show that they took part in producing this information, let alone a project title to put on their CV.

Another participant from the Philippines, the head of a local organization, explained that the motives to collaborate with foreign researchers go beyond monetary rewards. They prefer that the researcher carry out specialized tasks, such as training members of the community-based organizations in specific skills. Others prefer that the researcher donate an amount of their choice to the organization, or help in advocacy campaigns that are ongoing during their visit.

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Who keeps track?

There are also huge gaps in law and regulations regarding knowledge generation from both the country of the researcher and the host country. In some cases these experts will sometimes only follow ethical rules from their funding or home institutions rather than respecting local regulations on research. Such laws, for example relating to data storage and sharing, have become bones of contention.

Knowledge produced in the ‘black market’ is also prone to imposters ready or take advantage of the naïve Western researcher for their research grants. In these fragile and poor contexts, they pretend to be research assistants but lack the necessary research skills. They often end up producing questionable reports. This is often more evident in journalism because it is available to the public, but the same thing also happens away from the limelight in academia and policy reports.

While one can neither generalize about entire regions with many countries and hundreds of cultures, Africans and Europeans do seem to understand the use of money differently. A dissatisfied research assistant from an African context may not complain about their pay to the Western researcher, who then leaves feeling that he/she reimbursed the person adequately, or even better than other local jobs. When one pushes to negotiate, a European researcher might feel as if they are being taken advantage of, and suspect they are being overcharged.

Money is seen in some circles as a corruptor of vital relations necessary in processes of knowledge production. In other contexts, it may be seen as a leveller of expectations of respondents and knowledge brokers. Either way, the myths, awkwardness and discomfort around money in the knowledge production ‘black market’ need to be unpacked, discussed openly and demystified.

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