In this post, Stanislas Bisimwa Baganda writes about imbalanced power relations in field research, which can not only have negative impacts on the quality of work, but endanger the lives of local research assistants. He is a researcher in the Groupe d’Etude sur le Conflit et la Sécurité Humaine (GEC-SH) and a consultant in project management. This piece is part of the new “Bukavu Series” blog posts by the GIC Network.
Research is an activity that involves several actors at different levels – both international and local. Although as part of their jobs they are all called upon to collaborate, the actors in the latter group at times find themselves locked into an imbalanced power dynamic. This can have an impact on the quality of their work.
The core of the problem is that there is often no contract of collaboration to bring together these two poles – that is, the researcher from the Global North, and the researcher from the Global South. And when there does happen to be one, in many cases, it does not take into account certain key ethical issues related to the local researcher’s security challenges and visibility in the course of knowledge production. This leads us to propose that future collaborations be built upon a set of protocols that provide protection for, and recognize the importance of, research assistants. Such an approach will not only allow for a better protection but also for a true decolonization of the process of knowledge production.
Numerous research projects – sponsored by a wide range of donors – are oriented toward the Global South. Within this framework, researchers from the North often turn to locally based research assistants to facilitate their access to data. Indeed, we all realize that mastery of a given research setting is a major asset in the production of high-quality work.
Unfortunately though, Northern researchers do not always realize the risks that these research assistants must face while carrying out this work. Thus, little – or no – thought is given to safety measures for these ‘rare walking brains’ doing research. What’s more, due to the power dynamic between Northern researchers and Southern research assistants (which often plays out as a boss-to-employee relationship), Southern researcher assistants are generally not viewed as full-fledged collaborators with the same rights as their Northern counterparts.
Let us take the example of a particularly striking case, namely the murder of the two UN experts in Kasai on March 12, 2017. While the killing of the two Western researchers was widely debated in both the national and international press, very little was said about the accompanying local researcher assistants. Another example is that of a colleague of mine who went to do research at the Mai-Mai Kirichiko rebels’ military base. In the end, while going through his research materials, soldiers realized that he had been taking notes on his findings and exchanges with them – as dictated by his research protocol. A rebel leader forced him to chew up and swallow all of his notes. Luckily, my colleague had some acquaintances within the group that saved him.
One might ask certain questions about what protocols are in place for such researchers’ protection. Who would take care of their families if something terrible were to happen? Who would pay the ransom for a researcher assistant kidnapped in the field? Are there plans in place for an airlift out, if war catches a researcher by surprise, and he/she finds his/her entry route under the control of armed groups?
Also, although the researcher assistant may collect data in often critical contexts, his or her role in the analysis of this data and in the write-up phase of the study remains very limited. Once the data is handed over to the ‘boss,’ the research assistant is left with a very narrow margin of maneuver with regard to what becomes of the material.
This creates two major problems:
First of all, the research assistant loses any chance of involvement in decisions as to how the data ought to be analyzed, published, and disseminated. Nevertheless, on the ground, the research assistant remains the face of the research project – in the eyes of the local community, as well as in the eyes of political authorities and armed leaders who may be displeased with the resulting analysis. He may even risk finding himself subject to prosecution after the publication of the data they provided, and may have to contend with various expectations from one group or another.
Secondly, the research assistant is rarely acknowledged in the publications that result from analyses of his/her data. Now, why should those who do the writing and analysis have a greater claim to authorship than those who negotiated the access to the field and gathered the actual data? Just because one has the funds, doesn’t mean that one knows how to access the data. Such access is predicated on entry into the field. And the same goes for ensuring the reliability of data. Just because one might be able to reach the field, doesn’t mean that one will gain the trust of local communities.
Both these elements require mobilizing the expertise of researchers rooted in the local context. Thus, reducing the role of the research assistant to that of a mere data collector does a disservice to the entire project. Moreover, this logic reinforces the imbalance of power between the ‘funding’ researcher and the ‘implementing’ researcher. This dynamic evokes a sort of academic colonialism that fails to treat the research assistant as a collaborator whose rights are equal to those of his/her counterparts from the Global North.
It is for these reasons that we call for the inclusion of the research assistant as a researcher in his own right, throughout the project cycle: from the outlining stage, to the development of research questions, to the design of methodologies and researcher approaches, to analysis, all the way through the write-up and publication. This would also enable him to raise certain ethical questions with regard to the safety and security of local researchers. All of this would need to be laid out in a collaborative contract signed by both parties.
It is in this way that we will be able to decolonize research and recognize the importance of local researchers in the research process. And such recognition can only enrich the already-rich exchange that is possible between researchers of different backgrounds.
NOTE: This post has generated several responses – a sign of a conversation that needs to be had more often and in the open. Check out the comments below, and particularly this response we got from Daniel Fahey expanding on the example of the UN Group of Experts in DRC.