Alice Mugoli Nalunva
Research in the social sciences is a fascinating line of work. It attracts people with a passionate desire to understand societal dynamics. These dynamics prove very complex in an environment like the DRC, where even the most impassioned researchers encounter numerous challenges along their professional paths.
First of all, the research setting in the DRC is highly constrained by structural factors. Many studies are done “on demand,” commissioned by donors from NGO’s and international organizations (e.g. MONUSCO) on the one hand, and by academic institutions based outside of the DRC (often in Europe) on the other. These studies are therefore often oriented toward the interests and activities of the funders and tend to involve a short-term perspective. They leave the research assistant little or no room for maneuver in terms of defining a study’s research questions, methodology, or analytic framework.
But there is also the issue of the research capacity of Congolese academic institutions, which are paralyzed by a lack of funds to sustain an independent research dynamic. Adding to this, there is a lack of infrastructure and technical resources, as well as relatively limited access to recent academic literature. Due mainly to these shortcomings, research largely remains underdeveloped within local universities. Often, people work on short-term projects geared toward whatever funding they can get. Such projects involve young researchers without having a clear vision of how they might engage or promote them in the long term. One young researcher at a research center in Bukavu shared his experience with us:
“I was a researcher at a center; I worked there beginning in 2015. Three years later, I decided I had to quit because I couldn’t find any meaning in this title of ‘researcher.’ I had already lost so much time just collecting data. No one cared about advancing my career – not my superiors, and even less so the Northern researchers I worked with. I am elsewhere now, so I’ve refused this title, which I equate with exploitation. They always said they hadn’t yet found the means. When are they going to have these means?”
These words convey the disappointment many research assistants feel with the way that they are treated. They serve as a condemnation of the people who hold the reins at the institutions with which such local researchers are affiliated.
Given the lack of research development at the local level, individual researchers also often find themselves in a vulnerable position in negotiations over their working conditions. Two major concerns emerge as a result. First of all, it becomes difficult to negotiate the conditions of the contract, and the contract often ends up being poorly defined. Many Congolese researchers get hired without knowing exactly how long their jobs will last. The length of a contract is also sometimes only verbally agreed upon, and even when it is stated in writing, this often does not reflect reality, since the contract can be broken without warning. Researchers’ physical and mental safety is also often not guaranteed. Local researchers do the fieldwork, but the risks they face are often ignored. In the event of illness, kidnapping, or accidents, the research commissioners usually decline all responsibility. The contract may also have shortcomings when it comes to defining a researcher’s mandate. He or she is often treated as a mere data collector without any room for maneuver in the rest of the research process. Skewed power dynamics cause research assistants to remain largely invisible in the research process. They are barely taken into account beyond the data collection phase and are very rarely visible in the publications that result from the data they collect. Oftentimes, they are not given the opportunity to participate in the broader research process, even when they have necessary abilities and deserve to be involved.
And yet, one might imagine a different world. Congolese academic institutions do indeed lack resources. However, we must think about shedding our “wait and see” attitude toward the Global North, and instead develop research at the local level, through our own means. In order for Congolese researchers to come out of the shadows and fully participate in knowledge production about their country (and beyond), there is a need to build up independent research in the DRC, rooted in the academic world and with collaborations at the international level. One can also think about collaborations with the NGO world, but in that case, there needs to be reflection about ways to find a certain degree of autonomy when defining and conducting research projects. This requires resources, but also – and above all – it requires vision on the part of officials at the state and university level in the Global South.