The author, Elisée Cirhuza
Behind every academic publication – be it a report, book, or journal article – there is a whole chain of researchers who collaborated to attain the results. We rarely ask, however, what conditions these researchers worked in, or what sort of remuneration they received. The position of the research assistant is particularly vulnerable in this chain. Often, when it comes to the results of a study, he remains a sort of invisible hired hand. Researchers are often overwhelmed by the demands of the field and the quality guidelines of their field reports. But a question – largely forgotten in discussions – remains as to the criteria for remunerating and meeting the risk expenses of research assistants.
My personal experience over the course of four years of research in the DRC has allowed me to participate in numerous academic trainings and fieldwork preparation sessions. Yet the question of remuneration has never been the subject of deeper discussion in any of these workshops. While researchers from the Global North are granted a guaranteed salary, risk funds, and various forms of insurance, the same cannot be said for the 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 organizing 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. They are not cognizant of the fact that research projects in the Global South often take place in impoverished, unstable, and conflict-ridden areas, and that the presence of researchers in such zones can give rise to increased financial demands. For example, in my own case, 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.
Also, in Kabare 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 us to the point of throwing stones at us, and shouted, “Nashiye tuliparticipé mutatulipa, mutu uziye pombe basi ya kasikisi, muko na lare!” (“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 put the research assistant in a vulnerable and precarious position in which he must improvise, take risks with regard to his own 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 has not been given the resources that would enable him to resort to a ‘Plan B’ for his safety, or to escape from a dangerous situation in the field. Though, there are certain NGO’s that give their researchers a ‘security envelope’ to allow them to deal with kidnappers.
In 2013, for example, a fellow researcher traveled 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. For one thing, 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. For another, 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 providing false data that he himself invented, 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 be the ones to 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 social security and stability of the local researcher, and also create an alternative for managing certain requirements of the field. At the same time, questions of remunerations for researchers from the Global South should also be discussed in the context of a broader debate on their critical position within the power dynamics at play in research projects.