Judith Buhendwa Nshobole
Carrying out a study is a long process that requires the integration of all the researchers involved. In the context of team projects including researchers from the Global North and from the Global South, this integration does not always play out equitably. On the one hand, you find that the objectives, hypotheses, and at times the principle arguments of the study are generally determined by the Northern researchers, who control access to the project’s financial resources. Meanwhile, issues regarding work in the field, and any questions of politics, language, security, etc. are left in the hands of the Southern researchers, since they have a better mastery of the local context than those from the North. Nevertheless, their involvement in the wider research process often remains limited. And this power imbalance between “donor-researchers” and “recipient-researchers” at the outset of a project also installs power imbalances throughout the entire research process.
To begin with, the “recipient-researcher” rarely gets to have any sort of substantial involvement in defining the objectives of a study. The aim of the research is often determined by the “donor-researcher,” who sets his own objectives. He is the one who leads discussions, negotiates contracts, sets guidelines, and defines the results to be achieved, in line with the funder’s requirements – all of which takes place in spaces the “recipient-researcher” has no access to. And this imbalance in the power relationship between “donor-researchers” and “recipient-researchers” also extends to the level of the epistemological and methodological aspects of a project.
With everything being designed on the Northern side of the collaboration, also the development of data-collection tools often occurs without taking into account the expertise of “recipient-researchers.” Then, during the implementations stage, local researchers end up receiving directives that they have to adapt to the realities of the field. Oftentimes, their expertise is not taken into account during this phase either. There are, for instance, certain sensitive areas where you can’t go around asking questions of just anyone. However, if the interview instructions developed for the project are overly rigid, this can prevent “recipient-researchers” from making their own adjustments to the protocol.
Then, after the fieldwork, the “donor-researcher” awaits the research results and the field report in order to carry on with the next steps of the process. But what opportunities do “recipient-researchers” get to showcase or develop their expertise once their reports are submitted? Shouldn’t they have the opportunity to be a part of the subsequent stages of a study, even after the submission of their reports? Perhaps they might prefer to appear in the final publication, so as not to remain in the shadows. This sort of visibility could, after all, open doors for them and allow them to make professional progress.
Moreover, during data collection, the people being interviewed sometimes ask for feedback: “How is the data that we’ve provided going to be used later?” is one question that often gets brought up by respondents in the field. At times, “recipient-researchers” have no answer to such questions, since once they’ve collected the data and submitted their field reports, their jobs are finished. And sometimes in the cases where local researchers prove bold enough to engage with a community’s expectations regarding some sort of follow-up, all they can really say is, “We’re still waiting to hear about our Northern partners’ plans.” More often than not, “donor-researchers” just leave the area, while “recipient-researchers” may have to work with the same communities in the future. A lack of accountability toward participant populations in one project can lead local researchers to be poorly received in the same area on future visits, since respondents may begin to see them as people who come to the community merely to get rich off the data they collect there.
In summary, if both parties were fully integrated into the research process, taking the knowledge and experiences of all different researchers into account would be a great asset in the course of identifying research objectives, developing questionnaires, collecting data, conducting analyses, and disseminating results. The objectives and financial means may come from the Global North. But when it comes to implementing a research project, the two parties should compliment each other in carrying it out.