The author, Christian Chiza
Throughout the Global South, in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, research projects of researchers in the North are increasingly carried out either by, or with the involvement of, Southern researchers working in their own home settings. Nevertheless, project designs rarely take into account these researchers’ responsibilities toward the communities in which they operate. And those projects that do address this dimension often limit their considerations to superficial forms of accountability. Such a lack of accountability is an ethical problem in itself; but it also undermines local researcher assitant’s credibility and security in relation to their own communities.
What is the point of research? The standard response to this question – often automatically delivered – is as follows: To produce knowledge. Yet very rarely do we ask ourselves for whom this knowledge is intended, and to whom it should be made available. Regardless of the type of research – be it academic or NGO-driven – this observation holds. In a great many cases, the populations that participate in studies have very limited access to the resulting knowledge. In academia, texts tend to be extremely technical and, in many cases, accessible only through a paywall. In the NGO world, knowledge is often generated in the service of practical objectives that align exclusively with the activities of a given NGO.
During the past few years, I worked as a research consultant for an international NGO. My colleagues and I were often dispatched to gather data in the area where the NGO operated. Frequently, our “target populations” were excited to see us conducting this research. Unfortunately though, once we had obtained our data, we’d disappear as though we’d never been in the community at all. One day, I was passing back through one such community when suddenly I came across two of our former respondents. After some greetings, their words grew blunt: “Manake mulikuyaka tu tupondeya muda na kukamata maoni yetu nanjo muka poteya! Ju mpaka sai hatuya onaka mutu ana kuya tuambiya bili ishiaka wapi.” (“So basically, you just came here to waste our time collecting our opinions – and then that’s that: you disappeared! Because since then, we’ve never had anyone come back to tell us the outcome or results of what you were doing here.”) One of the two was very blunt indeed: “Si mulishaka kula zenu, basi muna weza tu kumbuka siye benye tulitumaka muna pata hizo makuta.” (“Now that you've gotten your food [i.e. been paid for your research], couldn't you at least remember those of us who made that possible for you?”)
The same concerns arise in academic research. For almost two years now, I have been involved in an academic study on land for a university in the Global North. The research aims to understand the role that household incomes play in securing plots of land in urban and peri-urban settings around Bukavu. Many of my interlocutors have signaled a desire to see a summary of our findings. Unfortunately, my coordinator informed me that the project design had not included a provision for this, and that he would have to think about finding extra room in the budget. The request seems to have been dead on arrival.
Now and then, I’ll get phone calls from people who at some point, participating in one study or another, granted me both their time and their trust. The question they ask is always the same: “When will we get a report on your findings?” For lack of a better response, I tell them (dying a little inside), “Hold on; we’re still thinking it through.” Deep down, though, I know no report is coming. And this weighs on me.
Occasionally, talking amongst themselves, researchers will break the omertà around this subject. One evening, a colleague told a group of us how once, on Idjwi Island, a confrontation with a village chairman over this issue left her tongue-tied. “Where does all the data you collect here go?” he asked. “Because there’ve been others like you, who came through, collected data, and then never returned…. What about your findings? Knowing them could help us, as local leaders, to sensitize our constituents on various issues that affect the life of our community.” Flustered, my colleague responded – in all honesty – that these sorts of decision were not up to her. Outside of data collection, she had little room for manoeuver.
The night that she shared her experience, some among us laughed. Others, however unconsciously, mocked her for not knowing the right answer to give. Yet after discussing a few more experiences of the sort, we found we weren’t laughing anymore. We realized that the imbalance of power within which we as local researchers operate drastically limits our range of motion when it comes to reporting the findings of our research. And nevertheless, we must handle the consequences alone. For it is the local researcher who later remains in the area, viewed as a representative of various research teams. This exclusion can even impact a person’s integrity, as one sees oneself constantly challenged. One has to live with a sense of guilt, a feeling of work left unfinished, an awareness of not having lived up to the community’s expectations. It becomes a heavy burden to bear. The community, meanwhile, risks losing trust – making access more difficult for the next set of researchers.
Moreover, we realized that this lack of accountability also creates a lost opportunity for the projects in question. Local views on researchers’ findings could add something to subsequent analyses. The communities in which we carry out research projects must be informed of our findings; they must be given a stake in the research results. Otherwise, what is the point of research? To make findings available only to elites? So that they in turn can use their knowledge and claim to be able to speak for the poor…? It is a question that bears asking.