Taken out of the picture? The researcher from the Global South and the fight against ‘academic neo-colonialism’
Translation by Mary Lou Bradley
The author, Elisée Cirhuza
We talk a lot about the need to decolonialize the chain of academic research. But beyond existing discourses, what do we really mean by it ? And what does it say about the place of the researcher from the Global South in this chain ?
A first and striking observation is that the researcher from the Global South largely remains invisible in the research outputs, including the publications. There are numerous examples where these researchers, often hired as research assistants, were not included as authors even when the research outputs were based partially or entirely on data gathered by those same researchers. The commissioners or coordinators of these projects usually come up with several reasons for this: protecting the researcher, lacking writing capacities, lack of proficiency in the language of writing or lack of enthusiasm for the topic covered. Often though, it has to do mostly with a lack of willingness of the commissioners or donors who fund the research.
Even though it’s a good sign that several journals are starting to have a more inclusive policy, such initiatives remain limited in numbers and are hardly sufficient to give these researchers a more prominent position. Furthermore, assuming that the problem of imbalance between researchers from the Global North and those from the South can be solved by giving someone from the South a voice (eg. by making them a co-author), may be nothing more than expressing a form of instrumentalisation. It can even be read, to a certain extent, as a form of neo-colonialism. When these researchers are not involved in the entire research process, including choosing the approaches and theoretical frameworks, it risks indeed only to increase the existing imbalances of power. Because it is not just a question of giving Southern researchers visibility in a publication. Their involvement beginning with the design phase of the research is essential. Yet, in reality, however, they are hardly ever consulted by the research coordinators during this phase. This is despite that it would mitigate existing power imbalances, create a bridge of trust and, above all, accountability between coordinators and Southern researchers. Involving the Southern researcher in this way would allow them to feel much more involved and create a better sense of shared ownership: “this is my research, this is our research and not only of one of us,” would be the general feeling. Such approach would encourage research assistants to more readily demonstrate their academic interest instead of holding back. At the same time, it would help to put the expertise of the research assistants to use, directly and intensively, which could prevent some failures even before the implementation of the research project.
There are other elements that also reinforce the research assistant’s subordinate position. Working conditions are often difficult, especially during the data collection phase. The terms and conditions are often unilaterally imposed by the project funder or coordinator. There is limited space to negotiate salaries or contract terms given there are few opportunities to be involved in research projects and competition thus is fierce. In addition, research coordinators are generally very demanding with respect to the quality of the reports despite the often mediocre wage. All this, obviously, complicates the working environment of researchers from the Global South.
If the research process were inclusive right from the design phase, everyone –coordinator and research assistant– could help to mitigate this vulnerability. It would also help to identify and find solutions to other research-related challenges that often remain hidden. In some cases, for example, research assistants feel themselves forced to mobilise their own salary to meet an unexpected need in the field. As an assistant colleague told me, “when I went to the field to conduct a study on food security, I often used my own salary to pay at the different checkpoints because the project commissioner had not provided the funds to do so.” Similarly, when respondents demand a financial compensation for the share of information, it is the research assistant himself who has to pay from his own salary. If this research assistant does not have the capacity to do so, it eventually has an impact on the quality of the data gathered.
Within the academic enterprise, making the research assistant visible in the research chain should be a key principle. The best way to do so is by taking into account their own ideas and suggestions, both in terms of the chosen methodology epistemology; by redefining their involvement starting from the design of the research project; and by giving them the opportunity to be part of the reporting and communication of research results.. What’s more, the full engagement and participation of Southern researchers during the entire research project would also rectify existing imbalances of power, and could thus put an end to the ‘colonizer-colonized’ legacy, which leaves its marks to this day. This perspective could help the Southern researcher take real and tangible ownership of the project. It could also be an answer to certain hidden questions that the research assistant has about the purpose of the project and the objectives of the project commissioner or coordinator. Such approach would represent a radical rupture with the dominant idea that whoever pays has the right to determine a person’s place in the research cycle. It would challenge the idea that it is but a favor to include the Southern researcher up to the publication phase, and propose a more transparent and collaborative approach. While research project commissioners and coordinators should consider the suggestions of research assistants, why not involve them in all phases of the research?
Elisée Cirhuza is a researcher and programme manager at the Groupe d’Etude sur le Conflit et la Sécurité Humaine (GEC-SH)