In a recent blog post, Stanislas Bisimwa Baganda wrote about the “imbalanced power dynamic” between local and foreign researchers. He made a number of important points about security, collaboration, and salary that merit greater discussion. Specifically, Stanislas challenged us to examine whether local researchers are underpaid, underappreciated, and put at risk by foreign academics, humanitarian workers, and United Nations’ staff.
As one of his examples, Stanislas mentioned the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, which uses local assistants. Having served on the Group of Experts from 2013 to 2015, I want to offer some insights that expound Stanislas’ points.
The Group of Experts on DRC has existed, in one form or another, since 1999. The UN Secretary-General appoints the “experts” and the Security Council defines their scope of work, which includes investigating human rights violations, arms trafficking, and resource smuggling. The Group typically consists of six people, about half of whom are African; the other half are from Europe or North America.
For the last fifteen years, each Group of Experts has had a few local staff who performed multiple duties: translator, interpreter, fixer, negotiator, advisor, clerk, and driver. Yet UN guidelines required that these staff be hired as drivers, thus officially obscuring their importance and ensuring they were underpaid for the range of invaluable functions they performed.
Moreover, although most experts have had excellent professional and personal relationships with the national staff, a few experts have treated them very poorly. I heard numerous stories about an expert who bullied staff into going into highly volatile areas by threatening to have them fired and barred from future UN employment. The staff were too terrorized to speak up, and, sadly, other experts on the Group effectively ignored the problem, enabling it to continue for years.
Stanislas made the point that “researchers do not always realize the risks that these research assistants must face while carrying out this work. Thus, little—or no—thought is given to safety measures for these ‘rare walking brains’ doing research.” In the case of the Group, the experts are—or should be—keenly aware when they put the local staff at risk. The experts should evaluate the security risks for the “drivers” every time they send them on a mission or take them along into the field. And the experts’ bosses in New York should acknowledge that local staff are vital members of the Group, and classify and compensate them accordingly.
The murder of Congolese UN staff Hamza Katsambya provides further insight into Stanislas’ point about the treatment of local researchers. In 2013, I worked closely with Hamza, who was employed as an interpreter for MONUSCO (the UN’s stabilization mission in DRC) in the Beni office of the DDRRR program (for disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, reintegration, and resettlement of ex-combatants). Like the “drivers” working for the Group of Experts, the interpreters working for DDRRR performed a wide range of difficult and dangerous tasks, chief among them trying to convince local combatants to surrender.
I frequently consulted Hamza about the half-dozen or so armed groups then active in the Beni area. Hamza and his fellow “interpreters” were the true experts who were able to go places and visit people that were off limits to foreigners like me.
I can’t overstate how dangerous their work was. They broadcast messages on the radio, handed out pamphlets in villages, and met with rebels and armed group collaborators. The “interpreters” had one goal: to stop the violence and end war in the Beni area. They also debriefed rebels who surrendered, getting valuable insights into the structure, activities, and financing of local armed groups. The information Hamza and his colleagues obtained went up the chain in MONUSCO and to the UN in New York, providing vital data that informed operational policy and security decisions.
Hamza also helped to protect me. In mid-2013, he introduced me to a hardened and troubled former rebel living in Beni. After I met with him a couple of times, this man demanded money. When I refused to comply, he sent me ominous text messages. I turned to Hamza for advice. He told me he would handle it and he did, defusing the situation.
One morning in February 2014, an assassin shot Hamza down near his home in Beni. The trigger man and those who sent him were never identified, but the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, an Islamic rebel group then battling the government army, was most likely responsible.
MONUSCO immediately shut down the DDRRR office and sent the staff south to Goma and Bukavu. But the families of at least some of the interpreters remained behind. Hamza’s widow and four young children also stayed in Beni. MONUSCO staff helped his family for some time, but their support ended years ago.
The effort to find Hamza’s killers was also fleeting and much less thorough than the international inquiries into the murders of two members of the Group of Experts in 2017. A local interpreter and three drivers also rode into the deadly ambush with those experts, but their fate remains unknown. Although the four Congolese men accompanying the American and Swedish experts were not official UN employees, local researchers in Congo have taken note of the lack of interest in finding their bodies or seeking justice for their apparent killings.
Stanislas was right to raise “ethical questions with regard to the safety and security of local researchers.” Unequal power dynamics between local and foreign researchers have sometimes enabled the exploitation of national staff, who are asked to undertake work that foreigners cannot or do not want to do. As a result, local staff may be misclassified, inadequately compensated, exposed to high levels of stress and danger, and even killed. Indeed, a bullet does not differentiate among an expert, a driver, or an interpreter. The United Nations should ensure that for staff going in harm’s way, everyone is entitled to the same protections, rights, and respect.
Daniel Fahey served twice on the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He is currently a visiting associate professor of the practice at the Keough School of Global Affairs and the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in the USA.