Northern-based researchers leaching the global South

Published: 13 Feb 2013

I recently had a call from a young student who is planning to do fieldwork among a group of refugees in East Africa. She had been told by her professor she did not need to obtain official research permission from the relevant government insitution, she had no information about local government structures and protocol, and only had the most basic understanding of the highly charged political context into which she would be landing – without official research clearance.

This is only one example, and a mild one at that (at least she had asked for advice before getting onto the plane.) But for those of us who work for ‘South-based’ organisations it is hard not to be increasingly concerned about the fraught relationship between students and academics from the global north, and southern-based institutions or individuals. Although there can be a good symbiotic relationship between the two, more often than not it feels that things do not turn out that way.

So here is the cynical version of events: The student arrives in the ‘south’ (otherwise known as ‘the field’) ready to tick the boxes for their research. They need a local institution to provide their official paperwork and documents, or as their raison d’être for being there in the first place. So they pay a minimal fee, and someone takes up valuable time out of their work to sort out their research permission for them. The local organisation is then expected to jump to attention, be hugely grateful that someone is interested in what they are doing and the problems they are facing, and stop what they are doing to give them time. If they are lucky enough, someone at the organisation is offered money to be a research assistant or interpreter – of course, at a fee that is deemed ‘locally appropriate’ – and then they get to tag along with a (generally) young, probably naïve researcher who has barely been out of her home town before. The student’s research priorities rarely match those of the locally-based organisation, and if they do they could more than likely do the research themselves far better. However, the ‘locals’ don’t have access to the grants that the north-based student can access, so chances are that this piece of research is going to be published in a northern-based institution in the form of a Master’s dissertation. The local organisation and local researcher become a footnote.

Meanwhile, by the end of her short stay the student is fairly happy because she has a nice collection of interviews that she can write up. But she is also puzzled because she has been exposed to highly complex issues at only the most superficial level (a little bit of information proving to be highly dangerous). At worst, she starts to challenge those on the ground for their methods and goes away disillusioned when she is given short shrift for showing her lack of understanding: the relationship can quickly turn sour. At best, she has the grace to realise that she does not have the full picture: wisdom dictates that she is an outsider and needs to recognise her limitations.

I am still working on the less cynical version.

Suffice to say, the above scenario is a caricature – although I dare say a recognisable one to many. There are plenty of academics and students who have not acted in this way and who have come with humility and a clear understanding of their limitations.

So, is the answer to ban all students from coming to the global South to do field work? Tempting, but probably not. What can be done, however, is that students can be far better prepared before they leave. In some instances this is already being done – and it is normally easy to spot the student who has sought out some advice before getting onto the plane.

For a start, there needs to be a far clearer acknowledgement of the fact that researchers are going to take and local actors are going to give, and not the other way round. Those who think they are going to somehow help resolve deeply entrenched issues that local actors have been working for decades to resolve are best off staying at home.

Second, respect needs to be paid to local and national structures – whether governmental or community-based – and protocol needs to be observed. Arriving without paperwork with an attitude of ‘we’ll get away with it’ sends the message that you think you have arrived in a banana republic, and that’s not a good way to start.

Third, there needs to be greater respect for the work, partnerships and ethical obligations of the local organisations with whom the researcher interacts: there should be no misrepresentation about the relationship of the researcher to the local organisation. In particular, researcher and organisational responsibilities to local communities and the possible impact of the research itself need to be thought through.

Most importantly, we need to all be better at coming up with creative ways of making sure that Southern-based institutions are empowered to take more control of such situations so that they can benefit from hosting researchers from outside, rather than be drained by them. Of course, I have picked on students and academics here and have not even started on north/south NGO partnerships, or on the impact of all this research on refugees or other groups who all too quickly become fatigued from answering the same questions asked by a stream of researchers who seem oblivious to the fact that refugees, contrary to typecasting, have much better things to do with their time than sit and answer endless questions. But maybe another time…

Regions: North and Horn of Africa
Type: IRRI Blog