The “local” researcher – merely a data collector?

In this post, Stanislas Bisimwa Baganda writes about imbalanced power relations in field research, which can not only have negative impacts on the quality of work, but endanger the lives of local research assistants. He is a researcher in the Groupe d’Etude sur le Conflit et la Sécurité Humaine (GEC-SH) and a consultant in project management. This piece is part of the new “Bukavu Series” blog posts by the GIC Network

Research is an activity that involves several actors at different levels – both international and local. Although as part of their jobs they are all called upon to collaborate, the actors in the latter group at times find themselves locked into an imbalanced power dynamic. This can have an impact on the quality of their work.

The core of the problem is that there is often no contract of collaboration to bring together these two poles – that is, the researcher from the Global North, and the researcher from the Global South. And when there does happen to be one, in many cases, it does not take into account certain key ethical issues related to the local researcher’s security challenges and visibility in the course of knowledge production. This leads us to propose that future collaborations be built upon a set of protocols that provide protection for, and recognize the importance of, research assistants. Such an approach will not only allow for a better protection but also for a true decolonization of the process of knowledge production.

“Due to the power dynamic between Northern researchers and Southern research assistants (which often plays out as a boss-to-employee relationship), Southern researcher assistants are generally not viewed as full-fledged collaborators with the same rights as their Northern counterparts.”

Numerous research projects – sponsored by a wide range of donors – are oriented toward the Global South. Within this framework, researchers from the North often turn to locally based research assistants to facilitate their access to data. Indeed, we all realize that mastery of a given research setting is a major asset in the production of high-quality work.

Unfortunately though, Northern 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. What’s more, due to the power dynamic between Northern researchers and Southern research assistants (which often plays out as a boss-to-employee relationship), Southern researcher assistants are generally not viewed as full-fledged collaborators with the same rights as their Northern counterparts.

Let us take the example of a particularly striking case, namely the murder of the two UN experts in Kasai on March 12, 2017. While the killing of the two Western researchers was widely debated in both the national and international press, very little was said about the accompanying local researcher assistants. Another example is that of a colleague of mine who went to do research at the Mai-Mai Kirichiko rebels’ military base. In the end, while going through his research materials, soldiers realized that he had been taking notes on his findings and exchanges with them – as dictated by his research protocol. A rebel leader forced him to chew up and swallow all of his notes. Luckily, my colleague had some acquaintances within the group that saved him.

One might ask certain questions about what protocols are in place for such researchers’ protection. Who would take care of their families if something terrible were to happen? Who would pay the ransom for a researcher assistant kidnapped in the field? Are there plans in place for an airlift out, if war catches a researcher by surprise, and he/she finds his/her entry route under the control of armed groups?

Also, although the researcher assistant may collect data in often critical contexts, his or her role in the analysis of this data and in the write-up phase of the study remains very limited. Once the data is handed over to the ‘boss,’ the research assistant is left with a very narrow margin of maneuver with regard to what becomes of the material.

This creates two major problems:

First of all, the research assistant loses any chance of involvement in decisions as to how the data ought to be analyzed, published, and disseminated. Nevertheless, on the ground, the research assistant remains the face of the research project – in the eyes of the local community, as well as in the eyes of political authorities and armed leaders who may be displeased with the resulting analysis. He may even risk finding himself subject to prosecution after the publication of the data they provided, and may have to contend with various expectations from one group or another.

Secondly, the research assistant is rarely acknowledged in the publications that result from analyses of his/her data. Now, why should those who do the writing and analysis have a greater claim to authorship than those who negotiated the access to the field and gathered the actual data? Just because one has the funds, doesn’t mean that one knows how to access the data. Such access is predicated on entry into the field. And the same goes for ensuring the reliability of data. Just because one might be able to reach the field, doesn’t mean that one will gain the trust of local communities.

“This dynamic evokes a sort of academic colonialism that fails to treat the research assistant as a collaborator whose rights are equal to those of his/her counterparts from the Global North.”

Both these elements require mobilizing the expertise of researchers rooted in the local context. Thus, reducing the role of the research assistant to that of a mere data collector does a disservice to the entire project. Moreover, this logic reinforces the imbalance of power between the ‘funding’ researcher and the ‘implementing’ researcher. This dynamic evokes a sort of academic colonialism that fails to treat the research assistant as a collaborator whose rights are equal to those of his/her counterparts from the Global North.

It is for these reasons that we call for the inclusion of the research assistant as a researcher in his own right, throughout the project cycle: from the outlining stage, to the development of research questions, to the design of methodologies and researcher approaches, to analysis, all the way through the write-up and publication. This would also enable him to raise certain ethical questions with regard to the safety and security of local researchers. All of this would need to be laid out in a collaborative contract signed by both parties.

It is in this way that we will be able to decolonize research and recognize the importance of local researchers in the research process. And such recognition can only enrich the already-rich exchange that is possible between researchers of different backgrounds.

NOTE: This post has generated several responses – a sign of a conversation that needs to be had more often and in the open. Check out the comments below, and particularly this response we got from Daniel Fahey expanding on the example of the UN Group of Experts in DRC.

Featured image: Nutrition survey in the village of Bafwaboli, near Kisangani – DRC. Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


9 Responses to “The “local” researcher – merely a data collector?”
  1. Odero Owoko

    The physical risk of assault or injury is the easier part to deal with, the difficult bit will be putting more value on the research assistant as a collaborator in the write-up and publications and equally on remuneration. This, without doubt, will blow the cost of conducting research over the roof. But is it worth it?

  2. I agree with the author and wish to slightly expand on this issue.
    There are also examples of local researchers, themselves interested in a particular topic, publishing without acknowledging any support rendered by outside professionals. And then there are local assistants who are involved in the research by dint of their linguistic capabilities, but who may inconspicuously flavour their notes with personal political, ethnic or other biases. The obverse of this is, of course, that usually it is the western researchers that have the means to publish and when—or if—locals get to read the result, several inconsistencies and errors could belatedly be found.
    To mitigate the chances of inaccuracies, both foreign and local researchers should take the effort to undertake due diligence, much like in potential business partnerships, e.g.:
    • Verification of backgrounds, experience and mutual authorization for the research
    • Familiarization with the suggested field process, including logistics, opportunities for back-translation, gender issues etc.etc.; and resulting reactive flexibility in specific contexts
    • Clarification of the planned outcome of the intended research
    • Agreement on acknowledgement of those involved, especially in published articles, presentations and books
    These are just a few considerations.

  3. David Newman

    This is not so common in science and engineering research. It was local researchers, assisted but not bossed by resident foreigners, who developed the design of the Kenya Ceramic Jiko, a charcoal stove that burned 1/3 less charcoal to cook the same food. It was the local researchers who designed and evaluated the field trials of the device in hundreds of households. This led to the creation of a new industry, producing 250,000 stoves a year, reducing deforestation and helping the families who had had to spend 1/3rd of their income on charcoal for cooking. Occasionally people from ITDG came to knock heads together. But the research and development programme was run locally through KENGO. Technology forces people to be practical, wherever they are from.

  4. Lena

    To me, a central question is why so few researchers in the Global South are interested in writing proposals for research grants in the first place (in order to coordinate their really own projects, instead of only putting their names on proposals written by others) – ? There is an increasing number of calls which even demand active participation, own budget etc.. Why are Southern researchers not analysing their own data and writing up their own publications? Besides, data is not only collected in the Global South. Research assistants have a similar standing in the Global South and North. Risks but also opportunities of data collection might be different.

  5. QM

    Thank you for raising important points and this calls for action. There is also a power imbalance in the way that some organizations who do research in the Global South are structured. There is an element of “boss-to-employee relationship” or “superiority” when it comes to the way that local researchers with the same academic qualifications based in Global South who often get instructions/supervision from researchers based in the Global North are treated. Sometimes locally based researchers are treated like mere ‘research assistants’… despite having the same or even better academic qualifications…. Same applies to the remuneration that locally based researchers versus Global North researchers get. There is need to ‘decolonize’ the research process..

  6. Maria Faciolince

    Response by Daniel Fahey: Who are the ‘experts’? Local researchers deserve greater rights and respect.

    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.

    • erik kennes

      This cruelly highlights the status of local staff in UN structures. From what Daniel writes there seems to be no insurance for local staff and their families. International staff have a compulsory life insurance, which ensures continued payment to their families in case of a mortal accident. It seems that no equivalent exists for national staff. Much of the work of monusco ultimately depends on local staff but they are paid one fifth of international staff minus many benefits. At the same time many international staff (not all, and not the group of experts who are not monusco staff) take advantage of their position to perform the minimum of their professional duties and take their paycheck at the end of the month. A minority of international staff are very committed, work hard and are worth their salaries. But the discrimination towards national staff is blatant.

  7. Unfortunately, this all-too-common asymmetrical relationship between the “project leader” and “local researcher” is a microcosm of the way in which many scholars/practitioners/researchers in the Global North define development and the dissemination of knowledge.