The ‘NGO-ization’ of research: what are the risks?

Pierre Basimise Ngalishi Kanyegere is a researcher for the Land Rush project and an IT technician at ISDR-BUKAVU. This piece is part of the new “Bukavu Series” blog posts by the GIC Network.

In the DRC, academic research is very often conducted within the framework of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These organizations commission research to support their activities. One might call such a shift of research activity from the academic world toward the NGO world an NGO-ization of academic research. This phenomenon deserves particular attention when trying to understand the academic pluralism developing in the context of fragile states throughout Africa in general, and in the DRC in particular.

In addition, we find that universities themselves contribute to this NGO-ization of research. Congolese universities– which are the privileged frameworks for academic research in the country – currently offer little space for a culture of academic research to emerge and flourish. There are several explanations for this.

“The issues an NGO targets are not necessarily related to the realities or the actual problems that the population experiences, but rather are determined by the organization’s own priorities.”

First of all, while it should be noted that there has been some progress in recent years, at universities in the DRC research is still less valued than other academic pursuits. Priority is given to teaching and administration while research, which is after all one of the key missions of a university, tends to be forgotten. There is no shortage of grand declarations. Academic authorities, the ministry of higher education, and the Congolese government have all proclaimed their desire to rethink the university system, with a much greater emphasis on academic research.

That said, here we also come to a second problem: research requires financial resources. Currently, the financial means for developing academic research are still lacking in the Congolese academic environment. First of all, this limits Congolese researchers’ ability to access current and relevant literature in their fields, which is often not available through open access domains. Secondly, the lack of funding forces ambitious Congolese researchers to self-finance their academic projects. Stricken by financial precariousness, they must often adapt their projects to pragmatic considerations, limiting them in terms of the meager financial means they manage to mobilize. Given the Congolese government’s under-investment and lack of interest in academic research, most research projects are sponsored by NGO’s or international organizations. It is this that we refer to when we talk about the NGO-ization of research.

One of the major consequences of this NGO-ization is that the institutional framework within which a given research project is conducted may strongly constrain the margin of maneuver for both the project and the researchers in question. How exactly?

The DRC needs its own autonomous research structures and dynamic.
Photo: Jeff Walker/CIFOR, CC BY

First of all, one consequence of this NGO-ization of academic research is that project design, and even research objectives, are predetermined by the organization that commissions a given research project. The issues an NGO targets are not necessarily related to the realities or the actual problems that the population experiences, but rather are determined by the organization’s own priorities. The research questions, methodological approaches, analyses, etc. are often oriented according to the agenda of the organization sponsoring the research. MONUSCO, for example, often conducts research projects that provide input for confidential reports to internal actors (focusing analyses on the risks of political instability) without necessarily engaging with the fate of the population in any broader way.

What’s more, these studies do not always serve to develop a genuine site analysis – much less, a theoretical approach to understanding local realities. On the contrary, they aim instead to legitimate the presence of the NGO, or its relevance in the field. One could speak of a conflict of interest when an organization carries out research on a subject that then allows it to legitimate its own relevance, in terms of its interventions on the same subject, to donors. Nevertheless, this practice is widely observable in the context of the DRC.

In addition, the NGO-ization of research also leaves its mark on the terrain itself. This type of dynamic creates a sort of expectancy among the communities involved. As a result, more and more often, these communities associate field research with the announcement of the arrival of an organization that will intervene on the ground. The assimilation of the local researcher into an agent of an international institution or NGO often leads people on the ground to demand “their share,” which is to say a per diem. This expectancy translates into reactions like, “Madeso ya bana ou même sombe ya batoto?” (“How will my children get food out of what you’re doing?”) Such expectations add a bias to the information that people at the local level are willing to share with the researcher and affect the quality of the research.

All these observations by no means lead us to conclude that NGO’s or other non-academic organizations have no right to engage in research. Rather, the limits of this type of research demonstrate that the DRC needs its own autonomous research structures and dynamic. Such autonomy would enable local researchers to focus on key issues that are truly connected to the problems that Congolese populations face.

Featured image: CIFOR scientist measuring a sapelli tree near Lieki, DRC. Axel Fassio/CIFOR, CC BY

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4 Responses to “The ‘NGO-ization’ of research: what are the risks?”
  1. I largely agree with the broad issues raised by the blog, so thank for bringing this into public dialogue domain. What I am not sure about is the bit around ‘bias’ and serving NGO interests. I think all research is covered by bias either of the research entity or the funder of that piece of work. But I also agree that NGO funded research may not be so thorough on assessing the existing theoretical landscape in that field, so something for us to think about.

  2. Duncan Green

    Thanks Pierre, I think you have raised a really central issue. The dependence of research on foreign funding (although I suspect the big bilateral and multilateral donors spend a lot more on it than NGOs) skews it in at least two ways. Firstly, as you say, it is very hard for researchers to ‘bit the hand that feeds them’ and so leads to findings that are often uncritical of the aid sector. Secondly, it means that it is much easier to get funding for research on aid interventions than on endogenous change processes and politics, even though the latter are often much more important in national terms. Overall, that leads to the importance of aid being exaggerated, and the importance of locally driven change downplayed.

  3. Bernd Steimann

    I would largely agree with this analysis. What’s more, some donors and INGOs tend to commission Western research institutions, rather than trying to work or at least partner with academia from the respective countries. However, NGO-sponsered research is not always about ‘justifying aid interventions’ only. Instead, research can also help to get a better understanding of structural issues, e.g. by analysing the practical consequences of a specific law or regulation on local realities, and thus help to inform evidence-based advocacy.

  4. I think many issues raised here are not exclusive of INGOs or NGOisation processes. For instance, I’ve worked in big INGOs such as ActionAid and ChristianAid and I’ve never been allowed to give per diems in exchange for research participation. Or while I agree that much of NGO data is often not shared publicly, is all academic data shared publicly? Same for top down and bottom up, or centralised and decentralised approaches. As with research ethics, I think it is more about how a research institution operates and its research ethos more than whether it belongs to the NGO, UN, donor, or university sector.
    I think all of us -regardless of the sector we work in- who believe in equitable partnerships and solid research ethics need to rather get together (e.g. to prompt governments and donors to invest in research that is shared, public, well-resourced, equitable, and where Southern universities and national statistical offices lead on what they want and need. We need to ensure the strenghtening of domestic statistical and research capacity, and get donors and NGOs to coordinate and not duplicate domestic efforts.