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.
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?
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