Two updates on research ethics in post-conflict states

I recently came across two good posts discussing the ethics of relatively well-off, white foreigners carrying out research in post-conflict states in Africa.

At the Africa@LSE blog, Pat Stys and Tom Kirk write about the ways in which white researchers in eastern DRC are sometimes seen as more trusted financial intermediaries than local banks.

Much to our surprise, all eight researchers … asked us to safely store their cash payments until a decent sum had been accrued. We had assumed that irregularly employed researchers would require daily payments for travel in and around Goma…

Admittedly, it was the run up to Christmas, so our researchers and coach were keen to amass lump sums.  Yet, our enquiries also revealed that storing cash with us gave the savers a measure of ‘plausible deniability’ when those in their networks, including close family members, inevitably came asking for loans or loan repayments. For others, we were simply a safer place to keep money than the available, yet widely distrusted, alternatives such as banks or relatives.

The undeniable truth that we are both white also meant, therefore, we were assumed to have enough money to pay the savers back at short notice. Discussion of this common practice encouraged the researchers to ask Tom how much money he keeps hidden from his partner, to which the disbelieved answer was, of course, none.

At From Poverty to Power, David Mwambari and Arthur Owor discuss the ways in which foreign researchers’ access to funding puts local researchers at a disadvantage.

The industry of knowledge production is rarely regulated in conflict or post-conflict contexts. Local or national governments are fragile or non-existent and therefore aid agencies, humanitarian organizations, local non-governmental organizations, individual academics or consultants regulate the payment to the service providers.  If rules do exist, researchers rarely adhere to them beyond filling out bureaucratic forms. The person with the money, usually the outside senior researcher, not only sets the standards and determines what questions are asked but also determines how money will be used, who is paid for what, and how much they receive. …

International experts in most cases are paid by aid agencies, they are put up in good hotels, and often have contracts that secure their jobs. As the colleague from Bangladesh mentioned, their assistants rarely have any paperwork or even a reference letter to show that they took part in producing this information, let alone a project title to put on their CV.