Conducting collaborative ethical research in Congo

By Zoe Marks and Emery Mudinga

The pace of the research-reporting-publishing-funding cycle often leaves a great deal of knowledge on the table. There’s simply not enough time to process all of the information learned and uncovered in the process of collaborative research while also disseminating findings and incubating the next project.

To disrupt this cycle, the Rift Valley Institute (RVI) Usalama Project and University of Edinburgh Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP) Poverty and Conflict project held a joint workshop in December at RVI’s head office in Nairobi, Kenya. We brought together project leads and research collaborators to reflect on what we achieved, discuss lessons learned, and set collaborative agendas for further conflict research in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Our approach inverted the standard “stakeholder workshop” model, which has become common practice for connecting development-related research projects to issues and policy impacts on the ground. Instead of prioritizing research dissemination, which presents findings to domestic and international policy and practitioner audiences, we wanted to consolidate the feedback of an often-overlooked core stakeholder group: research experts who live and work in the conflict-affected areas themselves.

We convened Congolese research leads and field researchers for two days to take a step back and discuss what worked well and what didn’t across the PSRP and RVI research teams. Here are some of the highlights that will inform our future research projects in DRC, and which offer valuable lessons learned for similar research in conflict-affected settings:

  1. “Don’t call us local researchers. We are researchers”

One of the most powerful takeaways from the workshop emerged at the end of the day as we (the authors), along with our colleague Josephat Musamba [i], discussed how professional titles – what you call someone – shape the way you consider them, your relation with and to them, their “right” in the research process, and how they are paid. Emery Mudinga and Musamba explained in compelling terms how the term “local researcher” functions to devalue the knowledge and expertise of colleagues recruited on the ground or within the country of focus. Calling foreign researchers simply “researchers”, but distinguishing collaborators as being locally recruited, perpetuates colonial power dynamics and privileges foreigners’ knowledge and authority. It also relegates “local researchers” to a seemingly indefinite “research assistant” status, implying that the training, knowledge, and rigor of domestic experts is not on par with that of foreign/outsider researchers. In reality, foreign researchers are often hugely dependent on their domestic counterparts for access and information.

Moreover, as Mudinga and Musamba explained, they could have much more lucrative careers in private sector or NGO work, but – like Western and foreign researchers – doing research is a choice made by African intellectuals because of their intellectual curiosity, passion for knowledge creation, and conviction that their work can have a positive impact on their country and communities. There is a need to decolonize the vocabulary that implies a “we” of Western researchers and excludes our fellow (African) researchers simply because foreign scholars have come to study the area in which other scholars both live and work. This is especially true when Western researchers benefit from unequal access to resources and funding for research projects. The “local researcher” designation tends to insinuate that domestic experts are pursuing research for instrumental reasons: as a livelihood, rather than as a craft. The time, energy, and risk African researchers put into developing their knowledge is poorly reflected in the “local” researcher distinction because it caveats the fact they are leading experts not only within their country, but globally on related issues.

  1. Security remains a persistent challenge for conducting rigorous, ethical, and safe research in conflict settings.

While this is a problem for foreign researchers, it arguably presents even greater challenges for Congolese experts, who live and work in insecure environments[ii]. Internationally funded projects continue to struggle in guaranteeing researcher safety in the field, meaning solutions, risk reduction, and ingenuity too often remain the responsibility of collaborators on the ground. Many projects avoid discussing the real risks of kidnapping, murder, accidents, and injuries that researchers face in the field. And when these issues are raised, research organisers emphasise the fact that they can’t bear responsibility for everything that might happen. A few key solutions emerged in the workshop that we encourage all future projects to consider in their earliest planning stages.

  • The first is to have greater flexibility on the ground for responding to incidents on the spot by appointing an in-country security focal point, and empowering team leaders with a security envelope that has a pre-approved cash advance. Focal points could use such funding at their discretion to pay fees related to access, detention/fines, or accidents and health emergencies as they arise.
  • Second, because of the lack of domestic insurance schemes, colleagues raised the possibility of having some sort of project-specific social insurance scheme to cover accidents and sickness. Inequity in care and benefits remains an ongoing problem for research projects committed to working in low-income countries, and schemes like the UK’s Global Challenge Research Fund are well positioned to move the needle on encouraging such expenses to be budgeted for and accommodated.
  • Third, researchers face significant material challenges that affect their security in the field. Poor or nonexistent infrastructure in DRC means more money needs to be budgeted for 4×4 travel in lieu of motorbikes where possible.
  • Relatedly, secure data transfer remains a major challenge, as electricity, sound internet connections, and phone data are all hard to come by. PIs and project leads need to take special care to budget for consumables – sturdy laptops and portable modems, in addition to phones and sim cards – when conducting sensitive research, so that researchers on the ground aren’t stuck using their own equipment and relying on public computers at cyber cafés to send research data or security briefings.
  1. Capacity building needs to happen throughout the project cycle.

It is common for research projects in low-income contexts to include language about “capacity building” and, on the whole, partners laud the premise that projects should add value and provide more than salaries to researchers. However, in practice, capacity building is seen as too short and superficial to dramatically enhance people’s skill sets and knowledge base. Several solutions and lessons learned provide simple ways to strengthen and reinforce researcher capacity alongside research findings.

All of the PSRP projects in Congo had workshops that included training in research methods, opportunities to use new technologies, such as tablets and survey methods, and new theoretical approaches to analyzing conflict dynamics in DRC. These were highly successful and our colleagues leading the fieldwork stressed that more such opportunities should be incorporated throughout the duration of the project.

  • Work-in-progress workshops can be budgeted for in terms of both time and resources, ideally bringing together all project participants to compare and analyze results at the mid-point of the research process, and not just at the end. For example, one of the team leaders organized a three-day workshop with everyone involved in data collection to discuss early findings and develop preliminary conclusions. They then invited independent/external specialists for further feedback and discussion, which helped clarify arguments and ideas [iii]. This approach builds on inception workshops that discuss research aims, questions, methods, and ethics, revisiting the issues as the project unfolds. Crucially, it also strengthens horizontal communication and research capacity across teams in the field, rather than having all “capacity strengthening” activities centralized through the PI/project lead.
  • Additionally, bottom-up capacity building responds to researcher demand more effectively than usual supply-driven initiatives. For example, team leaders can be provided with a limited fund for field-based capacity-building workshops during the course of the project. Context-responsive workshops will more likely resonate with researchers. And the capacity and skills strengthening will lead to instant uptake, directly feeding into the quality of data collection and analysis for project outputs.
  • Finally, Congolese colleagues stressed the need for capacity building to continue through the publication and dissemination stages of the project as part and parcel to being recognized as research experts. Many expressed a strong desire to be invited to publish/co-author in peer-reviewed academic outlets and noted that this requires time and support (especially with regards to translation). Moreover, projects rarely budget paid time for contracted researchers to co-author outputs. For researchers who have conducted fieldwork, writing becomes a must, as it is part of their goal of knowledge production. But it can be a challenge for researchers without university salaries. Blog posts and open access reports present additional opportunities for co-authorship that might be more flexible with regards to language, the time-intensive publishing cycles, and the ultimate audience reach.

In addition to identifying strengths, challenges, and creative solutions for improving field research in the future, the Political Settlements and Rift Valley Institute researchers closed the workshop with collaborative agenda-setting. One of the great strengths of the Usalama Project, RVI’s flagship research programme in Eastern Congo, is that it has cultivated a network of experts throughout the region who have tracked the conflict and its changing actors over time.

All too often, research in conflict zones is reduced to merely monitoring incidents of violence and human rights violations. But, in DRC, researchers have the skills and opportunities to focus on changing conflict contexts, trajectories, and how the political economic environment is shaping conflict dynamics. These issues raise a rich array of future research questions that can expand our understanding of Congo itself, as well as contribute to broader comparative debates about social processes in conflict-affected settings.



Zoe Marks is a Chancellor’s Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, where she leads the Poverty and Conflict research project.

Emery Mudinga is a post-doctoral fellow at UC Louvain and was a research team leader in the second phase of the RVI Usalama Project, sub-titled ‘Governance in Conflict’.



[i] See related research by Josaphat Musamba (2016) “Le groupement de Waloaluanda : une « zone rouge » ? Comprendre un quotidien socio-sécuritaire complexe”,  Available at:; and with Christoph Vogel (2016) “Recycling Rebels? Demobilization in the Congo”, Available at:«-zone-rouge-»-comprendre-un-quotidien-socio-sécuritaire#.Wo4ZJceNM3B

[ii] Emery Mudinga (2016) “Et après? Dilemme d’une recherche sensible chez soi. Une question de responsabilité”, Clémentine Goutron et Vincent Legrand (eds), Eprouver l’alterité. Les défis de l’enquête de terrain: 239-259.

[iii] See related research by Emery Mudinga, with Koen Vlassenroot and Kasper Hoffman (2016) “Contesting Authority: Armed rebellion and military fragmentation in Walikale and Kalehe, North and South Kivu”, Available at:

Photo: Martina Bacigalupo/Vu


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