Our guest blog this week is from a member of the SIID Advisory Board, Professor Emma Crewe, SOAS. Emma has been teaching and working on international aid and development since the late 1980s, including as an adviser to grant-makers and a freelance consultant working with donor governments and NGOs. More recently, Emma was Executive Director of ChildHope, a UK-based INGO working on social justice with national NGOs and networks in Africa, Asia and Latin America. She is currently co-ordinating an ESRC-DfID funded research coalition investigating Parliament and public engagement in Bangladesh and Ethiopia with Hansard Society and national researchers.
Research has many purposes but an important one is to put the spotlight on elites and powerful decision-makers. In countries without freedom of speech, where the media, opposition and activists are constrained and their political space is shrinking, it becomes even more vital that scholars enquire into and write / speak about politics and development. In contrast to journalists or bloggers, researchers in universities, research institutes and NGOs can go into more depth, take a longer view and relate specific issues to a bigger picture. It is not just their findings that matter, it is important that elites know they are being scrutinised – being held accountable – especially by scholars in their own countries. It is usually only national and local researchers (and not expatriates) who have the long-term commitment, the knowledge and the political savvy to do this kind of work.
Researchers’ findings are not necessarily critical of governments. South African Ben Cousins talked about his research in Zimbabwe at a conference I attended last month in Pretoria, which is marking the 10th anniversary of the ESRC-DFID joint fund on poverty alleviation. In his research he found that land reform in Zimbabwe has led to far more complex results than the simple disastrous scenario painted by many. There have been winners and losers and among them many small farmers are doing well, so land distribution can’t simply be dismissed as a wholesale failure. This kind of independent and courageous scrutiny of politics is exactly what researchers should be doing in my view. What is extremely worrying is that the political landscape in many countries is becoming so difficult for researchers that they are no longer free to engage in serious scrutiny of politics. For example, civil society organisations in Ethiopia – where I’m working with colleagues to understand Parliament’s record of public engagement – are being restricted and constrained, in a context where the state is not interested in listening to contestation and critique.
The state-builders in Africa are losing out to political entrepreneurs in what has become a marketplace, as anthropologist Alex de Waal has written in The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power (2015), so the role of intellectuals in the region has become more challenging but also more vital to democracy. The question for a European researcher like me is, how can we support and not undermine or use researchers in the Global South for our own purposes?
The research project I co-ordinate is funded by ESRC-DFID and currently has 10 researchers (4 women and 6 men): 2 in the UK, 3 in Ethiopia and 5 in Bangladesh. Our overall goal is to explore how Parliament and parliamentarians engage with the public when aiming for poverty reduction in Ethiopia and Bangladesh. Through mainly qualitative methods of interviews and observation, we are researching MPs’ relationships with each other, constituents, civil society organisations, and local government. In each country we are focusing on six constituents; the making of one law, one policy and one budget; and how MPs’ relationships are gendered. I co-ordinate the research with Ruth Fox (Director of the Hansard Society), and our specific role is to help disseminate findings and to influence UK-based decision-makers, but the lead researchers in Bangladesh – Nizam Ahmed and Zahir Ahmed – and Ethiopia – Meheret Ayenew – are managing the research, producing the outputs and engaging with their politicians, other national stakeholders and international policy-makers. Ruth and I are trying to support rather than undermine them: they are getting consultancy fees while the UK researchers only get a proportion of salary paid; after SOAS keeps its overheads, Nizam, Zahir, and Meheret control over three quarters of the budget as the people doing the research; they will shape the findings for each country and when comparing the two sites; and they will author most of the publications about Ethiopian and Bangladeshi politics. Other European lead researchers take a similar approach too but is it enough?
We put in our research proposal that my responsibility as Principal Investigator would be to ‘facilitate the development of researchers’ capacity to measure parliamentary effectiveness.’ But this ESRC-DFID conference has made me realise that I am doing no such thing. Ruth and I had the idea of doing this research and secured the funding, but all we are doing is creating an opportunity, redistributing wealth to scholars in the Global South and carving out some time and space for our Bangladeshi and Ethiopian colleagues to do some invaluable research. By working together we are all learning but ‘we’ are not developing ‘them’. So perhaps we should be more modest in our claims? Or maybe a shift of power and control of research in Africa / Asia to researchers in those regions is what is needed rather than capacity development? How could research funders in the UK contribute to such a shift? Some of the interesting recommendations for them coming out of this conference (including by the funders themselves) included:
- Make the argument to those who have influence over governments in the Global South that legislation unnecessarily restricting charities, universities and the media should be repealed or amended where possible.
- Invest in research about the political landscape in those countries including the relationship between Parliament, government and civil society.
- Invest in institutional research capacity development in the Global South. Fund the research offices of universities in the Global South and possibly research offices in the North to support them to develop skills in applying for grants and reporting to funders.
- Challenge the assumption that Global South researchers lack skills as individuals. Never under-estimate their knowledge and intelligence; never over-estimate their access to information. The process of collaboration should be more about a shift of power from North to South rather than capacity development by Europeans.
- Include more Global South researchers as reviewers for funding (with equal representation of women researchers). Introduce criteria and train expert reviewers to give high scores to those proposals that give fair salaries, control of budgets, intellectual property rights, recognition and decision-making to Global South researchers.
- Where Global South researchers want a lead researcher from Europe included, allow two leads. Create the expectation that expatriates need to explain why they may useful in specific contexts. Encourage European researchers to shift from leading to supporting/facilitating.
- Encourage researchers in the Global South to apply as lead researchers. Hold seminars in the Global South offering advice about dealing with the application and reporting processes and give guidance over the phone. Encourage researchers from under-representative groups (women, minorities, disabled people) to apply.
Why does it matter who does research? In countries like Ethiopia and Bangladesh – where power is concentrated in the hands of the leaders of one party, divisions in society based on party, class and ethnicity are growing, and opposition, and even scrutiny and consultation, are weak – political research takes on even greater importance than it might in a strong democracy. Outsiders can play an important role in such research. But the prospects of changing the attitudes and practices of decision-makers towards deepening both representative and participatory democracy are far stronger if we can find ways to open up the space for national researchers in Ethiopia and Bangladesh to comment and influence. In the long run the political future depends in part on their freedom and sovereignty.