Locally led research in DRC – what we learned

Space for nuance: local lessons from DRC

The territory of Beni is located in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the province of North Kivu. For several years, the region has experienced its own share of conflict, often resulting in violence. Some groups, such as the Allied Democratic Forces, have been known to stir up conflict, however identifying instigators of violence remains a grey area.

Two of our local Congolese partners, Research Initiatives for Social Development and the Beni Peace Forum, highlighted the need to better understand and identify who is involved in the conflict in Beni. This led to research to analyse how political actors in particular, are involved in conflict and identity-based violence in this part of the world.

The research report, out now, is the first publication that reflects Peace Direct’s new approach to fully localise our research. The research topic, data collection, analysis and report itself was produced and led by local researchers in DRC. Our role was to provide funding from UK Aid, and to support with editing and dissemination. The edits from our team were minimal, ensuring that the voice and style of the authors remained untouched. This reflects our belief that responsible research practice must bring together a diversity of methodologies and styles that go beyond the dominant, normalised Western approaches.

Three key findings from the research are as follows:

  • The crisis of the Congolese state has led to frustrations and grievances from local communities. These grievances have been exploited by some political actors who encourage identity-based violence, to stir up old tensions and position themselves as leaders to protect their ‘communities’.
  • At times, those fuelling conflict have worked under the guise of humanitarian workers, civil society organisations (CSOs) or religious actors to target the population and earn their trust.
  • Civil society organisations are best placed to prevent identity-based violence. Although the research highlights the negative role of certain political actors in conflicts, it also found that political actors, especially those embedded in communities, can positively contribute to violence prevention.

Lessons to inform truly locally led research

This was the first time we took part in research that was locally led at every stage. Here are my reflections that I hope will encourage and support other international organisations working with local research partners:

  • Expect a lot of back and forth: Our partners work in conflict affected spaces, and so levels of insecurity fluctuate constantly. This had an inevitable impact on communication and response times. In terms of internal coordination, ensuring that all relevant stakeholders are aligned on the research approach and method also takes time.
  • Be flexible with language and writing style. Our way of thinking is inherently Eurocentric, which means that the choice of language, words or expressions used by local partners can feel different to those we may be used to. Just because something is expressed differently does not mean it’s wrong, it just requires a shift in our way of thinking. Instead of questioning knowledge, we should try and understand our partners’ approach and the thinking behind their knowledge. A resource that I found particularly useful is Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts by Margaret Elizabeth Kovach. The author lays out a conceptual framework for understanding and applying indigenous research.
  • Trust that local partners know what they are doing. This requires working with partners over an extended period of time to understand their practices, and develop relationships and trust. It is important to acknowledge that local practitioners and researchers are best placed to understand the dynamics of their contexts. We can offer support and guidance, but they are the experts.
  • Allow space for nuance. Having local actors lead the research process has unearthed a level of nuance that would not have been perceptible to outside actors. For instance, in this report, the authors identified the different personalities political actors have employed at varying times to gain support from communities. Although our previous research work has been informed by local knowledge, being led by our partners has allowed the research to explore angles that we would have overlooked.
  • Apply the do no harm principle at every step. Ensuring our partners’ safety is paramount. We made sure therefore to always discuss the implications of sharing sensitive content.
  • Open up space for creativity. A key lesson that emerged is that there is a need to create room for creativity which allows our local partners to question our assumptions and ways of working. This means casting aside our own preconceptions and guidelines on everything from methods to design, and putting the wishes, voices and practices of our partners first.

This report is part of a three-year project that began in 2019, entitled ‘Strengthening networks to prevent and respond to violence’. The project aims to ensure that local civil society is better able to deliver strategic, coordinated and sustainable atrocity prevention work in eastern DRC and surrounding areas. The first set of reports, published in February 2021, can be found here.

Written by Aji Ceesay – Research Officer at Peace Direct

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