Monday, June 13, 2011

Research fatigue?

No, I’m not referring to the exhaustion associated with spending too many hours in the library. Rather, I’m talking about my latest manifestation of mzungu guilt.

When I lived in Tanzania, I spent my first four months feeling distinctly uncomfortable about being there. The feeling resulted from a combination of my awareness of being a white person in a country formerly colonized by white people, as well as a realization that a lot of the so-called do-gooders in the country (donors/NGOs) were doing more harm than good. When a former colleague from D.C. came to Dar for a conference I began unloading on him until he finally cut me off and told me that my feeling guilty was not doing anybody any good. He reminded me that there is an element of hypocrisy in most human interactions and that I’d do better to get over it and get on with trying to do something useful rather than sit around moaning about feeling guilty.

Less navel-gazing and more on what I'm actually doing in my next post!

More recently, one of my greatest mentors from Tanzania made me realize that mzungu guilt is not only unproductive but may also miss the point. About a year ago I was excitedly telling him about my plans to conduct PhD research on the negative impact of foreign aid on the accountability of African governments. He finally cut me off (this seems to be a pattern…) and pointed out that foreign aid was only part of a much larger story in terms of the challenges facing African governments and their citizens. This speaks to a broader tendency of framing such challenges in terms of the “bad” white people (colonialists, foreign aid donors, insensitive and/or greedy NGO directors) and the “good” ones (implicitly whoever is doing the framing).

I have now come to think that while guilt is not a productive emotion, it is important to remain sensitive to whatever made us feel guilty in the first place and then try to do something to address it. Of course, it’s always easier to give such advice rather than take it, so I’ll spend the rest of this (long-winded) post on what I’m feeling guilty about at the moment, and then hopefully at a later date I’ll have some ideas about resolution.

As a relatively accessible and peaceful place (recent post-election violence aside), Kenya seems to have had ideal initial conditions for Western scholars of African politics. Over time, a community of researchers on Kenya has grown, making research into this country’s politics even more common. For similar reasons, there are a great number of NGOs operating here. Hence, it seems likely that Kenyans might be sick of being research subjects. This fear was confirmed this morning when my principal investigator and I paid a call on the local District Commissioner. When we told him we were conducting an evaluation of Uwezo, he complained first that he had never heard of the project, and then when we explained it to him he protested that Uwezo should not come to this district and conduct their assessment without sharing the results. We assured him that the results were preliminary and would be shared in due time, and promised to share the results of our research as soon as possible. But the broader point that he made stuck with me – so many researchers come into local communities, taking up people’s time with survey upon survey, and then people do not see any tangible benefit. To me this reflectsa broader, troubling phenomenon that I like to call “development as petri dish.” That is, many researchers seem to view developing countries like some laboratory in which to conduct innovative experiments, without fully considering the fact that their research specimens are human beings with their own wants and needs, which might be entirely at odds with the researchers’… Anyway, I am still convinced that there is some social value to academic research, or else I would not be doing it. (God knows I’m not in this for the money.) But finding the balance between being a good scholar of global development and a good citizen of the world remains a challenge.

Less navel-gazing and more on what I"m actually doing in my next post!

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