I write from East Africa, where I am part of an international team collecting data on youth employment and job skills training. Last Monday I was sitting in an office in Kampala where an NGO staff member thanked us for not doing extractive research. He went on to say that many graduate students come to Uganda to learn something and then go home. The results of their investigations benefit them: measured by finished dissertations, publications, or reports which might translate into promotions at work. In sum, results that contribute to no Ugandan life directly.
Along the same lines, one of my research team members is currently seeking ways to share her dissertation research on Rwanda in Rwanda – in other words, to be anti-extractive. Although she has numerous connections in the country, she is finding it challenging to plan how best to report her work, to whom, and in a way that catches attention. It turns out that government officials aren’t knocking down her door to hear what she’s learned about their education projects. Surely, this isn’t unique to Rwandan officials.
So, how does an international researcher navigate such a conundrum? How can one really learn about a problem without extracting something – taking peoples’ time, raising disconcerting questions among community members, emitting greenhouse gases? Perhaps the better question is: How can a researcher reduce his extraction? What is the best way to share one’s work with those who might be interested or with those who might also benefit?
All of this has caused me to think about how the research cycle often unfolds. The end product is a paper or presentation to an audience that rewards the individual. Perhaps some of the ideas get published in a way that circulate back to the community which was studied. Moreover, my guess is that many researchers share their findings with the host organization(s) or with their research participants. (Although, I have been interviewed for several graduate students’ dissertations and none of those students has shared their final papers with me. Hmph.)
So, thinking more broadly, what if we went one step further to require that research plans have a meaningful, well-designed “give back” component? What if academic funding or dissertation committees required researchers to share their findings in a way that contributed to a community or organization or policy? In other words, the investigator would be responsible for identifying a receptive audience for the results. And, similar to the process to request permission to conduct the research, a plan to disseminate the results must be delineated in advance, approved by all parties, and considered as part of funding proposals? “Giving back” would not be an afterthought.
Under these East African skies, I might be dreaming a bit too boldly. Sometimes my activism side overpowers an intellectual disposition. Yet, I think there is space for the academic community to think more broadly about how their research might benefit others as part of the planning process for the research itself. It is just one of several gaps in the research-practice divide, yet one that could have a significant impact in the ways that international research is conceived and disseminated. What do you think? Asante sana.