So you want to go to a (post) war zone?

E-mails land in my inbox weekly from students hoping to conduct research in northern Uganda, Liberia or one of the other post-conflict areas where I work. I can’t always respond to them all, so it’s useful to post a general set of comments.

These opinions are probably worth airing more generally, however, because they speak to larger questions about research ethics and working with poor or vulnerable people. These are things your human subjects committee doesn’t care about, but you should.

First, I think it’s terrific that you want to do field work and somehow help out. That much is easy.

Even so, what you might not realize just yet is that right now hundreds of students are currently making plans to go to Gulu, Monrovia, and other post-conflict destinations for their dissertations. To be honest, these towns increasingly feel like circuses, and I think you have to ask yourself whether you want to really help out or become part of the sideshow. Most choose the latter, and resentment is rising among government, the community, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I’m going to hope you want to become part of the… uh, official three rings.

A few questions you can ask yourself:

Who are you doing this research for?

If it’s you and you alone, please think twice. Most of the research that is done in these communities feels extractive and self-serving. The number one complaint I hear from governments, communities, and NGOs: “This guy came around, asked a bunch of questions, used our vehicles, and we never heard from him again.”

Too few researchers take the time to find out what has been done before, what is needed, and how they can feed back their findings into the government or NGOs. In northern Uganda, I’m beginning to see a backlash. People are tired of giving time and opinions and not getting anything back.

What can you give back?

The number two complaint: “Her study is pointless. I (already answered/ don’t care about / already have someone working on) the answer.” So how can you do better?

First, seek out partners. This is hard to do, but find researchers, NGOs, organizations, or government offices and find out what you can do for them. An awful lot of organizations will take you up on that offer, but you’ll have to contact five dozen before you get two or three good options.

Second, be prepared to spend some serious time. Two to four months is the minimum just to develop a clue what is going on and tell someone there something they don’t already know. More is better. If you’re going for less than two months, you need to think about whether you’re taking away more than you are giving to an already desperate place.

Third, recognize that it is a lot of work for a researcher, organization, or government office to help you out. Maybe more time and effort than it’s worth. The longer you are willing to commit, and the more you can give them in return, the more likely they are to help you. Make it clear from the beginning that you are willing to give back somehow.

Fourth, disseminate the result. Post a web page. E-mail your report to NGOs and government offices. In most humanitarian emergencies there should be a coordination office–ECHO or UN OCHA–who can help you disseminate your work. For Uganda, our public page is here.

Do you have the permissions you need?

In Uganda at least, it’s considered a courtesy (if not the law) to obtain a research visa and introduce yourself to the local government before getting into interviews and surveys. Among serious researchers and NGOs, this is the norm and the minimum expectation.

A handful of researchers ask sensitive questions and want to sneak under the government radar. In places like Uganda, I doubt this is necessary. (And if it is, this is probably not something you should be doing for an undergraduate degree anyways.) So if they exist, I really suggest that you find out the proper channels and work through them. It shows respect for the country and a legitimate bureaucracy.

In Uganda, as in many other places, there is an office for research permissions. It takes about two to four months to process.

What if I want to study war and violence?

A lot of the students that write me want to research (and maybe even help) the most vulnerable (and sensational) groups: former child soldiers, abused wives, victims of violence. Such projects require extreme care and caution.

The principal question you should ask yourself: does your conversation pose any risk to the informant, by arousing past traumas, increasing stigma, or putting them in danger? Is it even likely to make them uncomfortable?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, you need to think twice about the questioning, and avoid it entirely until you have the training and resources to identify risky cases and assist these people appropriately. The principle of ‘do no harm’ is paramount, and indeed you probably have a responsibility to do more.

To give an example, in Uganda, where we interviewed hundreds of war affected children and youth, we worked with professional psychologists and social workers, had a referral network set up for the most vulnerable youth to receive NGO assistance, and repeatedly gave respondents the opportunity to discontinue interviews.

You can find out the minimum standards of care in your particular area and for your particular topic by consulting with NGOs and governments on the ground.

How can I learn more?

I don’t know, but I’ll ask readers to post comments and links to helpful resources. Every so often I will probably update and edit this post, so stay tuned.