Who Researches Matters

Why do you have to be a white, male foreigner for your research to be taken seriously?

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

I was scrolling Twitter last week, and came across a tweet that I instantly agreed with – “Support for ethnic armed group service provision will aid federalism, say researchers.” Great! I thought. The message is finally getting through. I clicked on the link to see what report managed to get this message into headlines – a message that local human rights and peace organizations have been pushing for years. Imagine my dismay when I saw that the article, in Frontier Myanmar, was about a report researched and written by an organization called Covenant Consult, led by foreign researchers, though the report does list some local researchers among its leads. The two researchers/authors quoted in the article are white men – they appear to have been the two who presented the findings at the launch. It was funded by the Joint Peace Fund, a large multi-country fund with influence and prestige, as well as access to policymakers. I had to wonder – is that what it takes to have your research taken seriously? Do you have to be a foreigner – preferably a white, male foreigner?

There was not necessarily anything wrong with the report – many would agree with its findings, and it’s important to draw attention and promote understanding of the complex dynamics and possibilities of interim arrangements. It gave a more comprehensive view of the status of non-state service delivery in ethnic areas and the political dynamics around their recognition and support. But I still had to wonder why it was necessary to have it researched and written by a group of mostly-foreign researchers, and not a local organization or a group of local organizations? What do those ‘outside’ experts’ voices add that local voices do not?

This report got me thinking about my experience working with Myanmar civil society organizations, talking to donors like those who support the Joint Peace Fund and generally being involved in meetings of international organizations working on the peace process in Myanmar. I thought about other expats’ reactions to reports by local organizations – the allegations of bias, the failure to take their findings and analysis seriously, the lack of effort to engage with the organizations to find out about their methodologies or to try to learn about their work. Of course, not all expats had this reaction, but it felt like those closest to money and power had the most doubt for local analysis.

Could local organizations improve in the rigorousness of their methodologies and the presentation of their results? Sometimes, but they’re trying hard in difficult circumstances. Might local researchers be biased? Maybe, but I can tell you based on plenty of nights in upscale Yangon bars that every expat has their own opinions of the peace process and Burmese politics.

Why are a Burmese person’s political opinions and analysis evidence of bias, while expats’ opinions are just evidence of their expertise?

External research is not necessarily better than locally-led research. The Canadian government-funded International Development Research Center (IDRC) has conducted many large cross-country studies examining determinants of quality of research for development. The findings of this research including that “capacity strengthening does not imply low scientific rigour” and “Southern research demonstrates superior quality, in all measures” including scientific rigor, relevance and innovation. In other words – funding local researches, even if they need some capacity development to complete the project – leads to better research.

There is a role for ‘outsider-led’ research in development. An external researcher can say things locals might not be able to due to fear of legal, political or social consequences. An external researcher may be able to apply lessons he or she learned working in other countries. Ethnic and religious bias may not apply in the same way to external researchers as they might to local researchers. External researchers are more likely to have had access to higher education, giving them the technical expertise to manage complex research projects, especially quantitative and mixed-methods approaches. They may also be better equipped to use the jargon and analysis frameworks expected by higher-level policymakers. But these things should not be assumed, and this doesn’t mean that external researchers are the best choice for every project.

The research-for-development field must acknowledge the central role of local researchers and end its dependency on international consultants. There are many local organizations and individual researchers in Myanmar who would benefit immensely from the resources and access available to a Joint Peace Fund-funded project, and who would produce nuanced, insightful research informed by an intricate knowledge of what is happening on the ground and at the political level. In fact, these organizations are producing such research – they’re just not being listened to.