Questioning power dynamics in research collaboration
Ethics in partnership working
by Allen Kiconco
Research partnerships and collaborations are being encouraged and increasingly prioritised within knowledge production in the development sector, including in works focussed on tackling modern slavery. Partnerships can bring people from different backgrounds to research and address a specific issue, including survivors, communities, academics, civil society, government and international organisations. However, funding streams, institutional hierarchies and positionalities strongly influence their overall design and operations.
There is a long history of unequal partnerships and research collaborations between Africans, African institutions, and Global North researchers and institutions (the ‘richer’ and more privileged located in the northern hemisphere). This is addition to hierarchies of power and privilege within African countries/contexts. The most challenging debate is how to address paternalism inherent in partnerships with Africans and Africa. Simply put, paternalism is an infantilising narrative mainly directed from the Global North to Africa and Africans in collaboration and intervention efforts. It is a top-down relationship where funders and collaborators located in the Global North establish the framework and structure for the involvement of African collaborators.
Often Global North institutions and academics have the loudest voice when it comes to setting the agenda, determining issues to prioritise, researching and talking about them, activities to implement and the criteria to evaluate outputs and outcomes. The process involves researchers flying to African countries to ‘extract’ data for their career benefit and not for the researched individuals and communities – a phenomenon described as helicopter researchers that perpetuate power imbalances and colonial practices.
Some successful research partnerships have challenged and dispensed with this problem, ultimately working towards epistemic (knowledge) justice. However, unequal power dynamics and paternalism still shape most collaborations, fuelled by a top-down approach, resulting in Global North investigators dictating at all stages of the research, including designing, funding, analysing and presenting. Researchers, academics and practitioners located in Africa tend to be valued for their on the ground expertise and interpretation/translation of local experiences. African investigators/institutions often get involved as consultants, research assistants and data collectors (described as ‘informants’ in research outputs). Their North counterparts hold primary responsibility for interpreting what these local experiences mean, positioning them to speak authoritatively regarding the research findings. The imbalance is even worse with research participants and communities of study who have to negotiate the double walls of power in Global North vs African investigator partnerships.
The approach creates a sense of tokenism among African investigators and research participants, who view the research agendas as driven by the interests of Global North investigators/institutions/funders rather than the needs and realities of the participants and communities at the centre of these collaborations. The consensus is that the ways power imbalances are negotiated profoundly impact the success or failure of research partnerships. Ironically, the problem reinforces existing structural inequalities, paternalistic tendencies and epistemic injustice that the research projects might have been set up to address.
AKN and inclusive collaboration
How can we achieve healthy, equitable and inclusive Africa-Global North collaboration? AKN grapples with this question in their work with different partners in Africa. One effective way they have addressed the problem is to encourage and invest in horizontal collaborations with collaborators, particularly those that involve survivors or are survivor-led. Projects like ‘Survivors’ Voices, Stories and Images’ and VIOMEREN, YOLRED and BuildX, among others, acknowledge and disrupt power dynamics between projects and survivors and their communities.
The results of these projects show that power dynamics influence storytelling – how people engage and interact with other collaborators, particularly project participants. They propose that ethics cannot be separated from power and politics of knowledge production. Everyone in a collaboration has a degree of power, but specific powers tend to override others in most cases. Therefore, the question of power in collaborations should not be avoided but instead should be recognised and openly and gracefully addressed. All collaborators must question their power, positionality and privileges.
These AKN projects show that everyone involved in storytelling should understand the story’s purpose and terms of usage. More importantly, the story owner (survivor) should be given priority consideration, including informed permission before, during and after creating/sharing their story. Meaningful trust, inclusion and knowledge justice should be at the centre and the ultimate goal of ethical storytelling.
Finally, ethical collaboration with survivors (who may be the most vulnerable collaborators) means prioritising and centring them and not the researchers or funders’ interests. The research should intentionally develop a non-hierarchical relationship with them, making the collaborations meaningful partnerships that recognise them as co-creators of knowledge. The approach is critical to generating information to help us unpack important definitions, conceptualisations and tensions that limit our comprehension of forms of exploitation. For example, for some survivors, the word ‘story’ might feel condescending because this is something that children or elderly people tell during family storytimes, sometimes not true stories. Using ‘story’ can culturally imply a level of make-believe. Thus, using the term ‘story’ might not begin to capture the experience for all survivors because some might have concerns that they will not be believed or taken seriously, preferring to talk instead in terms of ‘experience’.
Similarly, some survivors may have concerns about how their post-exploitation lives and experiences are described, especially in terms of either healing or recovery. The term ‘healing’ might have a religious connotation, emphasising ‘forgiveness’ and surrendering everything to God/Allah. The approach limits exploring other dimensions of seeking and understanding healing and redress, resulting in silencing, offending, and distressing survivors. Equally, survivors might find using the term ‘recovery’ vague, static and reflecting a positive process and experience. It is helpful to explore definitions of ‘recovery’ and ‘reintegration’ from the survivors’ perspective. What do they find acceptable: healing or recovery?
How can ethical collaboration disrupt these power imbalances?
Ethical collaborations can potentially disrupt power imbalances, including intentionally minimising the power hierarchies between African-Global North collaborators. A non-hierarchical relationship with all collaborators should be developed valuably and respectfully including several considerations of building trust, empathy and ensuring reciprocity.
One successful example of doing this was how the collaborative work on COVID-19 and racialised risk narratives in South Africa, Ghana and Kenya was designed and implemented. The research team that emerged from AKN connections acknowledged that power dynamics would set the tone of interaction and execution of project activities. Thus, they intended to develop and deliver research that disrupted research in Africa as an extraction endeavour. This included acknowledging and representing African researchers and academics as experts and not ‘data collectors’ or ‘informants’. The project was jointly-designed, and data was jointly analysed. The team also exercised co-presentation and authorship of outputs. As the Principle Investigator explained in a blog post:
The project recognised that collaborative research must acknowledge and create a safe and trustworthy space where African collaborators can be authoritative experts on their communities and cultures. They must intentionally prioritise the joint development of research design, questions, methods, respectful distribution of tasks, and co-authorship of publications. African collaborators should be encouraged to raise concerns about these issues instead of suppressing them, including their individual concerns and the challenges of navigating their communities and cultures.
Ethical collaboration starts with an open, genuine and graceful discussion about roles, expectations, access to data, and authorship, among other aspects of the project. While this might affect the funding timelines, deadlines, and expectations, the experience helps the collaboration run healthily, increasing its chances of success.
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