New online LSE exhibition calls for improved Global North research practices in the Global South

Image: The (silent) voices workshop in Bukavu. Professor Vlassenroot pictured third from left. (photo credit: Governance in Conflict Network)

By Khadija Kothia

A new online exhibition exploring the power dynamics between Global North and Global South researchers has been launched by the LSE’s Conflict Research Programme. The Bukavu Series Expo is a collection of sixteen political cartoons drawn by Congolese political cartoonist Tembo Kash that illustrate the everyday sexism, racism, emotional trauma and erasure faced by academic researchers across the Global South. Funding limitations, a lack of ethical care and forced Western agendas are shown to be responsible for these problems. 

Professor Koen Vlassenroot, Director of the Conflict Research Group and visiting professor at LSE proposes that unequal power relations between the Global North and Global South are the root of inequality in research: “It is a form of neo-colonialism, with the North deciding what to do and people in the global South just hav[ing] to follow…. Let’s ask Congolese experts what there should be a focus on instead of imposing our own ideas”.

The exhibition was curated from a collection of 36 blog posts by Governance in Conflict Network’s Bukavu Series blog, which was launched after global researchers met in Bukavu, Congo in 2018 to discuss emotional and ethical research challenges. The blog is a collaboration between two Congolese research institutions, Angaza Institute and  Groupe d’Etudes sur les Conflits et la Sécurité Humaine, as well as the Belgian Université Catholique de Louvain and Ghent University, with support from the Conflict Research Programme and the Centre for Public Authority and International Development at LSE.

“There is a tendency to expose research associates and assistants to dangerous regions, without providing the necessary protection. Many face trauma from experiencing acts of violence. There’s no care. There’s nothing”, Professor Vlassenroot related. “Many times, the foreign researcher goes in [the Global South], extracts data and leaves, but some people are left there having participated in research with demands and experiences they cannot cope with. But the researcher is gone, [and] so thinks it’s no longer his or her priority.”

Image: Group picture of the (silent) voices Bukavu team. (photo credit: Governance in Conflict Network)

“There are a number of ethical standards imposed on those based in the Global North which don’t necessarily protect people we work with [in the Global South]… There’s not much space for them to tell us what they have gone through.”

Whilst the exhibition has left some feeling ‘disturbed’, Professor Vlassenroot says this response is positive: “This is not about condemning and pointing at people[…] it’s just about inviting them to go through some thinking. I had to do it too.”

Professor Vlassenroot claims to have been contacted by interested humanitarian organizations, NGOs, donor funders and diplomats that too see an opportunity for change. The exhibition’s organisers say they are delighted and proud at the responses to the exhibition, hoping to further add  a similar series of blogs written by researchers from Northern Uganda soon. 

Whilst the team is unable to meet under current travel restrictions, which has also meant that the original on-campus LSE exhibition had to be shifted online, a Zoom event on 21 January took live audience questions and discussed the process together. 

Professor Vlassenroot left with a message for LSE students and future research corroborators:

 “If you want to continue your research, it is crucial to be aware of your own positionality and where that comes from, but also to believe in your own strength to make a change by doing things differently.”

“Let's ask Congolese experts what there should be a focus on instead of imposing our own ideas.”

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