Expect the Unexpected: Navigating the Challenges of Conducting Fieldwork in a Fragile State

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by Kirsten Van Houten, Ph.D. Candidate, School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa

Between February and May of 2016 I conducted my doctoral fieldwork in South Kivu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). While I was there, I embedded myself within three local civil society organizations in order to observe the ways in which they contribute to peacebuilding processes where I also conducted open-ended qualitative interviews with leaders, employees, beneficiaries and external partners of the organizations. Conducting my research in this way allowed me to examine how individual actors perceived their own contributions as well as how the organizations operated on an everyday basis. Although the research component of this trip was successful and presented many opportunities to learn about how local Congolese actors contribute to peace, the challenges to living and working in a region that has been in conflict for more than twenty years complicated the realization of my initial goals. This piece explores the tension between collecting innovative new data and my personal experience as a researcher in a challenging context.

During my fieldwork, I observed that local civil society organizations are active participants in peacebuilding processes in South Kivu. I found that the staff of these organizations not only engage their extensive networks in discussions around peace and reconciliation but that they also help them gain access to much needed social services such as medical care, legal services and literacy programs. I also discovered that these local organizations have each established their own networks of community based structures which provide community level information to the organizations in the provincial capitals which is used by the organizations to plan and implement programs. This suggests that there is a rich group of actors contributing to peace across South Kivu.

This research project originally sought to repeat the above described research in Goma and North Kivu in order to compare and contrast the experiences of local civil society peacebuilding organizations. While in South Kivu, I faced many of the challenges one would expect in a fragile state such as the DRC including finding safe transport and accommodation, witnessing interpersonal violence and falling ill. Ultimately, however, it was the unexpected challenges that I faced in Canada that undermined my capacity to fully realize my initial research plan. These included both structural and personal issues.

Structurally, the security situation was already in decline in the Eastern DRC when I arrived in Bukavu in 2016. This reflected the eventually realized concern that National Elections would be postponed by the current government. It also reflected a financial and security vacuum left by a slow withdrawal of international actors. These challenges would have made repeating the research in Goma risky. Further, between 2016 and 2017 numerous attacks have been launched against the local population in rural areas of North Kivu, which meant that visiting community-based structures and field sites of the organization being examined would have been impossible. To some extent these challenges were predictable, the recent history of violent conflict and economic instability across the DRC suggests an ongoing potential for sudden changes to the security and economic contexts.

What I was unprepared for was the personal impact of this research which I experienced well beyond my return home. I returned from my fieldwork sick and mentally exhausted. The nature of my fieldwork led me to be exposed to the extensive trauma experienced by my research participants on a daily basis. The combination of trying to cope with the communication of prolonged suffering by my research participants, with little ability to influence the dynamics that led to it while trying to manage my own security proved to be overwhelming. In addition, after returning home a cough that developed mid-way through my research was misdiagnosed as active tuberculosis, which in me being put on a cocktail of unnecessary medication which allowed my overall exhaustion to settle in further. This exhaustion, in combination with the high financial cost of conducting research in this environment, including airfare, insurance, visas and the cost of living made returning a poor personal decision. After concluding that I had collected enough research to complete my thesis I made the difficult decision not to return to the DRC to continue with this research for the time being. Instead, I have sought out opportunities to return to the region with additional financing and working as part of a team, which offers a more structured work environment.

It remains difficult for me to separate what my research is, and what it can contribute, from what it could have been. I think it is important to note these challenges for anyone interested in conducting comparable research. Researching in such contexts requires a level of financial and institutional support beyond the level that I had access to during this research. Further, careful consideration should be given to self-care while in the field and after your return home, and you should have a strong network of social support who can lend a hand if you’re in need. Institutions and supervisors supporting researchers in these spaces should also be prepared to respect their judgement in terms of their safety and needs. Such research offers an incredible opportunity to explore places inaccessible to most people and contribute to the advancement of knowledge in a way that may shape the outcome of future interventions in these fields.

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