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The so-called research industry in Africa is a fast growing sector that is dominated by for-profit firms, state agencies and academia, among a litany of players who are trying to understand society and make nuanced policy on critical societal issues. At the heart of this industry is the research assistant who is part fixer, part liaison, part translator, part moderator, part research broker, part administrator, part baby-sitter.

Perhaps that last one sounds a little exaggerated when it comes to the many hats that the RA—as the research assistant is referred to in local research circles—has to wear, but on the ground it is nonetheless an apt description; research respondents have been known to show up for a Focus Group Discussion (FGD) with toddlers or babies in tow.

Recruitment of RAs

An RA’s journey typically begins with an induction session offered by the research team. Typically, these are foreign nationals, senior consultants operating locally, or development organizations that have received research funding. In the course of their training, RAs familiarize themselves with the data collection tools and methods that will be used in the project. Where possible, a pilot session is organized.

The RAs are then sent out on research missions; they may be tasked with recruiting study respondents, moderating group discussion sessions, conducting interviews and taking notes and it is not uncommon to find an RA playing any two of these roles. The level of remuneration that RAs receive is usually determined by the top management of the hiring organization. Given the high unemployment rate and low bargaining power of many potential research assistants, more often than not, they accept less than they are worth.

Recruiting respondents and the politics of compensation

Of the tasks typically assigned to the RA, the recruitment of potential respondents is perhaps the most challenging. Most people will need to know what they stand to gain by participating; “kuna chai? which is Kenyan for “am I getting a little money out of this?” This question can be justified depending on how you look at it; one, these people are leaving their productive spaces for approximately half a day, and two, they are spending money on transport. It is not unusual to oversee a research project in a remote community where respondents are coming in from villages that are as far as 40 km away from the venue of the Focus Group Discussion (FDG).

The common practice is to recruit respondents in excess to cover for potential no-shows but in some cases, all the recruited persons turn up leaving the RA to deal with those that have to be sent away who may become aggressive as they demand reimbursement of their costs. This is a situation that calls on the RA’s negotiating skills, as money for such reimbursements is often not included in the study budget. Fixed budgets mean that the respondent who brought along his wife and child can leave the RA out-of-pocket as s/he provides the extra meals and the cost of transport back home. Husbands have been known to pocket the incentive and immediately disappear, leaving their families stranded and forcing the RA to provide money for transport from personal funds.

You may wonder why, but NGOs have made it a practice to offer incentives to research participants. International NGOs can afford to give large amounts of money as incentives, and sometimes include foodstuffs. Research participants have come to expect the same level of incentives from all other research bodies and will complain if that standard is not met.

Meet the serial respondent

Then there are the “serial respondents” who are all too familiar with research studies. This is common when a recruiting agency uses the same database of respondents for several projects. Serial respondents come with expectations regarding the type or amount of compensation they should receive based on previous experience.

Serial respondents will often have participated in studies undertaken by various (international) NGOs and as such, they usually have an idea of the “going rate”. This is why they sometimes bring along friends who have not been invited to participate by the RA so that they too can “get on the gravy train”. Participants can make up to KSh2,500 (US$25) for taking part in an FGD, a reasonable amount to make for a 2-hour engagement in many parts of the country.

Of critical concern, however, “is whether serial respondents” lend credibility to the research process. Given that they participate in many discussion groups, interviews and surveys, is it possible that they have “learned” how to respond to questions? Have they devised ways of manipulating recruitment agencies in order to remain on the recruitment databases? Also, how do local researchers without huge research budgets, compete in a situation where foreign researchers have tipped the “market” in their favour?

The black market of knowledge

The above narration reflects the everyday administrative experiences of a research assistant that are often discounted by the contracting researchers. However, beyond administrative duties, RAs usually also make epistemic contributions to the research process. First, prior to recruitment, the RA is issued with a respondent profile that gives the general characteristics of the individuals who will participate in the study.

The RA is then left to make quick judgements, from a 10-15 minute face-to-face or telephone conversation, on the capacity of the selected persons to effectively contribute to the research exercise. During interviews and focus group discussions, the moderator or interviewer is tasked with bringing the data collection instrument to life, through translation and probing for responses that will drive the discussion towards the research objectives.

In the data collection phase, the moderators and note-takers play the critical role of providing data that will later be transcribed and analysed to generate research findings. Overlooking this crucial role played by the local research assistant is tantamount to choking the knowledge production machinery.

Of critical concern, however, “is whether serial respondents” lend credibility to the research process.

After the fieldwork, the RAs are not acknowledged as having been part of the research projects they have contributed to, but are merely relegated to the periphery as “research brokers”. In the black market of knowledge production, research assistants, such as myself, do not even have a say in the amount of remuneration.

Given the crucial role that research assistants play as research brokers, where then are they positioned on the research spectrum? How then do we begin to recognize them as critical drivers of the research process and treat them as such in deed and in compensation? As Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni notes, “The silencing of ‘local’ and ‘African’ voices in research is largely to blame for the epistemic divide between the Global North and South where the research assistants have remained hunter-gatherers’ of raw data and ‘native informants’.”

These locals collect data on behalf of researchers from the Global North who then develop theories and publish that data. The theories and concepts are consumed and, at times, even tested in Africa.

Faceless ants of the research colony

Research assistants have long been at the periphery of the knowledge production continuum. Western researchers swoop in with the funding, armed with the research design and methodology but with little or no knowledge of the local context. They are forced to rely on local researchers to “fix”, “broker”, and facilitate interviews and discussions with respondents as well as for other types of research activities.

At the end of it all, the research assistants walk off with their pay, sometimes meagre, with no recognition whatsoever in the research outputs. So what contribution do local research assistants make to knowledge production in Africa? Are they merely a means to an end? How can local researchers rid the epistemological space of the extant racial hierarchization and asymmetrical power relations to claim their space as “research collaborators” rather than merely being viewed as “assistants”.

In his article, Decoloniality as the Future of Africa, Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni mentions that despite Africa having attained independence, spheres such as culture, religion, language, aesthetics, the mind and psyche have remained colonized. He alludes to the fact that African knowledge systems still remain subject to the Euro-North American-centric systems. As such, decoloniality is imperative to dismantle the power relations and conceptions of knowledge that propagate the reproduction of gender, racial and geo-political hierarchies birthed or energized by the colonial world.

RAs are not acknowledged as having been part of the research projects they have contributed to, but are merely relegated to the periphery as “research brokers”.

It is unfortunate that we find these hierarchies and dichotomies replicated in the research and knowledge production space where Westerners have positioned themselves as the “controllers” of the research agendas and initiatives. These “perceived” or “implied” privileges are probably because one, funding follows along a North-South channel and two, seemingly sophisticated and progressive knowledge systems are prevalent in the West. The consequence of this positioning is that researchers and knowledge systems situated in the Global South are relegated to the bottom of the research food chain.

Owning our research stories

Local researchers, mostly research assistants, then become more or less the “hunters and gatherers” of knowledge, doing the bidding of those who pull the purse strings. We are now caught up in a situation where foreigners use African experts to study Africa and African phenomena but totally erase or sideline the locals that facilitate their research. As African scholar Chinua Achebe has said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

This is not to romanticize indigenous and vernacular approaches, or to imply that they should be taken as they are without a commensurate level of scrutiny and analysis. We still need to create and open up spaces for narratives and knowledge from the Global South to interact with and confront or bolster those from the Global North. It is time that African researchers are centred in African narratives, especially where intellectual contributions have been made.