Reducing risk for whom? Neocolonial patterns in Western academia
On the many unintended consequences of Western universities’ risk assessment policies.
Over the last few years, there have been several high-profile cases of academics being arrested or killed while conducting research abroad. In 2016, Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni was killed in Egypt, reportedly with the complicity of local security forces. In 2019, British doctoral student Matthew Hedges was jailed in the UAE on suspicion of spying.
These and other cases have led many European universities to enhance their risk assessment policies for researchers travelling to other countries. Among other things, this can mean having to file additional paperwork to visit areas considered “dangerous” by foreign ministries or insurance companies. It can include taking out special insurance or only staying in business-class hotels pre-booked through university-approved vendors. The COVID-19 pandemic is only likely to add to these requirements.
On the surface, these may seem like uncontroversial measures to increase safety. However, these risk assessment regimes have many unintended consequences. Not only are they often based on misguided assumptions, but they can discourage more in-depth research, reinforce inequalities within universities, and end up replicating neocolonial patterns between the Global North and South.
One effect of these policies is that it increases the costs – in terms of money, time and effort – for researchers hoping to visit certain areas. This may discourage them from undertaking long-term fieldwork or travelling outside major cities.
One knock-on effect of this is that it increases the barriers to employing ethnographic methods in which researchers live among the communities they are studying for long periods of time. This difficulty adds to a broader trend in African studies in Western universities towards quantitative methods. These do not require the long-term presence of Western researchers, but are more likely to oversimplify complex social, political and economic dynamics.
The increased risk assessment criteria can also reinforce inequalities within Western academia. Early career researchers are less likely to have the funding required for additional expenses such stays in business-class hotels than their senior tenured colleagues. Meanwhile, staff from less prestigious universities are less likely to receive support from their institutions.
Risk assessment policies also reinforce inequalities between researchers in the Global North and South. To begin with, the notion of “danger zones” is often rooted in neocolonial relations rather than a systematic assessment of the risks academics might face. Universities typically rely on information from foreign ministries and risk consultancies. These forms of advice are not tailored to field research. They tend to emphasise spectacular risks such as kidnappings at the expense of more mundane but relevant sources of danger.
For instance, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) typically advises against travelling to post-conflict countries such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. However, it rarely provides the same guidance regarding places with stable but authoritarian governments. Countries like Egypt, the UAE and Tajikistan – all of which have had incidents involving researchers – are rarely classified as dangerous.
As well as being unsuitable for its purposes, this approach ends up stigmatising whole areas of the world. It makes it difficult to engage with communities that are often already marginalised in regional and global policy. Many of these groups have little or no access to the internet and will be even further side-lined as more researchers move towards collecting data through remote technologies in response to COVID-19.
One way in which some Western academics get around these difficulties is to outsource data collection to local researchers. This has been a growing trend in the last decade. This transfers the risks to those individuals. The current frameworks for assessing dangers typically perceive local researchers to be less at-risk than foreign academics but, in reality, they are often far more exposed.
These arrangements also have few benefits for academia in the Global South. Research assistants on the continent are often not consulted on the intellectual design of the project or involved in the publication of the findings. Local researchers may not even be given access to the project’s data, which could allow them to do further research or publish their own interpretations. Moreover, since these partnerships are usually forged with individual researchers rather than with their institutions, Africa-based organisations do not receive any advantages from them.
Making risk assessment meaningful
Addressing these problems will require dialogue between academic associations, researchers from both the Global North and South, and their institutions.
Among other things, our understanding of risks must shift. It should focus on the challenges researchers are likely to face rather than simply demarcating “danger zones” that treat situations as static. Training for academics should similarly teach people how to assess and respond to risks in a dynamic and fluid environment.
Academic institutions must change from relying on foreign ministries and Western consultancies to determine dangers. Instead, they must incorporate insights from experienced researchers and, in cases of collaboration, the perspectives of local institutions and researchers.
Finally, risk assessment regimes should regard the safety of researchers in the Global South as being just as important as the safety of those based in the West. This consideration is especially important as Western academics find themselves tempted to use local researchers in response to the new challenges posed by COVID-19. The kinds of unethical practices seen in the aid and peacekeeping industries of sending local staff to the front lines without sufficient protections should not be extended to academic research.
This article is based on the longer academic briefing “The Unintended Consequences of Risk Assessment Regimes: How Risk Adversity at European Universities Is Affecting African Studies” in Africa Spectrum.