Colonialism is not over yet. We cannot deny that (let’s call them) resource-limited countries still depend on ‘the Western World’. Threats of not sending money to Africa because certain human rights are not respected are all over and also in research, African countries cannot have their own rules and rules of ‘the Western World’ are imposed on Africa. I don’t know if ‘not sending money’ is the best way or we should rather go for an approach of getting mutual understanding on rules and rights. And to my opinion, that does not mean a one-way approach of making Africans understand the rules and rights of ‘the West’. Research colonialism (Thanks to my only Dutch colleague for the term) is violating this mutuality.
Fieldwork during my masters
I once wrote in this blog that I went to Tanzania to collect data for my master thesis and had not thought about ethical clearance at all. Simply, because my academic studies did not even teach us about ethical clearance procedures. When I contacted my supervisor, she just said: “Then come back, as we are not going to apply for ethical clearance for such a study, that is ridiculous.” That was my first encounter with someone from ‘the West’ not respecting Tanzanian rules when it comes to research. At that time, I was in a split, because I wanted to please my supervisor in Netherlands, but I also wanted to do my fieldwork in Tanzania. Fortunately, my assigned supervisor in Tanzania assisted me with getting the clearance quickly.
Open data in research
Open data is hot nowadays. Every researcher is requested to share his or her research data after or even before publication. I understand the rationale behind it and how it may give opportunities for further research. However, it also has major complications on patient safety and privacy. Despite that, my major concern is how those who collected the data will get credit for their work if others get away with it. In former days, data from African patients was collected by ‘wazungu’ without ethical clearance and without informing them well and even up to levels where patients were unaware of being exposed to new medications in clinical trials that had never been tested before. Everyone should read or see ‘The Constant Gardener’ which shows these practices very well. Although this might still happen, nowadays, African researchers are just used as puppets to do the same kind of practices. It happens all too often that data from African patients is directly entered to servers far away in Europe and US or stored in clouds that are floating somewhere in our universe. African researchers are tricked with promises of getting the newest gadgets and fancy equipment to be involved in such projects. In many cases, those have to be returned after the project. Data transfer agreements have been developed to protect the data, but what if funders or collaborators are not willing to sign those and quit sending money if data is not being shared? Or unlimited sharing of data is even used as a condition for funding or collaborating on a project? Isn’t that a very high level of corruption?
I am trying to keep track of research published in Tanzania and I often read scientific papers that have been written about Tanzanian patients or healthcare, while no Tanzanian author is involved. Tanzania is lucky if they have at least been mentioned in the acknowledgement section of such papers. These kind of papers are often about systems that have been implemented without any consideration of the Tanzanian context, which is understandable if you don’t involve Tanzanians in your write up and highly probable also not in the development of the system. I thought by now we all have learned that a ‘Top-down’-approach does not work in developmental work. But no….
Mzungu researcher in Tanzania
Being a white researcher in Africa, I struggle with these issues too often. Having to move between two worlds is not easy and trying to understand both sides and finding a way in between is not always possible I have to say. I wish to work ‘bottom-up’, but the situation does not always allow that. Decisions are too often being made based on money or promises. I am happy that there are still a lot of ‘Western’ researchers that try to understand the African context by at least staying in the field for some time or having significant time with African researchers to make sure that they are on the same level. Mutual understanding and respect and especially mutual credit for research are really needed. And probably, we are now at a stage that when it comes to research in African settings, the African researcher should get more credits than the ‘Western’ one.