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April 27, 2021
(Data and Displacement project website)
Data and Displacement: Collaborative Research at a Time of Uncertainty
Written By: Olufunto Abimbola,Abubakar Adam,Oláyínká Àkànle,Modesta Alozie,Silvia De Michelis,Ewajesu Opeyemi Okewumi,Olufunke Fayehun,Prithvi Hirani,Briony Jones,Kuyang Logo,Hajja Kaka Alhaji Mai,Leben Moro,João Porto de Albuquerque,Vicki Squire,Dallal Stevens,Grant Tregonning,Rob Trigwell,Stephanie Whitehead
Data and Displacement is a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and FCDO (UK Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office) funded project, working with partners in Nigeria and South Sudan. It provides crucial insights into the impacts of data-driven development on internally displaced communities in conflict situations. The project currently faces uncertainty, due to news that the UK government has decided to cut overseas development aid (ODA) funded projects. While many projects have already been informed of the considerable cuts that they face, others such as Data and Displacement await further news. Despite this, the research remains pressing. Data and Displacement considers how people ‘falling through the cracks’ of protection can be further excluded through the generation and use of large-scale data. The research provides urgent new insights into the ways that humanitarian organisations can work with local partners and with Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) themselves in order to improve knowledge about displacement-related vulnerabilities. This is crucial in order to ensure the effective distribution and use of development aid for vulnerable groups in situations of conflict.
Data and Displacement brings together a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from University of Warwick (UK), University of Ibadan (Nigeria), University of Juba (South Sudan) and the International Organisation for Migration. As a research team, we remain fully committed to continuing our important work and to building equitable partnerships and advancing impactful interdisciplinary research. We are currently conducting fieldwork in northern Nigeria and South Sudan and are also fully committed to meeting the promises that we have made to the project’s research participants. The various partners involved in this project have come together on the basis of the mutual trust that has been built up over time; trust that we remain committed to protecting and enhancing further. In light of this, and given the uncertainties we are currently facing, we have decided to write a blog together in order to highlight the various pressures the current situation puts on us all, both individually and collectively, as well as to emphasise the damaging nature of the ODA cuts.
The importance of projects such as Data and Displacement
Diversity in research really matters. This is a diverse team, and a great team. It has very good representation in each country where the research takes place; it involves a genuine practitioner-researcher partnership where practitioners are included as investigators; it has gender balance (12 women and 6 men) and impressive disciplinary range. The combination of that diversity with the equitable approach to leadership that has been engaged in this project has had very positive results. Everyone brings with them very different experiences, reflecting diverse academic backgrounds (in computer science, data science, ethics, geography, international relations, law, political science and sociology) and geographical contexts (Nigeria, South Sudan, and the United Kingdom), engaging in open discussion and collective reflection about the relevance of these for the design and implementation of the research. This sort of open discussion is what will ultimately lead to the production of knowledge that is able to positively impact the lives of the poorest and most disadvantaged, critically informing the practice of those who make decisions based on data and IDPs. Multi-disciplinary and context-sensitive research of this kind is rare, and its loss would be strongly felt across academic and practitioner communities.
A particular strength of the project lies in its work in differing conflict contexts. This provides a platform for understanding how research is carried out in the different places, plus it helps to shed a light on the specific challenges of doing research in the most fragile and volatile of research contexts. As the project implementation progresses, it has become clear that the same plans and the same actions will not necessarily work in the same way for both northern Nigeria and South Sudan, hence the team has had to think of creative ways to engage with each context. This has created team learning in all directions, and we have realised that remaining flexible and understanding the challenges of each context is one of the most important aspects of successfully delivering research across the different sites.
Partnerships such as those developed by the Data and Displacement project are very important, especially for partners from less resourced countries. Oftentimes, data is produced about people in these countries, without many people from the country itself playing a significant role in the production of the data, especially in the more technical aspects of this process. To an extent, this partnership can address the inequality, by reflecting the ideas and opinions of persons from countries that usually get left out from the production and management of data. The project embeds mutual learning and the exchange of expertise within the research process, and this is valuable for all of us involved.
The Data and Displacement project, in itself, is a unique project given the cutting-edge ideas it is developing and the very innovative and strategic partnership it is building. We are proud of the partnership, which we view as excellent in all respects. It is not only technically sound but also broad-based and inclusive. Every project partner contributes different capacities, enthusiasm, perspectives and positive insights, which we are confident will ultimately advance ground-breaking conclusions and interventions. It is clear that the project is an example of best practice in the way that it is forging its research partnership, because it brings together a range of approaches and develops these in terms that build from the strengths of the team. Importantly, it also supports a group of early career researchers, who have opportunities to explore new ideas, undertake training, gain intellectual support and deepen their networks through working as part of the interdisciplinary collaboration.
Key values and strengths at risk of being undermined
The value of partnerships such as Data and Displacement is that we all learn together and from each other; we work together to find new ways of thinking about things and new ways of doing things. Such partnerships provide opportunities to exchange information, pass on expertise and carry out valuable joint works. Nevertheless, we also face significant challenges as a team. For example, some of us cannot consistently access the internet, our electricity is rationed and there are blackouts that interrupt our participation in the research process. Even as researchers familiar with such contexts, we have to learn new ways of manoeuvring the situation we find ourselves in, while all the time deepening understanding of the wider research team and the different contexts whereby the research is undertaken. In this situation, the flexibility of the research team as a whole is of paramount importance.
Data and Displacement is committed to minimising the impacts of unequal or heavily-skewed power relations, particularly where some of our partners have limited resources and face additional challenges in undertaking research in fragile contexts. However, there is always a risk that partnerships such as ours become exploitative ventures, where those of us from less resourced countries became producers of raw data and those of us from resourced countries use the data to produce knowledge with little more than an occasional thanks to the raw data producers. This risk has become even greater where COVID-19 has perpetuated unequal power relations on a global scale, rendering those of us in more fragile contexts needing additional time and support to contribute to the research process.
The central values of the Data and Displacement partnership are collective learning, the sharing of ideas and epistemic equality. We seek to develop a comprehensive and inclusive project, where each partner’s contribution is equal and valued. We have worked to dismantle power-relations, asymmetries and dichotomies that should not exist in knowledge co-production between the UK and the world. We have done this by avoiding an extractive approach to knowledge production and through ensuring the effective integration of the team through the project design and work packages.
We still have work to do, but feel that success is assured if this team spirit continues. We can achieve excellent outcomes so long as the partnership is sustained. However, the contexts within which we work raise particular challenges, as noted above. Our team has consistently engaged in the challenges involved in working together with positivity, purpose and open minds. This is a collective strength, which also represents a significant investment that renders secure and sustained research funding absolutely essential. After investing so much time in developing the partnership, we hope to see a future funding environment whereby those of us in the Global South can invite those of us from the Global North to act as Co-Investigators, rather than vice versa. This was precisely the direction of travel of the programme by which we were funded and of the raft of ODA projects facing the recent cuts. We still hold out hope that the funding environment will be underpinned by foresight and will become more equitable, rather than less so, over time.
The impact of uncertainty
For those of us outside the UK, uncertainty around our funding makes it hard to plan. This is in addition to the additional uncertainties that we face due to COVID-19. Facing the prospect of cuts is really disappointing for us as partners from less resourced countries, who have fewer options to carry out funded research. Our project aims to expose issues around the ethics of doing research, yet if the funding is terminated this important work will not proceed impacting both our incomes and careers. This leaves some of us worrying each day. The cuts are a major shock, as they create huge concerns around how much effort, positive energy and enthusiasm we should commit in the short, medium and long term given our uncertain future as members of the project team. However, we hope for the best and somehow feel that it will be okay; that reason will prevail on the need not to cut our project’s funds.
Those of us who are early career researchers suddenly face exceptional precarity. The Data and Displacement team currently includes seven early career researchers, offering valuable opportunities for us to take part in a large interdisciplinary research team, develop existing and new research skills, and to learn from experienced colleagues. With the negative effects of COVID-19 on the higher education job market it is not an easy time to be facing uncertainty over whether or not our positions will continue. The entire team benefits hugely from the energy and insights of our early career researchers, whom the project remains committed to supporting.
For those of us in the UK managing other projects already effected by these cuts, we have found ourselves treading a fine line between being transparent and not wanting to worry people. Trying to shield partners from what we have been fearing might come, but which we are determined to avoid, has been hard. Worse still has been dread at the thought of what would happen to those employed by our partners if the funding dropped away, knowing that jobs in those countries are less easy to come by and recognising the extreme stress this has placed on partners. They aren’t just partners, they are people: our colleagues and friends. It is people that these cuts affect, whether it is those carrying out the research or those benefiting from it. Added to that of course is the huge disappointment at the missed opportunities in research that the ODA cuts represent and the irreconcilable damage this is doing to our future ability to form partnerships. We feel ashamed that the British government has taken this decision.
About the Project:
Data and Displacement addresses the practical and ethical questions arising from the increase of data-driven practices of humanitarian protection. It undertakes the urgent task of assessing the production and use of large-scale data, focusing on the impact these have on internally displaced persons (IDPs) in two conflict situations: northern Nigeria and South Sudan. The project advances understanding of the operational and ethical challenges of data-driven humanitarian targeting, while also contributing practical and methodological insights surrounding digital humanitarianism and participatory research. The project involves a large team of researchers from Nigeria, South Sudan and the UK, the full details of which can be found here.