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The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Blog: The politics of doing research on politics in Africa

Mar 2016

My colleagues in Ethiopia tell me that their Parliament had a significant increase in women MPs in 2015. One of the challenges of social and political research is that the landscape changes before your eyes and another is finding out why and how from different perspectives. We will spend the next few days interviewing MPs in Ethiopia to find out whether the increase in women has changed the priorities of Parliament. But we realise it is no easy task partly because politicians, even more than other groups, are in the business of making claims that fit with their political aspirations and, added to this, their answers will be influenced by who asks.

The last time we interviewed women MPs together we ran an experiment. Four researchers went into the interview: me (a white British woman), a white British man, an Ethiopian man and an Ethiopia woman researcher. By prior agreement we agreed to stay in the interviews until the last few minutes when the two men would leave to see if this influenced how the women MPs spoke to us. While all the researchers were present, the MPs were determined to stress the strength of their party and government and their successful efforts at promoting gender equality. I made several comments to stress that our intention was not to advise them about strengthening Parliament, responding to a clear and understandable hostility toward foreign interference in politics. When the two male researchers left, one of the Ethiopian women MPs asked about the experience of British women MPs. I gave some examples of what gendered politics looks like in Westminster: to give a few examples, British women parliamentarians thrive in the House of Lords, are severely under-represented in the Commons and tend to be portrayed in chronically disparaging ways in the media.

Once it was clear that there was no pretence of British superiority, the conversation changed abruptly. They became far more candid about the hostility of some male MPs, quoted as typically saying: “Why do you always cry? The constitution already reflects the interests of all. Women’s issues are already discussed so do not always talk about women”. One of them tellingly said when asked what it was like being a woman MP: “When a woman gets up to speak in the Parliament she is always fearful, thinking ‘can I do this?’ whereas a man never worries.” Whether this was true or not – perhaps men are just as nervous but conceal it well – it was clear that this would not have been said in front of the men, and especially the senior Ethiopian man. He happened to have taught one of the MPs at university so they were especially respectful to him. So gender, race / nationality and a history of hierarchy all played a part in shaping this encounter. This influence does not make the observations made during this encounter, or the interpretations made afterwards, less reliable than a neutral encounter: there is no such thing as a neutral meeting uninfluenced by people’s history, emotions and identity. As long as the researchers reflect on how their research is produced by relationships and assumptions, and record this in as much detail as possible and write it into their account, then rigour is more likely to be achieved.

The identity of our researchers matters for another reason as well. Our overall goal is to explore how Parliament and parliamentarians engage with the public when aiming for poverty reduction in two countries (Ethiopia and Bangladesh) but objective four may be our most important one – ‘To facilitate the development of researchers’ capacity to measure parliamentary effectiveness.’ Research has many functions but one of them is to put the spotlight on powerful decision-makers, in our case politicians. In countries with limits to freedom of speech, where the media, opposition and activists are constrained, it becomes even more vital that scholars can find out and write / speak about politics. In contrast to journalists or activists, scholars have the time and space to go into more depth, take a longer view and relate specific issues to a bigger picture. It is not just their findings that matter, it is important that politicians know they are being scrutinised by those with an in-depth knowledge, some detachment and a long view. It is also vital that these scholars have a long-term commitment to the country/region they are researching and usually that will mean they are citizens of that nation or nation in the region (but not always). Expatriates might have a supporting role, but it is nationals – in our case in Bangladesh and Ethiopia – who should have the main parts to play in researching, publishing, networking and influencing within our coalition. So in our case I co-ordinate the research and aim to influence UK-based decision-makers with Dr Ruth Fox (Director and Head of Research, Hansard Society), but my colleagues in Bangladesh and Ethiopia are doing the research, will produce the outputs and will influence their politicians as well as international agencies.

It is worth noting that Alex de Waal has written a brilliant ethnography of contemporary politics in the Horn of Africa, ‘to encourage students in the region to regain the intellectual courage to study their countries’ problems starting from the lived realities.’ As the state-builders lose out to political entrepreneurs in what has become a marketplace, the role of intellectuals in Africa has become more challenging but also more vital to democracy. We should support and not undermine or use them for our own purposes. So three clear ethical recommendations arise out of our project so far:

  • Research about international development should have development of regional, national and local research capacity – both of individuals and organisations – at the core of all projects. Capacity development as an afterthought is not sufficient – it should be a central aim of research. Donors should stipulate this as a condition of funding, especially given the career incentives created for UK academics to retain funding and publish rather than enable others to do so.
  • The identity of researchers deserves careful consideration. Under-represented groups in the research community should be given opportunities at a matter of priority. Women, young people and those from minorities should be pro-actively recruited within coalitions.
  • Democracy requires scrutiny to improve government, keep the powerful honest, and to encourage engagement with the public. Research is a form scrutiny. In countries when the media, observers and others scrutinizing the work of those in positions of power are constrained, research can take on a particular significance as political scrutiny.


The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


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