There’s a timely conversation taking place in the pages of the Times Higher Education regarding whether foreign researchers must practice self-censorship in order to successfully conduct research in Rwanda, particularly when related to politically charged subject matter. The conversation was initiated by Phil Clark on November 28, 2013, who posed the question: Must academics researching authoritarian regimes self-censor? In this feature, Clark argues that it is possible to conduct research in Rwanda if the researcher in question is “discreet, patient and respectful in the field” and builds “close relationships with local respondents, researchers and (where possible) government officials.” He concludes that those researchers who have met with difficulties while doing research in Rwanda have likely “been bombastic or hectoring during their research, belligerently ‘speaking truth to power,’” and that these negative experiences should not be used to dissuade younger generations of researchers from pursuing research in Rwanda.
This piece prompted a group of senior academics to publish a letter on December 19, 2013 rejecting the implication that “foreign scholars – like us – who claim that it is difficult to do careful field research in post-genocide Rwanda do not know how to do so properly.” The authors warn readers to take Clark’s position with a pinch of salt, noting that “[i]f you hobnob with government elites – many of whom benefit from and have a decidedly rosier perception of the authoritarian regime than does the country’s impoverished majority – you cannot see the many dark sides of the supposed Rwandan success story apparent since the 1994 genocide.”
On December 19, 2013, I also contributed an opinion piece in response to Clark’s feature, in which I argue that he “misrepresents the political climate in Rwanda and the subtle forms of state surveillance and intimidation often faced by foreigners who attempt to conduct politically sensitive research there.” I find it important that researchers talk openly about the challenges they encounter in nations like Rwanda, if for no other reason that it allows younger generations of researchers – and particularly graduate students – to make informed decisions about where they conduct fieldwork.
Clark then published a final letter on January 2, 2014 – likely the final word on this subject, at least within the pages of Times Higher Education. He dismisses the previous letter for having responded “in such a defensive and barbed manner rather than engaging with the issues raised in ‘The price of admission.’” As for my opinion piece, Clark strangely concludes that it “highlights that, despite the challenges at hand, it is possible to research in Rwanda.” While this was not the purpose of the opinion piece, which plainly discusses one instance in which it was impossible to conduct research in Rwanda, I agree in general. That said, it is important to reiterate that just because politically sensitive research might be possible (and in most instances this will NOT be the case, regardless of the foreign researcher’s skill, political affiliations, or government connections), given the current climate in Rwanda it may not be ethical and safe – particularly for our Rwandan interlocutors – to do so.