Written by Gavin Finnegan- Texas A&M Program Coordinator in the DRC
This article was written for Texas A&M University.
I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I read the views of media pundits and self-proclaimed DRC experts that claimed foreigners interested in the DRC should work at arms length because a quagmire endemic corruption has spoiled local institutions. Fortunately, the terrific Congolese counterparts at Caritas and Catholic Relief Services immediately invalidated these ludicrous notions and for the past 10 months Texas A&M has benefitted enormously from working in close partnership with local Congolese institutions.
|Sometimes just the site of me can make a child cry.|
From the onset of our research, Texas A&M University and USAID encouraged me to rely extensively on local institutions for support. This local support allowed me to travel to remote areas of North Kivu and work with isolated populations that rarely experience outside support but intimately experience conflict.
From this unique vantage point in rural Butembo, DRC, I spent the next few months gaining access to city officials, university administers, United Nations staff and even a local rebel leader (with the UN’s support and supervision). It was the very institutions that I was warned to be mindful of that I now was working with and even depending on for security advice.
|It didn't take me long to fit right in with the wonderful people at UCG hospital.|
At this point Dr. Price and Dr. Gawande realized we had a special opportunity to leverage my position in the DRC to perform some very innovative research with a Texas A&M capstone. The most critical element of the success of the capstone research project was that we immediately involved the prominent local university Université Catholique du Graben (UCG) in our research question’s formulation. This initial collaboration between Texas A&M and UCG provided a scene of buy-in for everyone involved and set the positive tone for the entire research project.
|First they cry when they see me; then I can't get them to go away.|
The research partnership between the two universities wasn’t the typical donor recipient relationship; at its core this was a mutually beneficial partnership. In a region of the world where the Internet is still struggling to gain a foothold and even electricity is at best unreliable, it’s imperative that a partner institution be intimately involved “on the ground”. UCG proved to be instrumental in providing logistical support, translations of surveys, academic support, security, access to rural communities etc. The value of a local perspective cannot be underestimated. In turn, Texas A&M transferred valuable program evaluation methods while performing evaluations on UCG programing and provided research experience for UCG staff and students.
Because we only had one academic semester to design and perform our research, the two universities moved at a blistering pace. After UCG provided a list of potential research topics to Texas A&M it took just one conference call for the two universities to agree on two research topics- evaluations of UCG’s former child soldier reintegration program and their severe malnutrition recovery program.
I viewed my role in the research as a facilitator that had three objectives:
· Keep the expectations of both universities in line with one another.
o I took part in a lot of phone calls and meetings
· Ensure the safety of everyone involved.
o I utilized local UN security experts and government officials for this
· Ensure the smooth implementation of the research
o There was a lot of logistical work from acquiring visas to making sure we had enough pens for the survey.
|Dr. Gwande and I towards the end of an amazing research project.|
While the research project was still in the initial phases, Texas A&M professor Dr. Gawande warned me that there was going to be more work than I may be expecting and he was exactly right. I spent a lot of late nights and weekends working, but it was an enjoyable learning experience.
Fortunately I wasn’t working alone. During the original conference call we decided to imitate the Texas A&M capstone structure comprised of graduate students and an advisor. UCG selected a small group of local graduate students and two professors to work with me to prepare the research design. The Congolese research team made countless valuable contributions including the decision to move the nutritional survey from the city to a village in order to obtain a more representative sample of the population where most of the nutrition clinic’s patients reside, organizing surveyors, designing a radio campaign to advertise our survey, administering pre-surveys, etc. I also had Texas A&M’s capstone designing the survey and providing direction. Whenever possible I ensured that UCG and/or Texas A&M were making the decisions.
|The Congolese students in the UCG capstone, the real stars of the research.|
The biggest challenges we faced during the survey preparation were the logistical challenges in obtaining large survey sample sizes:
For the youth employment survey we utilized: radio advertisements at 4 stations; church announcements at more then 15 churches; and word of mouth. A UCG staff member also helped us select the day which surveys would be administered- Congo’s own Mother’s Day. The staff member knew that most people would not be working on Mother’s Day and most mothers would encourage their children to take part in our survey.
For the nutritional survey, a UCG hospital staff member pointed out surveying a scattered rural community would be extremely time consuming so by visiting the community multiple times we selected a centrally located church to base our survey. We then gained the support of the local pastor to invite other neighboring congregations to the church on the day of our survey. Performing the survey on Sunday ensured that we had a large sample size because most people do not work on Sundays. Feeding over 2500 people was considered as an incentive for the survey but a UCG student recommended we instead distribute uncooked soya because of its high nutritional content and its ease of distribution.
Needless to say, the research project had a distinctively local feel to it.
I planned a recuperation day in Texas A&M’s eight day research schedule because I was concerned culture shock and the heavy workload would cause a few of the members of the Texas A&M delegation to become overwhelmed. But I was astonished how quickly the capstone adapted to the Congo and how dedicated the entire delegation was surpassing the lofty expectations of the trip. Their perseverance was critical in overcoming unforeseen obstacles and led us to schedule additional surveys during what was intended to be their recuperation day. Each member of the group performed critical roles in the implementation of the research and they equally shared leadership roles. The phenomenal dedication of both UCG and Texas A&M working groups was the driving force behind the success of our research.
|Two of my Congolese friends on the right and left, the Texas A&M research delegation and two Congolese children.|
I highly suggest foreign institutions establish research partnerships with Congolese institutions not only to strengthen local capacity but to access the tremendous wealth in the local capacity that already exists.