Thursday, December 20, 2007

Formalities with Local Officials

I have experience thanks to my Peace Corps days of conducting formalities with local officials. A good majority of the time officials are very preoccupied with other issues and introducing oneself and presenting one’s mission often goes smoother than expected. Still, doing this in a foreign language is not easy and there are surprises from time to time. The probability of having a bad first impression makes this process one of the most nerve-racking. Waiting in the lounge of a local official is a good chance to practice introductory remarks but at the same time it is also a moment of anxiety as often it is difficult to know which type of personality one is about to come face-to-face with.

Having approval from the agency that is responsible for your being in country is the first priority. To just show up without something from the capitol explaining your mission is not looked upon favorably and they will see your visit as a waste of their time. After that, dressing sharp and showing up early in the morning on Monday-Thursday (but not Friday!) is the best bet at having a successful introduction. If they speak your language and they make an effort to converse with you in it then do talk to them in your maternal tongue. And if they try to test your abilities in local languages be humble about it (even if you are proficient) but answer their questions in the local language as best as you can.

Do not be surprised if the official lives in the capitol or another country, like France, England or the United States. They may be living outside of their region to best represent and work for their community. The reverse is also possible unfortunately, where they may be living outside of their community because they have profited from their position and do little or nothing for their constituents. This of course varies from individual to individual. If the official is not there, it is not necessary to track the person down as often there is someone at the office to represent them and receive your introduction. They have the power to approve your mission and papers.

Despite these preventions things could still go disastrous. My very last effort at conducting formalities was the worst one ever and there was little I could do to prevent the outcome. The official simply did not like the idea of a researcher interviewing people in his region because there is a rebellion in the department of Arlit, Niger at present. The government of Niger has done its best to keep out foreign journalists and anyone who could possibly bring the events of the rebellion and the cause of the rebels to a larger audience. The official started my meeting by cajoling me. He argued that I should not to live and work in his region because of ‘security issues’ but I was able to argue through this facade by explaining the roots I had already made in Arlit. I had already had three visits, found a collaborator to work with, a potential landlord and interpreter, and made several friends in the marketplace. In truth, I was probably safer in his region then where I am right now (southern Niger).

Further into the formalities he admitted he did not like my research and living in his community and that he would do his best to terminate my mission. He did so as the very next day, I was ordered by the commissariat to return to the Governor in Agadez. I had already conducted formalities with the Governor three days earlier with no problems but upon my second return, the authority did an about-face and told me my research was suspended until I seek the approval of the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense, both in Niamey. There is no chance of meeting with either of these until after the New Year as it is Tabaski right now and soon it will be the New Year. I will try once more but I have my doubts as to whether I will receive approval to conduct my research in the immediate future.

My collaborator, who had several visits from the police the day I met with the local official, said it best, “They are afraid of what people are going to tell you about the rebellion.” I have tried to remain independent and silent on the rebellion as it is not my mission to report on the troubles up north. People, however, have shared with me their opinions and observations regarding the clashes that have taken place between the military and rebels in Iferouâne, Arlit and other areas of the north. As tempted as I am to share this information (especially after my last meeting with the last local official in Arlit), I will refrain until after I confirm with the Ministry of Interior and Defense that I cannot conduct research in the north and I am out of Niger’s jurisdiction.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Authorization to Conduct Research

Like fingerprints, no country is the same when it comes to the regulations in conducting research in their territory. One could write as many different versions of an introduction letter, explaining their mission and print it out on department letterhead; hound their superiors for a recommendation letter and have the support and financing of a scientific organization. It does not matter. There is going to be something missing and needed before one receives that magic paper that one pulls out for authorities who are confused over why one is going house to house and asking questions to people as to how their lives have changed.

I can only share my experiences in Mali and Niger here. In Mali, going armed with a recommendation letter from one’s advisor, curriculum vitae, and a dossier explaining the goal of the research, the subject, the prospective site, the time period and possible contacts is a start. If things go well, an official pulls out a form for one to fill out. If they are not busy, they will type it out verifying the information, request 2 photos and 5,000 F CFA for the current year (even if your research overlaps into the next year, one will need to return to Bamako for reauthorization at the end of the year). I managed to complete the process in three days the first time and the reauthorization only took me a day (I was recognized when I arrived at the bureau which helps). When one completes their research a report is expected, explaining their findings and possible future research prospects in Mali.

Niger is quite different. It is necessary to have the recommendation letter, curriculum vitae and dossier I mentioned above (with each category separated for each aspect of the research). Furthermore, a photocopy of one’s current student ID, a photocopy of the first page of one’s passport, and one’s international drivers’ license is also mandatory (if one has a vehicle for their research). In addition, one must collaborate with an academic or specialist on the subject of the prospective research in country. In most if not all cases such an individual is found at the only university in Niger: Abdou Moumouni University in Niamey. This can take time as coordinating and meeting with people eats up time.

There is no charge for the authorization request and no photos are needed. When I first started the process I was told that the process takes a week maximum. I was not done until six weeks later. The reasons for this delay were many. But in the last three weeks of the delay I realized that there is one person at the ministry who approves or rejects research proposals. Niger is in the process of decentralizing its government but at the same time some departments remain very top heavy, where responsibility is in the hands of a few or only one official. If the ministry approves one’s research a two-page authorization with conditions is printed out. My situation called for a restriction on circulation as there is a rebellion in the north (more information about that in future postings) but there are two conditions that are universal and everyone should be aware of. The Republic of Niger expects a report at the end of the research (like Mali) but in addition they request that five copies of any published material be sent to the ministry within the first month of publication.

Once one has the approval of the Ministry of Education in the capitol of the country where one conducts their research, the next step is meeting and conducting formalities with the local officials at the prospective research site(s). Governors, mayors, prefects, commandants, commissariats, village and traditional chiefs are often the officials one meets with to explain one’s mission. The experiences and conduct with these vary and merit a different posting.