Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Selling stories of war in Sierra Leone

Ex-combatants in Sierra Leone have learned the value of their stories to western researchers, and they’re starting to charge for them.

Sayra van den Berg
28 August 2019, 7.00am
Freetown, Sierra Leone
Tim Mansel/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-nd)

Between 2016 and 2019 I conducted over two years of fieldwork in Sierra Leone on the relationship between the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the ex-combatant community. My work examines ex-combatants’ experiences of the TRC and draws a more complex picture than the binary labels of ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’ allow. Ex-combatants are frequent objects of research, so much so that many are now seeking to capitalise on their background by commercialising their research participation.

With exposure comes expectation

When I first met Alusine, he was hesitant to be interviewed. He said that he was “tired of white people coming and asking about our experiences and our needs”. He was not alone in his research and intervention fatigue. Sierra Leone is a popular place for conducting studies of ex-combatants, as well as for peace and conflict research more generally. Many ex-combatants I met had prior experience as research subjects. Some had been tapped several times, which is unsurprising given that researchers frequently share contacts.

Engaging the same participants over and over again naturally impacts their interview expectations, a situation exacerbated by the high number of development interventions in Sierra Leone. Such interventions often mirror research practices and are experienced similarly by participants, though their purposes differ. It’s important to acknowledge the compound effect of these different factors, and researchers should consider the level of aggregate exposure when selecting cases and populations.

Prominent within research ethics is the question of respondent compensation. The debate is one of extraction versus influence. Engagement with respondents, especially marginalised groups, without compensation is considered extractive. Yet there is also a need to avoid influencing respondent answers through the promise of payment for participation. A common ‘solution’ is to provide compensation for time/transportation/meals, and only after an interview is completed. This practice is seen to circumvent the risk that payment affects participation while acknowledging that some degree of compensation is necessary to address power imbalances and the extractive character of research.

However, this ‘loophole solution’ is of little practical use among a population with such frequent research exposure as ex-combatants in Sierra Leone. Pretending that prior research experience does not impact current expectations is naive, and the viability of this practice needs reconsideration. In my work I sought to clarify, before each interview, that respondents would receive compensation for their time, transportation costs, and a meal. I also explained that compensation for all respondents was equal. It was not determined by the ‘quality’ of their experiences or participation, and that they were entitled to this compensation even if they withdrew their consent, partially or completely, in the future.

Setting clear ground rules for researcher participation is always important, but failing to do so in Sierra Leone is almost guaranteed to create problems. This is because many ex-combatants have begun to commercialise their conflict identities as quasi-professional research participants and assistants.

The professional subject

I first met Mohamed in 2016, when I interviewed him about his experiences as a former child soldier. He began working with me to interview other ex-combatants. After nearly six months in Freetown together, he said:

“I know this research game. I’ve been doing this for a long time, sharing my story and helping people like you find what you’re looking for. For me it’s a win-win, my community respects me because I help them by bringing the researchers who pay them to talk, and I know what the researchers want to hear, so I teach people what to say when the researchers come.”

This is obviously problematic, and it highlights the dangers of relying on particular gatekeepers. The ability to commercialise and abuse experiences understood to be valuable is a powerful yet unintended consequence of frequent research exposure and compensation.

Other ex-combatants with whom I spoke also felt a sense of being used and then discarded once the research was over. Jonathan, who has also successfully utilised his ex-combatant past to earn a sporadic living as a research assistant, said:

“I wish they (researchers) would let me know what comes from our work together, many of them leave and I don’t hear from them again. Many of the people I help them find also ask about what happened to their stories, but I have nothing to share with them.”

Jonathan has worked with several researchers and contributed to many well-cited academic works. His contributions have generally gone unacknowledged, and he laments the lack of follow up contact with these researchers. Authentic and committed partnerships with those who contribute to knowledge production on the ground is fundamental to dismantling the extractive character of research. Researchers must also make local dissemination of research findings a priority, at the very least to local partners.

An interview with Thomas, a former member of the Revolutionary United Front, highlights another pitfall of this commercialisation – the valuation of particular experiences based on previous research experience(s). Thomas testified against Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, in the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), and had been interviewed about this experience by researchers and journalists in the past. He was handsomely compensated for this, and therefore understood his particular experiences to be of significant value.

Thomas spoke plainly about this at our first meeting. “I want to clarify the issue of my payment”, he said. “I have talked to many people like you already, and I know my story is special. It is worth a lot of money. You are lucky to meet with me, and I will tell you my story if you pay me $300.” This interaction highlights the significant variation in respondent compensation practices, the expectations that such variable compensation can create among respondents, and the uncomfortable situations that arise as a result. More open conversations among researchers around levels of compensation could help establish fair, consistent, and sustainable practices.

While the commercialisation of conflict identities brings with it some dangers, it also creates opportunities for participants to benefit from, and reframe, conflict experiences around which significant stigma persists. Continued research participation, despite the commercialisation, thus also has its positive sides. It brings material benefit through compensation, at times status, and the opportunity to contextualise these experiences as holding positive value to others. As Jonathan said:

“I am happy for this work. I did bad things during the war. You would not believe some of them, but I know God will forgive me. I am glad that my rebel story can be told…that people want to know it, that I can be more than only a bad man.”

The commercialisation of conflict experiences in Sierra Leone highlights the need to recognise that knowledge production does not take place in isolation. Exposure has created expectations and has engendered an industry of research participation. At the same time, knowledge production generally remains extractive. Researchers should thus re-think their engagement practices, but they should do so with a degree of humility and self-awareness. Greater accommodation of this commercialisation in respondent engagement practices and prioritising local follow up and dissemination practices could greatly contribute towards less extractive and more collaborative partnerships.

The names of all ex-combatants in this piece have been changed to protect their identities.

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