Notes from Doing Research in Conflict Zones

Be prepared.

February 4, 2014

A researcher-colleague from Illinois told me that last summer, she lay on the floor of her University hostel bedroom in Mindanao for hours, waiting until gunshots quieted down on the campus. A field veteran in Mindanao, she was matter-of-fact about the incident. With ten years of experience doing research, I am not as unperturbed. Ever mindful that I am not a local to places I visit in an active conflict zone, I have earned a handful of useful tips:


  1. Contacts are key, but a local research assistant is just as important. Field based research requires some bases for groundwork. Invest in academic contacts and in recommended local persons by friends/colleagues who have done research in the area. Set aside funds to hire a local guide/interpreter/research assistant who can: (1) identify key informants and schedule interviews; (2) secure your lodgings, transfers and transportation during the fieldwork; (3) interpret during interviews; and (4) take you to most interesting, but safe, local places to grab a bite, get a drink and buy souvenirs. Be generous; pay honorariums well above the market rate; take care of all their meals and provide them with a communication allowance. In Mindanao, I have a roster of female RAs in Cotabato, Davao and Cagayan de Oro whom I routinely tap for funded projects. They are my trusted companions and have no issue whatsoever in dealing with the army, police or insurgent groups.
  2. Travel around in your own inconspicuous vehicle with females; politely turn down offers for an “escort.” It is best to travel in the company of females in a rented public utility vehicle-- not a taxi or car, but jeepneys or multicabs-- in a conflict zone. Where there are risks of IED explosions or kidnapping, it is a matter of security to have your own vehicle so that you can control your own time. Traveling in a marked military vehicle carries serious risks, so avoid hitching a free ride if you can, but do inform your officer-point-of-contact of your general movements and timeline. The rule of thumb is to make your way back to base before dusk.
  3. Get a security clearance, formal or informal. The Philippine military does not make its armed operations or patrols known for obvious reasons. Communicate to the army unit whose area of operations you will be wandering about to tell them about the project, even if it doesn’t directly concern them. Seeking official clearance at the General Headquarters in Manila is a waste of time and effort if the study is local.  With the local unit, the “formal” clearance is secondary to the SMS conversations with officer-point-of-contact. In the Philippines, where most transactions are personal, who you know is vital.  It usually takes some relays but once you have permission, you are all set to go. My most valuable possessions are the mobile phone number of officers I have worked with throughout my research career. Officers will rotate rapidly (1-3 years) from their posts, but their mobile numbers don’t change.
  4. Get it done sooner rather than later. The situation in conflict zones is very fluid. Once the alert level goes up or when the military shifts to high gear, you will not be able to carry out those interviews or focus group discussions. I never do field work during holidays, nor wait until summer vacation; instead, I schedule things within the next month after getting my first fund release. Even then, I prepare for contingencies. I had two scheduled field work projects postponed for 4 months (!) because of clashes produced by the failed agreement between the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2008. My subject, military units, was tied up for months going after the rebel groups.
  5. Read up and prepare to ask intelligent questions. Respondents appreciate a researcher who is well-grounded in the local culture and organizational context. Read up as much as you can about the political-economic history of the local area; get advance info about the military unit’s ground action; and approach the interviews with a mindset that you are neither an expert nor an ignoramus.

With sufficient preparation, research in a conflict zone should proceed smoothly.

Do not be that researcher holed up in his or her hotel waiting for things to quiet down. During unexpected down times, use it to rehash your notes and mull over your findings. There is no time to waste!


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