AiW Guest: Daniel Watson.
At the most recent Sussex Africa Centre event, Peter van der Windt – PhD candidate at Columbia University – presented his research on ‘Local institutions and Cooperation in the Presence of Migration: Evidence from the Democratic Republic of Congo’. This is one of a number of projects Peter is involved in, which focus on migration, development and networks in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and more recently, Sierra Leone (further information on Peter’s research can be found here: http://petervanderwindt.com/research/).
Today, North and South Kivu in the eastern border regions of the DRC remain a source of regional and international concern. The Kivus are a complex site of overlapping forms of violence, rebellion, and displacement, and have come to symbolise many of the characteristics often attributed to the DRC, including predatory or self-interested intervention by certain neighbouring countries; violent political economies of resource extraction; and seemingly chronic levels of physical violence (with special attention given to sexual violence by donors and activists). Peter’s research focuses on two characteristics that co-exist with and to some extent structure this violent cartography, but may be overlooked. The first of these is the presence of informal governance structures and institutions that permeate the village level, with Peter emphasising the roles of chiefs and villages notables as being the most significant players in these institutions. The second is the extremely high level of internal migration among Congolese, two-thirds of whom do not reside in the village of their birth. As Peter described in the talk, it was not uncommon for some individuals and families to relocate to another village between ten and fifteen times.
Through exploring these characteristics, it is possible to add further shades to the existing images of the eastern DRC. This has the potential to provide insights into the more pacific and routine patterns of social and political order, complementing the tales of instability in the violence-wracked region. A particular concern for Peter was to direct greater attention to the networks of co-operation within villages that can assist daily life and struggles in a context of instability and a fluctuating political order. These networks and routines can be captured through the expression ‘within-village co-operation’, and one of Peter’s central concerns was to ascertain the impact of recurrent migration on co-operation within villages. Additionally, a key aim of the project was to further understanding of how village-level institutions respond to the twin pressures of migration, but also the international response and assistance programmes (chiefly from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)) that provide assistance to migrants.
In order to explore these dynamics, Peter undertook 18 months of fieldwork in the eastern DRC, spread over six years. During this time, over 4,000 households were surveyed to build up a picture of migration and settlement, and 416 villagers (from 24 different villages) were involved in a ‘lab-in-the field’ experiment designed to establish the extent to which the inhabitants of villages – distinguished in the experiment as being either ‘natives’ or ‘migrants’ – were co-operating with each other in a context of high migration, and how local institutions influenced these relations.
This ‘lab-in-the-field’ experiment was perhaps the most novel feature of Peter’s research, and modified traditional social science ‘game theory’ approaches to understanding co-operative behaviour, in which people engage in hypothetical ‘games’ with each other designed to measure qualities such as trust and co-operation. According to Peter, there are several characteristics of Congolese social and political practice that make traditional games inappropriate. Firstly, there is not much privacy in village life: people tend to know what is going on with everybody else. Secondly, chiefs exert an influence over which migrants get to enter and fully integrate into the village. These mean that hypothetical games may not capture the realities of social organisation in the village, and could generate misleading results. Therefore, instead of people being asked to play games against a hypothetical person, villages were shown photographs of other villagers, and asked how they would distribute a hypothetical sum of money ($5, in this game) among the village. After this, the participants were then asked to repeat the exercise, but this time with the chief and other local notables present.
The results of these games were quite interesting. In private, natives and migrants within a village tended to give more of their money to members of their respective groups. However, this tendency to give more members of the same group diminished when the game was repeated in the presence of a chief. For Peter, this suggests that local institutions strengthen native-migration co-operation within villages, which needs to be taken account by development agencies and NGOs. These findings, taken in conjunction with the findings of another research project Peter is working on, also pointed to the conclusion that external actors such as NGOs do not weaken such local institutions. However, a tentative conclusion was that external actors may threaten within-village co-operation, through distributing more resources to ‘migrants’ than to ‘natives’, possibly leading to resentment between these groups.
The application of political science methods to the eastern DRC was interesting, but needs to be treated with some caution. In the following Q&A session, there were a number of questions concerning the technicalities of the ‘game’ being played, but there was a discernible unease in a number of other questions, concerning just how much had been stripped away on order to facilitate the analysis. Where, for example, was a consideration of the gendered dimensions to cooperation and authority within villages? Were perceptions of the legitimacy of chiefs among both natives and migrants being taken into account? More broadly, there was a risk that the local institutions under discussion were being presented as permanent and fixed features of the Kivus, without considering how the current legitimacy and power of these institutions has been constructed – and reconstructed – in a region that has been the site of violent political change since the late 1990s. As one attendee noted after the event had finished, the choice of the terms ‘native’ and ‘migrant’ was also troubling. In particular, the theme of ‘migration’ suggested that there was a degree of agency underlying a person or families decision to move between villages, which can mask the violence that underpins such movements.
These questions were graciously addressed by Peter, and despite the reaction among some attendees to the methods and approaches utilised in the research, it was clear that this was comprehensively researched and innovative project. Nonetheless, emphasising how displacement and violence are central to understanding the dynamics under investigation, and how they may drive changes within the village-level institutions and external actors operating in the region, could have helped to allay some of these concerns.
Images c. of Peter Van der Windt at http://petervanderwindt.com/research/
Daniel Watson (centre) is a final year PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations, University of Sussex. Before starting his PhD, he studied Politics at the University of Sussex, and gained an MA in Conflict, Development and Security at the University of Leeds. His research focuses on the role of violence in post-conflict statebuilding in South Sudan.