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Keith McDonald

July 10th, 2015

Get on the Ground: Tim Allen on the importance of fieldwork


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Keith McDonald

July 10th, 2015

Get on the Ground: Tim Allen on the importance of fieldwork


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In the following interview, published last year in The Economist, Tim Allen talks about the importance of fieldwork, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and combatting ignorance in the international community.


You are passionate about the importance of fieldwork in international development.

Yes. Once a year I try to spend some months in the field in African villages. In the past it was years. If I have one big point to make it is that this actually places me and a few other people in an unusual space. It is astonishing, the degree to which research and policy-making have remarkably little in the way of that kind of evidence base. Insights are driven by arguments put forward by academics and politicians rather than things that happen on the ground.

Can you give an example?

Local understandings of criminal justice is a good example. I’ve worked on the way in which people in northern Uganda and South Sudan construct moral spaces to bring up their families without a functioning state. One area I’ve been looking at is witchcraft issues. There are local understandings of the way that suffering and misfortune occur, often grounded in interpersonal relationships, and the English term “witchcraft” is often misleading.

With the drive towards criminal justice and the involvement of the International Criminal Court in central Africa there has been a lot of interest in local judicial mechanisms, and we now have a whole host of NGOs supporting traditional justice. But their idea as outsiders is that traditional justice is in some way similar to international justice, based upon similar notions of causality. When you have those interventions occurring without any kind of monitoring it can spin out of control very quickly.

In what way?

In northern Uganda I was looking at the way in which people voted, in a democratic fashion, to determine who should be expelled from the community as witches. A UN study on prisons in the Central African Republic found that half the people in the prisons they looked at had been found guilty of witchcraft through a formal system. So you have a witch-cleansing movement associated with democratic processes. These are things often ignored by researchers.

Conversely, local NGOs campaigned against the ICC in Uganda, saying it was an imposition of an alien system on to a complex local situation and that traditional rituals were a much better form of justice. They emphasised mato oput, which means “drinking of the bitter root”, and foregrounded it as a form of justice to support. They got involved in supporting a system of traditional chiefs giving local credibility to criminal justice and the reintegration of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) into society.

My research showed that mato oput was not a ritual used for this kind of thing. It was an Acholi [a northern Ugandan ethnic group] ritual for reintegrating murderers into society in some groups, but the idea that this could be used as a way of reintegrating the LRA and bringing them out of the bush was absurd. It didn’t fit the ritual. Many Ugandans in the wider community had never heard of it or were, in fact, supportive of the ICC imposing international justice. The trouble is that nobody was doing fieldwork.

You’ve done a lot of work on the Lord’s Resistance Army and Joseph Koni.

I’ve looked at that from a similar perspective. The extreme violence associated with the LRA, the abduction of children, the atrocious things that have been done, seem incomprehensible from the outside, but by thinking one’s way into the idiom of daily life one can understand why the nightmare is of that particular kind. The LRA plays with Acholi conceptions of the spirit world in a very effective way.

How does that explain the violence or make it seem normal?

The external perception is that this is a mad group abducting children, not unlike Boko Haram who may well have learnt some of their methodology from the LRA. Actually, the vast majority of those abducted are young adults who might be trained to fight. There was also an interest in taking prepubescent girls because they were thought not to be HIV positive. Those girls were married, using local idiom, to commanders and were not raped indiscriminately. The most disturbing thing is that most of them were reasonably positive about the experience.

Of course some were severely traumatised, but the idea of abducting women for marriage has deep roots in this society. Many women talk about having been captured by their husbands. I’m not excusing this in any way, but they take a local custom of abducting women into marriage and play upon it. Also, the effects of 19th-century slave-raiding, involving large-scale abductions, still resonate here. Working at the local level reveals all sorts of things.

Is this also the case with treating disease?

It’s a similar story. With HIV AIDS in Uganda and Botswana, for example, both countries adopted control programmes at about the same time, opened the door to the World Health Organisation and by 1987 recognised the seriousness of the problem. Within a few years life expectancy in relatively affluent Botswana, where life expectancy had been in the mid-60s, dropped below Uganda, a conflict-torn country where life expectancy had been in the 40s.

In Botswana the response to HIV AIDS was secular — international aid agencies arrived with condoms and promoted behavioural changes as in rich industrial countries.

But in Uganda the HIV AIDS campaign was linked to the Catholic Church right from the start, arguing that the traditional African family was the way forward to take Uganda out of the upheaval of recent years. President Museveni’s government involved local councils who had authority to regulate life at a village level. It was a credible, moral campaign backed up with publicity and radio. In Botswana HIV AIDS was seen as an external problem—you heard about it on the radio but there was total denial in communities.

So, you’re talking about the ignorance of the international community?

There are systems of scholarship and discourses of power that are grounded in ignorance. The controversies that have arisen from the treatment of neglected tropical diseases are precisely because of this.

We’ve worked in 100 sites in east Africa looking at what happens when vast quantities of tablets arrive and are handed out. We find that almost none of the things we observe appear in the literature on the subject. On the back of the Millennium Development Goals there was a drive towards mass drug administration, free of charge, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa that could lead to eradication of neglected tropical diseases like schistosomiasis.

It looked like low-hanging fruit—if we could get the tablets to the people who have these diseases, there was and is a possibility of making massive change. In fact, monitoring was atrocious, there was little communication with the people, drugs didn’t arrive in the right quantities, or at all, and in many cases follow-up was non-existent.

One-size-fits-all doesn’t work and the ways medicine affects people varies dramatically. With schistosomiasis we found that fisherfolk, who are the most likely to be infected, were almost entirely absent from the disease programme and they’re the ones defecating and urinating in the water, spreading the disease.

It sounds as though you are constantly coming up against people who are well-intentioned. This can’t make you very popular.

I take a lot of flak, but I think it’s possible to change things by bringing evidence from the ground. Neglected tropical diseases are a good example of how the evidence can turn out to be important. There has been a lot of controversy, but the importance of the fieldwork Melissa Parker and I do is beginning to be recognised.

Bringing it into the policy arena can shift the paradigms.

Tim Allen, Professor of Development Anthropology in the International Development at the London School of EconomicsTim Allen is Head of International Development at LSE and Research Director of the Justice and Security Research Programme. He has expertise in the fields of ethnic conflict, forced migration, east Africa (especially Sudan, Uganda and Kenya) and development aid. He writes widely, and often controversially, on development and the importance of fieldwork. He is the author of “Trial Justice: the International Criminal Court and the Lord’s Resistance Army” (2006), and co-editor of “The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality” (2010).

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Keith McDonald

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