We must not abandon Western-funded Afghan researchers

The targeting such researchers face raises serious questions about universities’ moral responsibilities towards them, say five researchers

October 21, 2021
Destination: Afghanistan
Source: iStock
Dangers and other practical factors can prevent researchers from turning the spotlight on countries such as Afghanistan

For those of us who work with Afghan researchers, the events of 15 August – the day Afghanistan’s presidential palace fell to the Taliban – can be replayed in our heads almost moment by moment, regardless of whether or not we were actually present in the country at the time. Many of us had anticipated the devastating consequences that this shift in political power would have for Afghan colleagues.

Afghanistan presents an ethical paradox. The withdrawal of the US troops, albeit more abruptly and earlier than planned, signified the end of a conflict that has beleaguered Afghan lives for the past 20 years. Yet the absence of war, in this case, is not peace. Throughout the conflict, local researchers were building a future in which Afghans could live in good physical, mental, social, spiritual and intellectual health. What was achieved has now become a target for violence and threats of death.

An Afghan research partner working with one of us, for instance, conducted research on mental health interventions for female survivors of violence. But when the Taliban took over, she had no choice but to flee her desk, leaving all her work behind. Her papers were subsequently returned to her, boxed and shredded – a literal ripping-up of her identity and representation, rendering her no longer the person she was.

Like many Afghan researchers, she was at risk for the simple reason that she was connected to a Western institution: in this case, a university that produces a certain canon of knowledge rejected by the Taliban ideologies. Consequently, her digital footprint also needed to be erased for her own protection. She has now been silenced in the very way that she had fought against when recording the stories of women survivors of violence as part of the research.

There are an estimated 350 researchers in Afghanistan who are funded via the UK’s overseas aid budget. Research in conflict contexts such as Afghanistan is challenging but necessary. Conflict threatens marginalisation and silencing of voices, as well as polarisation of traditional knowledge into the vacuum of violence. Despite the dangers to which their work exposed them even before 15 August, our Afghan colleagues have been steadfast, and our collaborations with them have advanced knowledge.

But now their lives and mental health are at great risk. They have hardly any recourse to outside support. In many cases, international academic connections are their sole contact with potential sources of help. Hence, as our research partners have become targets, some of us have had to take on a humanitarian role in response. This requires us to make decisions beyond our expertise and to be involved in procedures such as preparing evacuation lists or working out how those in immediate danger can cross insecure land borders.

However, our ability to provide help has been limited by structural barriers. During the international evacuations, we attempted to secure safe passage for our colleagues, yet we mostly failed. We failed because, even as a collective team of academics in the UK, we could not exert as much influence on either our own government or the Afghan authorities to ensure that Afghan researchers could make use of the official evacuation schemes.

Despite their greater potential leverage and power, our universities have also remained silent – and, thus, unsupportive. The targeting that our researchers face raises serious questions about universities’ moral responsibilities and has revealed a lack of adequate policies and protocols about whether and how to intervene in such situations.

UK universities appear to have no contractual duty of care towards non-UK researchers who work on UK-led research projects should they fall victim to violence, accidents or environmental or industrial hazards. And they appear to have little understanding of the everyday lives of researchers in contexts such as Afghanistan.

We call on the UK government to provide safe passage for researchers working on UK-led research projects. We call on universities to provide funded sanctuary to our colleagues who are being targeted precisely because they are working with and for us. And we call on funders to establish insurance schemes that allow for the compensation of researchers who incur moral, mental and physical injuries while working on UK-funded projects.

Our researchers are imprisoned in a system that opposes all they worked for. Whether they contributed to research on gender-based violence, mental health, literature, journalism or even something apparently innocuous as textiles, its association with UK universities and the UK government is seen by the Taliban as anathema to its ideology. But as Afghanistan’s prominence in the international media begins to recede, the danger our colleagues are in will be all too easily forgotten.

We ultimately call for greater recognition of the ways that our research is situated in the lives and identities of our researchers, so that we can research ethically and respond effectively during humanitarian crises. And, by extension, this becomes a recognition of the hope and meaning that research holds for a better world.

Ayesha Ahmad is a senior lecturer in global health at St George’s, University of London and an honorary lecturer at UCL. Guntars Ermansons is a research associate in population health sciences, and Hanna Kienzler is reader in global health at King’s College London. Cornelius Katona is medical director at the Helen Bamber Foundation and an honorary professor at UCL. Simon Goodman is a senior lecturer in psychology at De Montfort University.

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