Case Study: Safeguarding Former Child Soldiers in Northern Uganda

Posted 22 June 2020 by Geoffrey Omony (YOLRED) & Jassi Sandhar (University of Bristol)


Description of the work and the partners involved

YOLRED, with Geoffrey Omony as PI, and Jassi Sandhar from the University of Bristol as Co-PI, are leading a research project on Safeguarding child soldiers in research.

To do this, we first conducted three focus group discussions with former child soldiers in December 2019: a total of 33 participants (20 women and 13 men) were involved in these. Secondly, as a follow up, we held a stakeholders’ consultative workshop in March 2020 to get the views, opinions and feedback on how the region could better safeguard former LRA child soldiers during research projects. The workshop participants constituted unique categories of people and partners including Acholi cultural institutions, religious leaders, researchers, civil society grass roots organisations, political leaders as well as development workers.

From this, we have updated YOLRED’s safeguarding policy, developed an internal policy for how YOLRED will work with researchers, produced a set of guidelines for researchers who engage in research projects in the region, and have begun raising awareness amongst our groups about the potential harms and discomforts which can occur from research practices.

Safeguarding issues faced





Based on our work as intermediaries between researchers and former child soldiers, we have witnessed the various and diverse risks to which former child soldiers are exposed, both during the research process and in the aftermath (immediately after the interview, where trauma is re-experienced, as well as within written outputs and lack of follow-up from researchers). Risks include provoking emotions and causing further trauma, raising their expectations through empty promises, failing to provide feedback after the research has been done, lack of compensation for their time, and the extraction of information from the region with little to no benefits for the community members residing in Northern Uganda.

YOLRED have also found themselves, on several occasions, losing out during these research projects as external researchers tend to occupy staff time, expect the organisation to facilitate the interviews/data collection yet do not pay for YOLRED’s time. Due to the power dynamics, it has often been difficult to understand this phenomenon, and find a way to negotiate it to benefit all parties involved.

More troubling was the lack of guidance on how to safeguard child soldiers in the research process, or any guidelines available (national, regional, or international) specific to engaging with former child soldiers in research. For researchers and civil society organisations alike, this creates lack of structure and ambiguity on the roles and dynamics of the research process. There is much written about unethical research practices in academic spaces, but this information is inaccessible and unobtainable (and infrequently shared) for many of those who engage in research practices in the country (i.e. former child soldiers and NGOs). Therefore, YOLRED, in conjunction with Jassi, identified a gap and delivered a research project exploring the current safeguarding issues faced by former child soldiers and NGOs in Northern Uganda.

Challenges and barriers


This project was created to address some of the issues around safeguarding and research practices in the region, so the safeguarding challenges and barriers were not necessarily specific to the project but instead relevant to the work YOLRED does.

The challenges to the safeguarding of former child soldiers and YOLRED staff (and to some extent the wider Northern Ugandan community) which were exposed during the focus groups included:

  • Negligence in the way we conduct research and not considering local cultural and social values, for example international researchers dressing inappropriately, and asking questions which revolve around taboo subjects, such as sexual intimacy and killing.
  • Most research agendas are driven by the researchers or the funders, with little importance given to the research desires of people in the region. Moreover, much research does not show the actual representation on ground, as researchers choose to interpret the data in a way which suits their agenda or research objectives.
  • Exploitative and extractive nature of research, which takes from participants without providing any benefits in return. Most former child soldiers would agree that they are the ones benefiting the researchers, as their stories are providing the researchers with careers and salaries. Moreover, the lack of compensation for people’s time, including YOLRED’s and other NGOs involved in research projects, fails to address the neo-coloniality of research projects such as the ones active in international development research. Language for direct communication between researcher and the former child soldiers has always been a challenge too as most former child soldiers do not speak English, and as a result are unable to access the language of the researcher but also their research outputs.
  • Rushed nature of data collection: the time frame and approach of researchers whereby they come for few days and want to get enough information for their research and put a lot of pressure on participants and NGOs they are working with. Due to these time limits, they also do not sometimes vet the people they are working with and sometimes research assistants are not credible (i.e. some people invite their friends or relatives to work as research assistants). They also ignore the component of creating a rapport with the participants and do not interact much with people locally.  
  • Doing the interview from the participant’s home gives alertness to the community members about their status of being former child soldiers.   
  • The white man syndrome – people see everything about “white people” as being good and their expectations are always high when they are meeting them and this leads to frustrations and further trauma when these expectations are not met.





Actions taken to overcome the challenges 
















In response to these various concerns, we wanted to document what practices former child soldiers themselves felt were harmful, exploitative, and negatively impacting them within current research practices. We therefore held 3 focus group discussions with 33 former child soldiers and then a stakeholder workshop, to explore what community leaders believed were issues with research practices. And, after carrying out the data collection, we confirmed that they are continuing to suffer from unequal and exploitative research practices, as described above, but even more strongly than we had presumed (for example, we did not realise that most of them believed that YOLRED was financially benefiting from researchers engaging in these projects though them, when the truth is that YOLRED actually is not compensated for their time and only engages with researchers due to feelings of obligation as well as hope that they can bring some change).

Following this, and through working with the community groups and former child soldiers, we were able to do the following things:

  • Update YOLRED’s safeguarding policy with this new information forming an integral part
  • Produce an internal policy for YOLRED
  • Educate YOLRED staff about the harms felt by former child soldiers within research processes (as the team were present during the focus group discussions and listened to the concerns of the groups we work with)
  • Engage with a range of stakeholders on safeguarding issues and shared the information we had obtained during the FGDs with our wider network
  • Produce a report on the findings, with a set of guidelines on how researchers can operate more ethically in the region.

For YOLRED, it was especially important to obtain the opinions and perspectives of former child soldiers and document these; as ‘gatekeepers’ to former child soldiers, it has always been difficult for the organisation to know whether they should provide access or not to the groups we work with. Previously we felt that we should not be preventing access, as former child soldiers may actually want to engage with international researchers, and so knowing whether to prevent such exchanges has felt like it was not our decision. But through this work we have learnt how important our role is as intermediaries (like with other NGOs) in protecting our groups from exploitation within research. 

Outcomes and impact


Through our work we have been able to expose and explore a number of key issues surrounding the safeguarding of former child soldiers, including the extractive nature of research, empty promises by researchers, lack of feedback from researchers (even after they have seen how much energy and time former child soldiers have put into supporting their data collection), and other safeguarding concerns.

One of the greatest impacts it had was showing former child soldiers that we are committed to creating a fairer and more equitable method of supporting research practices which have their safety and desires at the centre. From the data collection and focus group discussions they could understand that we were trying to support them and protect them from further exploitation. Working in consultation with them and having them collectively come up with ideas and strategies on how they would like to work with researchers and on research projects placed their needs above the researchers, and for both themselves and YOLRED it also provided an additional component of community healing and togetherness.  

Some of the recommendations we are now making, and asking other NGOs to get on board with (which were not previously being abided by) are:

Benefiting participants: Researchers should not use participants without compensating for their time. Each time a research participant comes to attend to you, they are giving you a portion of their time which they would have used to do their casual work and keep food on the table for their children but decide to come and give you information for your benefit. Additionally, they carry out much emotional labour to take part, and the re-traumatisation needs to have adequate justification, purpose or compensation for its cause, other than simply to serve the researcher’s research agenda or objectives. It is therefore important to compensate for their time and input.

Data protection and confidentiality: There should be strong policy on data protection of former child soldiers – some researchers move around carrying files containing ex-soldiers’ details. Organisations also need to know the policies that are in place. Research work should be shared with the participants for free and if possible it should be translated into the local language.

Doing no harm (and doing some good): Research should be conducted in such a way that it does not create stigma or remind participants of their past. There should be a team of counsellors to support the participants before and after the interviews, and we are now advocating for the ‘do good’ principle – rather than doing no harm, research should actually do some good for the communities it is placing under the microscope.

Bridging power dynamics and decolonising knowledge production: The title given to the people helping out in research is also very key – local researchers should cease to be called ‘research assistants’ and become co-authors, and international researchers should agree to be led by local people. This will help to eliminate some of the existing power imbalances between international researchers and the local communities.

Safeguarding policies should also be translated into the local language to enable the participants to understand the contents. Guidelines should be given to local research organisations and they should be encouraged to take the lead when international researchers come (and recognise their responsibility in protecting former child soldiers, rather than feeling obliged by the researcher). Moreover, feedback should be guaranteed by the international researchers and provided in an accessible and understandable manner for the participants and community. Accessibility should be paramount – the document on interviews should be made accessible to the participants and others who might be interested. It can be distributed in schools and places where people can access it easily and freely.

Importance of a standard framework: NGOs need a framework to guide their work with researchers as they are usually the ones who provide researchers with access to former child soldiers. Due to the power imbalance it is often difficult for NGOs to know how to interact with international researchers, and so it is important that we unify in our stance on how we work on research projects. The safeguarding policy should also be shared with media houses, because they sometimes ask unethical questions during interviews with former child soldiers.

Unresolved issues


As important as this work is, and we are hopeful of its uptake, it remains impossible to ensure that all researchers who want to study Northern Uganda will implement our recommendations. This is especially true for student researchers who may not have the time or financial capacity to take up the recommendations we have made (such as providing compensation for interviewees’ time, paying for YOLRED’s time, spending a certain period of time in the field to build a rapport, etc.).

As we have found that many researchers do not wish to work collaboratively and are stretched for time during their visits, it is likely that some of the unethical research practices will continue outside of YOLRED’s capacity (i.e. YOLRED will not engage in those practices with self-serving researchers, but it is not possible for us to dictate how other NGOs work with researchers). Nevertheless, we remain committed to our findings and will continue sharing best practice whenever the chance arises.

Managing the expectations and emotions of participants will also remain a challenge; most research projects will continue to evoke negative emotions within participants – even if they have learned to suppress them. As much as we can protect them from inappropriate questions and topics, we cannot always ensure they are not re-traumatised. We will no longer engage in sensitive data collection (though previously YOLRED also attempted not to do so anyway) and try to limit others doing so too, as most of the research exploring these sensitive issues already exists and does not need to continue being replicated.

With regards to expectations, the ‘white man syndrome’ will continue to exist and remains unresolved. People in the region see everything about “white people” or mzungus as potentially good, even if past experiences have proven otherwise, and so their expectations remain high and the power dynamics mean that local communities still feel obliged to participate in unethical research practices. We cannot prevent this, as it is the result of decades of international aid and development work in the region, which has set this expectation and precedence, though we are working hard to dispel some of these myths and expose the realities.

What would have made the situation better for you / your organisation or project / survivors


In an ideal situation, these safeguarding policies and protocols would already exist, and we would have systems which can address some of these unethical practices already. But given that they are lacking, the way to address the situation and make it better (for all those involved) was for us to initiate this safeguarding project.

On a personal basis, I think researchers, journalist and communities should be sensitised to focus on the positive things former child soldiers are doing and have done, not the negatives. As myself, I have always guided the researcher who comes through YOLRED to try to realise that former child soldiers have done a lot of good things which are not always highlighted in the work produced by many researchers. This becomes tiring and frustrating when you spend a lot of time trying to change existing ideas and discourse about child soldiers but are not taken critically enough for academic research. I hope through these outputs researchers will begin to understand my individual stance on this and why it is important.

At the organisational level, having a guiding policy document for safeguarding child soldiers during research process would have made the situation much better.  I am excited that this is something which YOLRED is working on now through this safeguarding project and one of the outputs will be clear guidelines to be followed by the parties involved in the research. 

For former child soldiers themselves, the situation would be made better by having researchers engage in projects once they have thoroughly examined their motives, positionality, epistemic location, and how they are benefiting their participants. Many researchers lack this critical introspection and do not feel the need to question themselves in such ways, as they are usually well-intentioned and believe they are doing good in the region. If researchers were to question this it would eliminate some of the issues and create a fairer situation in Uganda. Furthermore, if researchers are open and upfront about their intentions, compensate for the participants’ time and provide feedback from the research, the situation would be more equitable. Former child soldiers have asked YOLRED to work with the researchers to ensure that they are honest and do not promise things that cannot be accomplished. In response to this request, YOLRED will always ask researchers not to promise anything they are not sure of fulfilling to help improve the situation.

Strengths or skills that helped

As an organisation which is run by former child soldiers, with the executive director himself being a former child soldier who also has a strong relationship with the groups they work with, the rapport and trust that exists is a strength for the organisation in addressing some of these issues. In fact, the actual focus group discussions became more like peer to peer discussions allowing openness from the participants. The team are trusted, and the presence of the internal counsellor (Collins) provided further reassurance.

Additionally, they trust YOLRED further because of Jassi’s involvement with us; as she has worked with us for many years (and not disappeared after the first visit like many researchers do), they are able to see the commitment of these collaborative projects and understand that YOLRED are not exploiting them for their own gain.

Thirdly, the interpreter who was present during the FGDs is a trusted and known researcher in the region, who has worked with some of the participants in other capacities.

The intertwining of these three factors worked extremely well in creating a level of comfort for former child soldiers and eliciting authentic responses from the participants.

Lessons learned from listening to the perspectives of those directly affected

One serious lesson learnt was the extractive nature of the research being done on former combatants by researchers (the lack of benefits which emerge, the unequal power dynamics, the misunderstanding of ‘do no harm’) – which is exacerbated due to time and funding considerations. With this work, we hope that this will change from extractive to beneficial research. To address some of these concerns, we produced a report on safeguarding and guidelines for researchers to follow.

It was also a learning point for YOLRED, that organisations through which researchers get in contact with the former child soldiers have a very big responsibility to safeguard former child soldiers during research. For this, we created the internal policy stating the ways in which YOLRED will work with researchers, and what we expect from researchers before engaging in projects with them.

Recognising the importance of research and research agendas driven by former child soldiers has been exciting for us, and therefore coming up with these projects will greatly take care of the safeguarding of former child soldiers, researchers, organisation and the community at large through including their perspectives in the guiding policy with clear practice and approach expected from all parties involved. In general, getting ourselves into the shoes of the participants with full attention and time to them while they share their perspectives shows a caring attitude and gives them a motivation to speak and share their experiences.

We are also now proposing more positive research; current approaches to research design should stop focusing on dehumanising former child soldiers and adopt perspectives which give them possibility for growth and development and should be treated fairly and equally like other Ugandans. Researchers should refrain from the mentality of looking at former child soldiers as war criminals and a hopeless/vulnerable group within the community, and focus instead on the successes they have been able to accomplish despite being former child soldiers.