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Researchers in Gaza face bureaucracy as well as bombs

Image: Palestine Trauma Centre

UK red tape undermines efforts to keep projects with Palestinian colleagues going, says Nora Parr

For the past five years, I have worked with the Palestine Trauma Centre (PTC) in Gaza to study its flagship support programme called Tarkiz

Our project aims to draw a model of mental health work when trauma results not from a single event, as in the existing model, but from multiple overlapping and continuing harms.

We started our research as the first wave of Covid-19 lockdowns began in Gaza and continued during the Israeli bombardment of May 2021. Ever since Israel invaded Gaza following Hamas’s 7 October attacks, we have been trying to maintain data collection amid what the International Court of Justice has determined is a plausible genocide.

In the third week of October, an Israeli airstrike hit near the PTC, rendering it unsafe. Since then, at least two of the centre’s staff have been killed, three have lost their homes and nearly a dozen more have been displaced. One employee now lives in a tent and queues for hours for water or to charge his mobile phone.

Even so, the PTC team is still providing mental health services in shelters and family refuges, as well as via social media and over the phone. They, along with myself and colleagues, are also trying to continue doing research.

This is a vital time for a project aimed at understanding how grassroots mental-health programming can respond to a vast and overlapping spectrum of harms. We in the UK are in a position to help sustain and support, or at least amplify, our partners’ knowledge. 

But continued research, has been stymied more by UK bureaucracy than the conditions in Gaza.

Knowledge gaps

When UN officials declare that “nothing is safe in Gaza”, that includes my collaborators, their knowledge and the data that evidences it. The usual organisational delays could mean huge gaps in the research record, and in information about the experience of trauma and grassroots mental-health programming that will be critical in the months and years ahead.

Colleagues in Gaza rejected initial ideas about how to capture data, such as interviews or field notes, as too risky. 

Working with a colleague at the Geneva Graduate Institute, we settled on collecting a database of text messages.

However, the last tranche of project money for the PTC was sent and spent in the summer, with a feasibility study for a randomised controlled trial of the Tarkiz programme almost complete. This left no way to help finance the data collection.

By mid-December, we had secured some internal university funding for communications equipment. But a university administrator forgot to sign it off, delaying the money by six weeks, while PTC’s losses multiplied.

Spend-by-March funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), applied for in December, has been held up for a new round of due-diligence checks. While accountability is of course necessary, it seems inopportune and even unethical to require updates on accounting practices when the last funds were paid out less than a year ago, or on whether the organisation can operate without an office.

Unlike many small development research projects, the PTC generally has the resources to get started and be reimbursed later. It is, though, a constant frustration that partners must use their own money for work that should be supported from my end. 

This is a general problem for collaboration with low-income countries. A delay in university payment left another partner borrowing from in-laws to pay staff.

Relationships also come under strain. With universities unwilling to speak against the UK government’s support of Israel’s military action, researchers have had to leverage personal relationships to assure partners that we do not share this position and our work is to change policy.

Driving change

It can feel absurd to be part of a research network formed in response to a government call for better pathways to humanitarian protection while not being given the tools to protect our partners. For now, we hold fast to the idea that amassing and disseminating their collected knowledge may, one day, help drive change.

If the UK research system wants to foster true international partnerships, and create and share the most critical knowledge, researchers need administrative systems that can respond quickly and flexibly so that partners in vulnerable situations are safeguarded.

So far, the outlook is bleak. The Global Challenges Research Fund, which prompted our work, has been cancelled. What—if anything—will replace it is not clear. As things stand, UKRI has steered academics towards a research agenda and left them hanging. 

Nora Parr is a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham and a co-Investigator on the Global Challenges Research Fund Rights for Time research network

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight