It's Complicated: An Initial Guide to Investigations in the Global South - Part 2 - HUMINT



Following my prior post on OSINT in the Global South, in this post, I aim to survey some key considerations around analyzing human source intelligence (HUMINT) in the Global South. This is not meant to be an exhaustive or comprehensive review. Rather, I seek to highlight to key points of critical import to both investigators and their clients operating in regions like Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Ultimately, my hope is that both this post and our prior one on OSINT will help bridge the expectations gap that's so often present when companies and investigators from outside these regions seek to conduct or manage investigations in them.


Above all, you should understand the operating environment in order to understand the results of your inquiries. What I term "operating environment" has a rather broad meaning and encompasses a number of realities and influences on your sources. Here are some key areas to understand that will provide context for interpreting findings :

  • Media landscape: The state of the media landscape can affect your sources' perceptions of events on the ground. Indices like those produced by Reporters sans Frontières may help provide some basic understanding. However, ultimately, one should have some sense of the general media climate and its level of polarization and freedom. Are there many media outlets? Are they privately owned (by whom?) or state-owned? Do they operate freely? Is the media landscape dominated by state-owned outlets, which may be biased and/or unreliable?

The media landscape is inevitably shaped by the political realities on the ground. After all, in-country journalists are also subject to the same operating environment. Here indices like the one produced by Freedom House may be instructive. However, there is no substitute for understanding the political and geopolitical realities on the ground. Does the state have a significant influence (or even censorship rights) regarding what is reported in media? Is the government tolerant of dissenting opinions?


The media landscape may even be affected by geopolitical realities beyond the borders of the country in question. For instance, state-owned media can be used to wield soft power by foreign actors and influence perceptions across borders. By way of example, of relevance in Sub-Saharan Africa is the fact that the "top 10" countries where RT and Sputnik are the most followed outlets by estimated monthly audience reportedly include: Cameroon, Mali, Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, DRC, Senegal, and Madagascar. In short, the media we consume/have access to (and how we consume it) inevitably influence how we view local and international events and this is also true of your sources in any HUMINT exercise.

  • Ethnic, religious, regional, or social tensions: Many areas of the Global South are characterized by tensions between ethnic groups, religions, regions, and/or social classes. It is important to keep such tensions in mind when collecting intelligence and analyzing it. Whether collas and cambas in Bolivia; Igbo and Hausa-Fulani in Nigeria; Luo and Kikuyu in Kenya; or even competing urban elites from Panama City and Colon, one should be aware that such tensions or conflicts can color the perceptions of one's sources, often in complex ways. Your source may "have an axe to grind" if he/she is of a rival ethnic, religious, or social group than your subject. Still, it's also important to recall that ascertaining ethnic affiliation is not always straightforward.


  • Profile of the source: While it is not always feasible due to budgetary and time constraints, ideally, analysis of HUMINT should be informed by a source profile. The source's biases, past experiences, perceptions of the subject(s), motivations, socio-religio-ethnic affiliation, and reliability are all important to understand and bear in mind when collecting and analyzing HUMINT.


  • Culture: Culture will inevitably influence how sources speak and what they are willing to talk about. Often, our risk advisory projects involve asking sensitive questions about powerful people in operating environments where the culture (and other factors listed above) make this task extremely difficult if not dangerous.

Hofstede's theory of cultural dimensions is often employed in the context of cross-cultural communication and management, but I would argue it applies to HUMINT work as well. For instance, Hofstede's Power Distance Index (0-100) measures, in essence, the degree to which differences in power (and unequal distributions of it) in society and institutions are accepted by the less powerful. Cultures with a higher power distance are those in which power relations tend to be more paternalistic, hierarchical, and autocratic.


In cultures with high power distance, inequality is often accepted and there is a high degree of dependence on those who hold power. These are cultures where sources will tend to exhibit a natural deference to powerful people and authority figures. It's not difficult to see how such a dynamic would complicate collecting HUMINT on powerful or well-connected figures.


This is particularly true in the regions like Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa, Hofstede's estimates show only South Africa (49) having a power distance below 60 with the vast majority of African countries in the 70+ range. In Latin America, Costa Rica (35) is the outlier with even lower power distance than the US (40). Setting aside Argentina (49), the remaining Latin American countries are in the 60+ range on the Power Distance Index.


Culture can easily combine with other factors in the operating environment further curtailing sources' willingness to speak freely and leading to a dynamic of self-censorship. Quite simply, sources will generally be less willing to speak in places with more autocratic state presence, absence of rule of law, high levels of violence, or pervasive state surveillance. It's also worth considering that many countries in the Global South treat libel as a criminal offense rather than a mere tort. These cultural dynamics often lead sources in some jurisdictions to speak about sensitive topics indirectly via innuendo or subtext. In many jurisdictions, the closest to a direct answer you can get will require you to "read between the lines."


Especially in the Global South, understanding the operating environment is key to understanding the results of any HUMINT exercise (as well as to its planning and execution). If you are asking about someone involved in business with the government it also helps to understand if this is being done in a country with a decades-long history of autocracy; pervasive state surveillance; state control of key industries; a history of ethnic conflict; concentration of the population in few urban centers, etc. Otherwise, one can easily miss the forest for the trees and fail to understand critical strategic implications for the subjects, key players, and even the client.