How can we make research in the “Global South” more ethical?

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How to ethically conduct research in what is often called the Global South has become an increasingly controversial topic. Even terms such as “fieldwork” have been argued to be problematic with many opting to use other phrases such as “in-country research” instead. Here the Ethics in Development Research project explain some of the key issues and what we can do about them. This article draws on their broader research and an article that elaborates on the ethical challenges faced by research staff in the context of the rising number of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) taking place today.

The rise of in-country research projects in the Global South is linked to emerging ethical challenges regarding research staff

Across disciplines, the Global South has in recent years developed into a research hotspot for in-country research. This has been spurred by the call for more rigorous evidence of development programs and the randomization movement in economics, which involves intensive data collection in the Global South. Also, there is a growing number of social science master’s programs, which implore students to investigate the often overlooked Global South.

Most of these research projects involve survey- or interview-based primary data collection by local and international research staff in countries of the Global South.

The Belmont Report from 1978 outlines the fundamental principles that should guide ethical human subject research worldwide. The ethics guidelines of many scientific associations (e.g., the American Sociological Association and the American Political Science Association) reflect the Belmont Report and Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) take these principles as a basis to assess whether proposed research projects meet ethical standards. However, the focus of the application of these principles predominantly lies on safeguarding and protecting study participants. While participants are usually the most vulnerable stakeholders and protecting them is of primary importance, research staff both from the Global South and North have largely been neglected in this ethical discussion.

However, the central principle of “do no harm” as brought forward in the Belmont Report should equally be applied to the staff conducting the research. Our project on “Ethics in Development Research” aims at identifying the potential ethical challenges faced by local and international research staff at different hierarchical positions. By critically assessing existing guidelines and practices, we intend to create a base for jointly developing ethical norms and guidance. Within the framework of this project, we conducted a systematic review of the literature as well as in-depth qualitative interviews to gain a more comprehensive picture of the ethical challenges that may impair the physical and emotional wellbeing of research staff conducting in-country research.

A focus on deprived and vulnerable settings is associated with risks to physical integrity

Research projects in the Global South are often implemented in vulnerable and deprived contexts that are characterized by high poverty and crime rates with limited state capacity. Research staff may face risks to their physical safety, including violent conflicts or research in (post)-disaster settings. These issues may be exacerbated by international staff, who are often unfamiliar with the local context, including customs, security situations and procedures. While international research staff may leave volatile contexts after the completion of data collection, local researchers might be exposed to greater risk after the finalization of the research, e.g., due to political persecution. Other threats to physical integrity affect staff from the Global South and North equally, including risks associated with traffic accidents, natural disasters, communicable diseases or sexual harassment.

While proper risk assessments may lead to the rejection of some research projects, the implication is not necessarily to conduct less research in vulnerable settings. Rather, it is important that we engage in a more comprehensive analysis of the context in close cooperation with local stakeholders. Especially, in unstable contexts, more generous time schedules and detailed preparation are needed to enable research staff to be more responsive to emerging risks. Research ethics trainings should be included in curricula to adequately prepare students for potential research stays. These trainings should include issues arising particularly in collaborations between the Global South and North. Given that academics are often inexperienced in project management, their staff leadership and management decisions may turn into ethical challenges and exacerbate the security situation, for instance by being unconscious about local customs or the local security situation. Professionalized administrative support structures and focused training can help alleviate these issues.

The psychological burden for research staff imposes a less visible, but equally relevant challenge

Less visible but often not less harmful to the individual, is the emotional burden for staff involved in research in the Global South. In addition to security threats, works schedules are often overly ambitious due to short-term visits of international researchers, limited budgets or political pressures. Those circumstances create a high-stress environment with long working days and inadequate time for breaks. Furthermore, exposure to the life circumstances and stories of interviewees often take an emotional toll on the interviewers. Role conflicts between the objective, non-intervening researcher and the researcher as a human being can lead to serious distress. This is especially acute because research projects are often not able to provide any direct short-term relief, leaving researchers feeling powerless to help.  For research staff who belong to the local community, these conflicting demands of rigorous research and humanitarian assistance are particularly challenging. Taken together, these factors may result in depression, burnout or secondary trauma.

Proper preparation of research staff before the research starts is of the utmost importance in order to reduce emotional burden and to prepare staff for the potentiality of role conflicts. After days of primary data collection, it is beneficial to offer an emotional outlet for research staff to debrief about challenging or rewarding circumstances. The opportunity to seek professional psychological care should be offered as well as the instalment of regular feedback loops and close supervision.

Research projects may result in working conditions that violate the SDG 8 for decent work

High unemployment rates in many countries of the Global South lead local staff to agree to unfavorable working conditions with little bargaining power. Hence, there is the risk of sustained episodes of exploitative employment. The short-term nature of most research projects often leaves local research staff with short-term employment perspectives without adequate capacity building opportunities. Additionally, despite the risky conditions, tight budgets often do not cover health or social insurance of local staff.

In order to credibly advocate human development, we need to openly address exploitative working conditions, primarily (but not only) those for local research staff. These question are ultimately linked to power dynamics in international research collaboration, both between and within the Global South and North.

Ideas are lost due to existing power structures

Collaborative research between the Global North and South are frequently characterized by inherent power structures. This oftentimes leads to situations in which international researchers claim the main credit for the research and engage in so-called “helicopter research”, which extracts knowledge without providing proper credit to local contributors. The latter are considered as mere assistants rather than co-authors. Furthermore, most research projects conducted in the Global South are still led by principal investigators from the Global North who have the authority over budgets and implementation details. These constellations may result in neo-colonial power structures.

To break apart inherent power structures, the discussion needs to also listen to “silent voices” and include perspectives of research staff at lower hierarchical levels. More importantly, researchers from the Global South need to start getting opportunities to be included as co-authors. Here, a broader discussion on what qualifies a person as a co-author and on how data is shared between local and international research partners is urgently needed.

So, what now? How can we start tackling these ethical challenges?

An open discussion of the potential ethical challenges that might arise in research projects in the Global South is the first important step. This includes awareness building at all different levels of stakeholders, including funding agencies, research institutions, and local staff. While no one-size-fits-all approach is possible, an exchange across disciplines and organizations can facilitate peer-to-peer learning from actors with a proven track record of responsible in-country research. In the long term, context-specific guidelines and professionalized support structures need to be established to promote better research practice. However, as ethical challenges ask for individual judgement, no safeguard can fully substitute a reflective research conduct and continuous context-specific deliberations.

Jana Kuhnt is a researcher at the Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (German Development Institute). She has field research experience in public health in Pakistan and has conducted field research in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda with a focus on migration and refugee populations.

Janina Steinert is an Assistant Professor at the Technical University of Munich and an associate researcher at the University of Oxford. Her field research experience in global health focused on India and South Africa.

Lennart Kaplan is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Göttingen and associate researcher of the Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (German Development Institute). Previously, he conducted public health field research in Indonesia.

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