COVID-19: A challenge but also an opportunity to promote ethical in-country research

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Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that many in our global community have greatly suffered – and that this suffering has not been equally distributed. Besides the millions of people dying, COVID-19 has had immense adverse economic and social implications, including an increase in poverty, inequality, repression or domestic violence. While the pandemic is far from over, is is important to discuss how we can start to “build back better”.

To guide the recovery, innovations and evidence-based policies are needed. However, the pandemic has also induced a further increase in the scarcity of data on Africa and other regions in what is often referred to as the “Global South”. In turn, this has negatively affected our knowledge and hence the ability of politicians, bureaucrats and academics to design more effective policies.

As the pandemic unfolded many research projects involving in-country research were stopped and postponed. This also adversely affected the livelihoods and working conditions of numerous in-country research staff (for a note on why we do not use the term “fieldwork”, see the Introduction to this series).

We need to pro-actively approach these challenges in order to prevent unethical research practices, and this will involve taking into account the way that the pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges around job insecurity, the emotional burden of research, the limited consideration that is still given to local context, and the need for a better – and fairer – research environment.

Job losses and limited bargaining power

Many in-country research staff lost their main source of income when research activities were cut down or entirely stopped. This increased their vulnerability and the risk of falling into poverty. Due to the inequalities of the global knowledge economy, many in-country staff work on fixed-term contracts tied to a specific research activity with no or limited social insurance. 

It is likely that the pandemic will further worsen the position of in-country research staff before it is over. In turn, this risks undermining their bargaining power when COVID-19 recedes. One particular risk that this is likely to exacerbate is the danger that researchers without proper health insurance and support feel financially compelled to engage in data collection in contexts in which the pandemic has not been fully brought under control.

Additional emotional burden

The global research community has identified ways to continue to collect information during the pandemic, mostly relying on phone surveys to collect data (for a good overview on resources, please see ODI). However, while these strategies come with certain benefits, they also generate additional ethical challenges, especially when it comes to research participants.

On the positive side, the geographical distance to participants might reduce the risk that they feel pressured into participating – a particularly serious issue with vulnerable and poor participants, as discussed elsewhere in this series. On the other hand, this distance might also reduce the opportunities to ensure that respondents have access to adequate support and referral structures. This can both harm research participants and lead to feelings of guilt among the in-country researchers who are closest to them.

Similarly, while innovations in data collection (including digitizing informed consent) can improve the situation for respondents, several issues remain unresolved. COVID-19 has pushed even more people into poverty increasing the frequency with which interviewers meet people in desperate need for help. As a result, those collecting data may suffer from additional emotional hardship. Even before the pandemic, structures to adequately support research staff in dealing with emotionally burdensome interviews were often lacking and this situation is unlikely to improve in the short-term.

Limited consideration of local context

Due to the funding structure of development research, projects are usually designed and led by principal investigators from Western countries. Particularly when it comes to research on African countries, projects are conducted by external researchers without an affiliation to an African institution.

Partly as a result, there is ample evidence that local knowledge is not sufficiently considered, and that international research projects do not always respond appropriately to local contexts. By hampering international travel, it is likely that the pandemic will lead to even less consideration of local specificities, making it even harder to overcome existing intellectual and financial hierarchies. 

The pandemic recovery: An impetus for a better research environment?

While large parts of the world are still in the midst of fighting the pandemic, research programmes in Africa, particularly on the effects of COVID-19, have started to resume activities. Instead of returning to established, oftentimes ethically challenging research practices, these projects need to adjust practices constantly to the changing ethical and safety demands of the pandemic.

This includes the fact that authoritarian governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to extend restrictions of research activities and access for researchers, increasing the risks they face.

But the global research community should also go well beyond this to more fundamentally re-think the way in which international partnerships are structured, and to increase the capacity of in-country researchers to set the intellectual agenda and specify ethical red lines. 

The pandemic has created greater incentives to strengthen international collaboration. Given travel restrictions and unpredictable local conditions, it has revealed the advantages of more balanced and long-term research partnerships. But this needs to be done in a way that challenges, rather than reinforces, existing inequalities.

For example, the shift towards digital ways of working and online conversations has enabled research to continue under the worst possible conditions. Meanwhile, mobile phone based surveys have reduced costs and overcome logistical barriers.

These are positive developments if they are used to enable in-country researchers to have a greater say over the framing of research questions and methodological design, and to conduct research outside of funding that has originated outside of Africa. But there is also a risk that the ability to implement research projects digitally will create further distance between researchers in different parts of the world – and so make it less likely that the challenges faced by in-country researchers are felt by those in Europe and North America and hence fully taken into account.

The need for action

In other words, the opportunities created by the developments that have taken place during the pandemic will not materialize by default. On the contrary, without careful and focussed efforts by researchers from all backgrounds they may actually make the situation worse. The social sciences community should therefore consider the pandemic as an opportunity to change inequitable structures, but one that will only be realised with the conscious and active engagement of those working in the countries that currently provide the vast majority of research funding.

International organizations and funding agencies have to take responsibility to push for higher standards, more equitable partnerships, and a greater sharing of resources and opportunities – but they are unlikely to do this unless they are put under pressure to do so from researchers and academic bodies around the world. This responsibility, ultimately, belongs to us all.

Jana Kuhnt is a researcher at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut fuer Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) where she focuses on topics in the area of migration and displacement, social cohesion and impact evaluation.

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

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