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Ethical considerations for inclusive research in the Global South

By Joel Mumo

Illustration by Lynette Gow

“They (open-ended questions) are the best types of questions to use in research because they do not confine someone to a certain point, but instead, the person will have the freedom to talk. Even things that are out of topic will play a certain role in the research process” (Male 26 years old, Kibera)

The use of experiments in social science has yielded significant gains in our knowledge of the world. However, in recent debates, sharp critiques of the power imbalances of the discipline have been made. There is a concern that populations in the Global South continue to be subjected to unceasing research without visible improvement in welfare, and that most of the research done here is not underpinned by values and principles that are important to those being researched.

However, often missing from both sides has been an empirical study of the preferences of those research participants, and the societies they belong to. As part of our commitment to racial, gender, and wider social justice, commitment to advancing the voices of research participants, and under the banner of our values of respect and purpose, Busara proposes to organize and formalize its agenda on research ethics. We will combine past learnings with new studies over the next three years to deeply understand the experiences of research participants, and find better ways of closing the loop in communication with those participants. From there, we will co-create, test, and disseminate changes to research processes and practices that improve participant welfare and uphold ever-higher standards of ethical practice.

Over the last seven years, our interactions with numerous research participants from different areas in the Global South have often left us with the impression that they are disillusioned by the purpose of research. They often ask about the importance of the research conducted in their communities, and the reasoning behind some of the decisions researchers make. For instance, we once decided to give a non-cash incentive for a project, a choice that did not augur well with some participants. They did not understand the rationale behind the selected incentive, and would have appreciated it if we had involved them in the decision process.

This perception of being left out has made participants even more skeptical of researchers, rightly so. As researchers, we need to think more critically about how we approach research in developing countries. We believe that in order to achieve meaningful development, it is critical to understand the linkages between the phenomena under study, and the local context. We must decolonize the purpose of research and build knowledge infrastructure that reflects the voices of those being researched, and which communicates to policy practitioners in the Global South. This means expanding our focus from just protecting participants, to including their voice at each stage of the research ecosystem. Going beyond the contextualization of interventions from the Global North, and spending more time thinking through the values and principles of the people we hope to serve.

To do this, we will comprehensively answer these core questions over the next three years:

  1. What are the experiences, understandings, and preferences of our research participants, when it comes to the respectfulness of our research?
  2. How can we improve the experiences of research participants, better align with their understandings, and incorporate their preferences into our research agenda in ways that make it more respectful of their dignity?
  3. What combination of protocols, measures, systems, and practices will ensure that research practitioners maintain those improvements across all research projects, including those employing remote research methods?
  4. What is the relationship between ethical practice and data quality?
  5. How do the answers to these questions vary across gender, racial, national, and economic groups?

These core questions, once addressed, will place special emphasis on participatory and qualitative research methods, to ensure we gain a deep understanding of the varied experiences of different groups of research participants. All the while taking care to include vulnerable or disempowered groups, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, low socio-economic groups, and others who face oppression and marginalization.

If a study cannot be done ethically, it should not be done at all. We cannot pursue goodness through research if at first contact we harm, unintentionally or not. As an organization we consider ethical research to be done through close and enduring partnership with the people it seeks to serve. A more just research ecosystem will bring about better evidence. Additionally, policies generated from research will be meaningful to all stakeholders providing a greater chance of achieving significant economic development. When researchers see the full dignity of those they interview, we might begin to make progress. For more information on the ethical research agenda, please refer to the Blue Paper here.

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Busara is a research and advisory firm dedicated to advancing Behavioral Science in the Global South