Dr Philippa Smales and Anna Noonan

Research and evaluation across the international development sector is increasingly moving away from the traditional paradigm of researchers as the expert knowledge-holders and participants as the ‘researched’, the passive subjects of the research. Contemporary research methodologies and research ethics demand a recalibration of power dynamics between researchers and ethical committee, as well as researchers and their ‘subjects’.

There are many Codes and frameworks that set the benchmark for ethical research across Universities, industry and government in Australia, but these are still heavily derived from historical biomedical research ethics, not from a contemporary development context. Salla Sariola and Bob Simpson (Research as Development, 2019) argue that due to that the changing nature of international development, and emphasis on co-design and participatory creation of knowledge in these frameworks are no longer ‘fit for purpose’ and do not easily ‘map straightforwardly’. Since 2012, the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) and the Research for Development Impact Network (RDI Network) has been developing its own set of Principles and Guidelines for Ethical Research and Evaluation for International Development. These Principles and Guidelines were developed with the intention of translating these broad frameworks into a more sector-specific format to better inform and guide Australia’s international development research setting, and have been recently updated.

It is not simply enough to have these guidelines. Attention must also be paid to how they are integrated into research practice. To date, the most common mechanisms used to implement ethical frameworks rely heavily on compliance models or what Guillemin and Gillam call “procedural ethics” (Ethics, Reflexivity, and “Ethically Important Moments” in Research, 2004). Procedural ethics here refers to the process whereby prior to commencement research projects require a formal ‘ethics’ review and clearance from a Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC). In Australia, this mechanism is used predominantly by Universities and enforced by large research funding bodies including the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council (ARC). Those non-profit, non-government and other research organisations that have adopted the same mechanism either engage with these review processes through partnerships with Universities (for example Oxfam-Monash partnership) or have smaller scale ‘in-house’ processes that perform the same function (for example Family Planning NSW).

A critical and perhaps cynical view of ethics reviews held by ethicists Michael McDonald, Susan Cox, and Anne Townsend (Human Subjects Research Regulation: Perspectives on the Future, 2014) is that ethics reviews have drifted from a commitment to protecting the integrity of research to a risk management mechanism to ‘protect’ research institutions and funders. Guillemin and Gillam (2004) propose a more moderate view that at the very least, the process of obtaining ethics review and clearance prior to a research project commencing still does offer researchers a ‘checklist’. This ensures their proposed research methodologies, protocols and planned activities align with ethical considerations and principles, and gives an opportunity to seek further guidance on complex, particularly sensitive or high-risk research environments. However, they also argue that this is still insufficient, leaving a gap between procedural ethics and ethics in practice.

Compliance-driven approaches to ethical research practice –or procedural ethics – focus heavily on establishing a set of rules or requirements which tend to be instructive and thus easier to follow (by the researcher), easier to monitor (by research supervisor) and manage if breached (by the organisation).  These requirements are also easier to communicate clearly, regulate and manage within a research organisation as well as with country-based researchers, field offices, partners, subcontractors and consultants. Procedural ethics works from an organisational perspective because it operationalises abstract principles or values into a set of rules that can be followed by people within the organisation. These rules then form the organisational normative structure (ie what is normal for the organisation) and processes of review and regulation can be built around it. However, does the process of applying for ethics approval at the outset of a project really contribute to ethical research practice in the field? This question is especially pertinent as we start to focus more on locally led development.

Participatory research experts argue that while formal regulation of ethical procedures affords participants, researchers and institutions a level of protection. However, it is the responsibility of researchers themselves to be aware of the how to respond to ethical dilemmas that may arise in the implementation of the research. Finally, these changing dynamics between researchers and ‘participants’, and increasing emphasis on co-production of, or of locally led research, means that traditional biomedical ethical concepts are challenged by cultural perspectives and local contexts.

All of this has important implications for learning and teaching. As future practitioners and researchers, it is important that students are given the opportunity to reflect how to move beyond compliance-driven approaches towards a more meaningful engagement with the ethics of research in/for development.