Navigating the Ethics of Field Research in International Development


Researchers in international development often conduct field surveys. Throughout the survey process, from design to dissemination of findings, we must adhere to ethical practices at all times. Ethical considerations are essential components of responsible research, and it is our responsibility to ensure that our field work is conducted ethically and with the utmost care and respect for the communities and individuals from whom we collect data.

Adhering to ethics is a must, not a choice. At minimum we should:

  1. Complete a human research protection training. This training covers a wide variety of topics, including the history of human research protection, informed consent, protecting vulnerable populations and data confidentiality. By taking this training, you will gain a good understanding of your ethical obligations and will be better equipped to deal with ethical issues throughout your field research. At EDI Global, we all take this training and have regular refreshers. The training is an excellent opportunity to learn about ethics and explore aspects you had not previously looked at. It only takes a couple of hours (and there are many free options), see Office for Human Research Protections, Panel on Research Ethics, UK Medical Research Council, FHI 360, etc.
  2. Obtain approval from a research ethics committee and other relevant authorities. Navigating this process can be challenging, which is why collaborations with local research organizations are so important. Rather than viewing this process as a constraint, it should be seen as an opportunity to engage in regular, productive discussions with review boards who have extensive in-country experience. In this blog post, my colleagues share their experience in acquiring IRB approval from local Ugandan institutions. This document by Mawazo Learning Exchange provides guidance for Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania.
  3. Obtain informed consent from survey participants. Obtaining informed consent is key to the process of protecting survey respondents and to the validity of the research. You must obtain the informed consent of participants before collecting data from them. In this previous blog post, I listed all items your consent form should contain and explore key considerations when training and monitoring field teams. More details can also be found on these World Bank and J-PAL.
  4. Protect survey participant privacy and data. Ensuring the privacy and security of data collected in field is paramount. The first level of security is during an interview and relates to the respect of the privacy and confidentiality of the respondent. The second level is the storage of the data collected after an interview. Finally, the third level of security, is the transfer and storage of the data after the project.To ensure the anonymity of survey participants, you should remove Personally Identifiable Information (PII) to eliminate the risk that respondents’ identity can be connected with the data. PII typically are respondents’ full name, phone contact, email address, address, and GPS coordinates. Just like quantitative data sets, qualitative transcripts and translations should be de-identified, with respondents being given a Respondent ID. There are various technological options to ensure data security, such as using password protected tablets for the survey and data encryption software. However, the very first step is to ensure that your research and field teams are trained on these matters.
  5. Ensure cultural sensitivity. When conducting fieldwork, our survey participants open up their lives to us, and it is our responsibility to understand and appreciate the cultural norms, values, and beliefs that shape their experiences. Cultural sensitivity also involves understanding the power dynamics at play, and the potential impact of our research on the communities we study. Working with local research organizations or researchers and field staff from the communities in question can ensure cultural sensitivity. It’s also crucial to liaise and communicate with community leaders, particularly in rural areas and take their feedback and opinions into account when designing and conducting your study. It is a continuous process that requires constant self-reflection and learning. It is also about being open to adapting your research design, tools and methods to best fit the context studied and feedback you receive from your research partners on the ground and communities.
  6. Ensure North-South research partnerships. It is no secret that most development research is headed by researchers based in the global north. This raises important questions about fairness and representation in development research, as well as questions about the perspectives and biases that may be present in these studies. The causes for the global north’s dominance in development publications are numerous and well documented (funding, access to academic journals, language barriers, migration of global south researchers to global north research institutions, etc.) But is it fair? Definitely not. Can the research community do better? Absolutely. Collaborative research efforts between researchers from the global north and south can produce mutually beneficial outputs. Such collaborations can take many forms, including partnering with local research organizations to develop the research design, sampling approach, and culturally sensitive questionnaires that are better suited to the local context. You can also consider capacity-building initiatives to help enhance local research capabilities. It is also important to recognize and give credit to the field and on-the-ground teams who play an essential role in the research process when publishing reports and journal articles. Finally, inviting global south researchers to co-author articles is an excellent way to recognize their contributions and facilitate equitable knowledge production.
  7. Describe your fieldwork and data in your publications. Replicability is an important aspect of research ethics. Yet, most empirical papers using primary data barely mention how the data was collected. As field researchers, we know that collecting data is not easy, it takes time, money, and effort to conduct fieldwork; and the quality of data can greatly impact statistical inference. So, why not be more transparent about it? In your publications, make sure to include a section about your data. Share details about how the survey was conducted, whether it was paper or CAPI, in-person or remote, response rates, in-field sampling procedures, etc. Are there any biases that should be considered when interpreting the results? By being transparent about our data collection methods, we can not only improve the credibility of development research but also help others build upon our work.
  8. Check your study-specific ethical requirements. For example, conducting fieldwork on sensitive topics requires extra care to ensure that all ethical requirements are met and that the respondents are protected. This can include implementing strict interview protocols, such as only allowing same-sex interviews or limiting interviews to specific gender groups in certain villages. Using self-completion methods can also help to protect respondents. See more in my previous blog post. When doing fieldwork with vulnerable populations or children, check the ethical requirements and engage with review boards and relevant national bodies to ensure that all required precautions are followed. Working on sensitive themes or with vulnerable groups necessitates going above and beyond the normal ethical norms to ensure that all participants feel at ease and supported throughout the study process.

Ethics in fieldwork goes beyond a tick-box exercise, it’s about being accountable for the impact our research has on the communities and the people we work with. It’s an ongoing process, with continuous reflection and improvement. It’s important to keep in mind that the research landscape is constantly evolving, and new technologies and societal changes may require adjustments to our ethical standards. As such, we must remain vigilant and responsive to developments that could affect the ethics of our field research.

Author: Dr Johanna Choumert Nkolo, Director of Research

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