A New Era: Updating the Ethical Principles and Guidelines

Topics DFAT/policy engagement | Ethical research and evaluation | Research and evaluation methods | Tools & Guidance

A lot of things have changed in international development since 2013, when the Principles for Ethical Research and Evaluation in Development were first released. There is more discussion about the humanitarian-development nexus due to ongoing protracted crises; localisation, gender equality and empowerment of women and girls   have become a focus; and the COVID-19 pandemic has cut off travel and forever changed the way that development organisations operate.  

This year, the RDI Network, in partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) finalised an Ethical Research and Evaluation Guidance Note for as a step towards supporting the implementation of ethical research and evaluation.  

In parallel, the RDI Network updated its Principles for Ethical Research and Evaluation in Development in August 2021. Updating the Principles and Guidelines was a chance to refresh, and to dive deeper into areas that have come up repeatedly from both ACFID (Australian Council for International Development) and RDI Network members as areas of concern or where more information was requested.  

COVID-19 has intensified the challenges regarding research and evaluation ethics. Now, there are heightened risks to both the participants and the researcher due to the shift from evidence generation in-person to remote methods. Research and evaluation activities across the international development sector have been and will continue to be affected by the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is therefore an imperative that, that organisations use the updated Principles and Guidelines to ensure the activities are ethical in their approach to new pandemic-appropriate methodologies.  

The updated Principles and Guidelines includes a new section on competence in ethical practice. This includes ethically working with partners and consultants, as organisations move towards localisation, and do less of the implementation of research and evaluation themselves. Development response in the current context also requires more adaptive management skills, therefore fostering a culture of ethical inquiry within organisations has become essential as well. This is also covered in the update.  

Best practice is no longer simply about research ‘doing no harm,’ it is about doing no harm while also contributing meaningfully to a wider development impact agenda. The challenge with contemporary approaches to more inclusive and mutually beneficial international development research practice is the demand it puts on researchers and their organisations in relation to ethical practice. 

Research and evaluation are increasingly moving away from the traditional paradigm of researchers as the expert knowledge-holders, and participants as the passive subjects of the research. Researchers not only have a responsibility to design and undertake research ethically, but also to understand cultural nuance, negotiate intrinsic power imbalances and manage the expectation that the research will also benefit or enhance the lives or experiences of the participants.  

While Codes and frameworks certainly set the benchmark for ethical research across universities, industry, and government in Australia and internationally, it is also important to acknowledge that these are still heavily derived from historical biomedical research ethics. Due to that the changing nature of international development, and emphasis on co-design and participatory creation of knowledge, these frameworks are no longer ‘fit for purpose.’  

In response, the updated sector-specific Principles and Guidelines and the accompanying suite of tools, templates, and resources are freely accessible. The broad aim to bridge the gap for contemporary development contexts, and to ensure a framework that will be usable and fit for purpose. Underpinning this work is a strong emphasis on shifting away from a culture of compliance to a culture of ethical inquiry.  

A culture of ethical inquiry encourages those working in international development and humanitarian aid to build their own individual competence and confidence in ethical decision-making. As stated in the UK Department for International Development (DFID) 2019 Ethical Guidance for Research Evaluation and Monitoring Activities, “working ethically requires you to reflect regularly on the ethical questions raised by your work and adopt a culture of dialogue and learning. It requires you to take personal moral responsibility for acting with honesty, integrity and respect for others” (p.3).  

A culture of ethical inquiry means that instead of viewing ‘ethics’ as a set of rules or regulations, or even a paperwork trail, practitioners and researchers are instead encouraged to think both critically and reflectively about possible ethical issues that may arise during research and evaluation. It is also about those working in international development and humanitarian aid having the confidence to respond ethically, effectively, and with regards to other organisational policies and requirements. 

Much of international development work relies upon the strong and trusting relationships between development practitioners, local partners, and communities. It is therefore the hope of the RDI Network that the updated Principles and Guidelines can assist all partners to adhere to and to adapt their ethical practice, to ensure continuing trusting relationships no matter what the next few years throw at us.