Ethics during a global pandemic

RDI Network
October 2021
7 min read

The impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic have brought to the fore ethical considerations about how international development is conducted, and opportunities to re-orient how development can be more ethical and locally-led in the future.  

  • Development practitioners are considering the implications of travel restrictions on their work. This includes how to build or sustain relationships of trust with partners, staff and communities when in-person contact is restricted. Practitioners have also had to address how to ensure their understanding of the local context and connection with realities on the ground is not lost. Development researchers and program staff have had to turn to remote methods to foster solidarity, and collaboratively design research, collect and analyze data. 
  • The pandemic has also raised challenges to ensuring methodological rigor while minimizing harm to researchers and participants. Activities were suspended or altered to address the immediate risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. As a result, researchers have faced data gaps in longitudinal studies, reduced sample sizes, among challenges to data gathering and analysis. This has heightened the importance of maintaining research integrity, for instance by clarifying research limitations and triangulating results. 
  • Researchers returning to the field encounter ethical dilemmas about addressing the immediate needs of communities affected by the pandemic. Faced with expectations that they help, researchers risk damaging relationships and participant cooperation. At the same time, doing so may upset local dynamics, or lead to questions about the researcher’s impartiality. Researchers are addressing this by being conscious of how local conditions have been reshaped by the pandemic and altering how research is conducted according to the community’s needs and challenges. 
  • Technology has provided a means of continuing work remotely during the pandemic but potentially reinforces uneven power dynamics in development processes. It relies on access to strong telecommunications systems, so that already marginalized populations are excluded or carry additional burdens to take part in research. Researchers are concerned with ensuring equitable participant recruitment and understanding the differential impact of COVID. 
  • Conducting research through digital platforms also presents challenges in terms of ensuring privacy and confidentiality. Phone or online interviews conducted from home for instance, may be overheard and background conversation may be recorded. Researchers must consider the security of the platforms they increasingly rely on, as well as ensure that participants are provided with informed consent and the ability to withdraw from research. 
  • Development organizations face decisions about resuming international deployment. These decisions are made in the context of differing pandemic related regulations between countries, further waves and variants of COVID-19, as well as the development and distribution of the vaccine and treatment. They also factor in the importance of not increasing the stress on overwhelmed medical systems and assessing risk on an individual basis. However, there are concerns that individual consultants, smaller and local organizations may be more exposed to risk. It has also led to reevaluating whether international deployment is necessary.
  • Development practitioners have also had to face questions of how to maintain ethical conduct with reduced funding and concerns about future grant availability. Although conducting work remotely reduces international travel costs, it comes with increased logistical costs and communication needs, and there are concerns that local partners may be expected to absorb the additional time and resources required. There is the need for changes in funding and contractual arrangements that support local-led 
  • The pandemic is reshaping the development challenges and how they are approached. Researchers are conscious of dynamic impact of the pandemic, including how responses to the pandemic have disproportionate social and economic impacts. The pandemic also interacts with humanitarian and ongoing development challenges such as climate change, highlighting the need for transdisciplinary approaches. 
  • Finally, the pandemic presents opportunities to improve ethical awareness and conduct in international development. Development organizations can use this time to improve ethical research capacity through training and online platforms, including capacity development for local researchers. The pandemic has also provided further impetus for international development to shift to more equitable partnerships, the localization of development, and the decolonization of knowledge.

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