Ethical data collection during Covid-19 and why we should not ‘return to normal’ by the CRUNCH hub team

By Nikita Yasmin Shah, Trisha Chauhan, Hiba Ahmad, Marcus Cox, Angelique Lecorps

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted normal approaches towards data collection for research and evaluations. Due to varying international responses to the pandemic, the globe has experienced various degrees of lockdowns, travel bans and restrictions on movement. Faced with restrictions on travel and risks to researchers and participants of in-person data collection, we modified our approach to field work and research, adding a level of complexity to the way in which we engage with the organisations and communities we support. Though the pandemic presented logistical and relational challenges to research and evaluation projects, equally important was grappling with the ethical challenges it raised. In this blog, the Agulhas CRUNCH team reflects on the ethical questions and considerations we must confront as the world adapts to remote data collection, and what we can learn from this new way of working. As well as challenges, we see opportunities to change the way we work for the better, including renewing our focus on people-centred approaches that align with the agenda for localisation and decolonising development. Perhaps now is the time to develop a ‘new normal’, rather than assume we can (or should) plan to return to the old ways of working when the Covid-19 pandemic recedes.

A people-centred approach to crisis

As development practitioners, we collect data from citizens who are directly or indirectly impacted by development programming and policies on the ground. Methods including key informant interviews, focus groups, town halls, surveys and more are used to understand their perspectives, and triangulated with other data to evaluate the impact of programmes. Though it is important to adapt to the current circumstances, we need to take a moment to reflect on how we have collected primary data on the ground to date.

It is important that we engage with citizens in a meaningful way, to bridge the gap between programme and policy development, and what people in the countries we work with see as important to their livelihoods. Without doing so, we risk supplanting the needs of communities with the needs of a few individuals or specific groups. For example, a recent evaluation in Ghana highlighted that engaging with citizens had not been a systemic part of the design process for the programmes we evaluated. This risked leaving behind the views of communities that would directly or indirectly benefit from programming.

Engaging with citizens in a meaningful way throughout the process of evaluating programme impacts is essential, and not just in times of crisis. In any climate – remote or not – indicators used to interpret development programme interventions’ impacts can sometimes fail to capture social and cultural losses, including biodiversity and monetised losses caused by climate breakdown. Too often, when marginalised people are engaged in the M&E process their experiences and losses are situated and positioned within a neo-colonial context and understating of issues. Experiences may be tokenised, as tropes of noble savages fighting for the land, or as potential horror stories of barbarism to come, with mass migration and overpopulation reconfiguring the established status quo of use of space on this earth. More than ever, a decolonial lens is required to tease out the human stories which are not usually given enough space. Thus, there is a need to ground these stories outside of Northern-imposed perspectives on what it means to live in crisis, including those affected by pandemics, racial injustice, violent conflicts or the climate breakdown.

In the context of the climate crisis, the sheer complexity of the issue requires rigorous indicators covering environmental issues from both scientific and social perspectives. It is therefore crucial that scientists and evaluators work across the spectrum on weaving together these human stories and experiences with the science needed to help in mitigating and adapting to what is to come, and to use M&E as a tool to tie together the quantitative and qualitative science of surviving crises.

Using meaningful ‘do no harm’ approaches, centred around people, is important for all programming, particularly in times of crisis when working on issues that could invoke trauma. Practitioners often think, ‘what is the value added to the programme, policy or evaluation?’ But when using a people centred approach, we should be asking questions like ‘what is the value added of this engagement exercise to the citizens? If we engage with this community, what will they be getting from this engagement?’ If practitioners find that in fact, the exercise will not add any value, we can begin to consider whether this type of exercise should be conducted at all. Instead, might it be possible to use secondary sources? Applying a people centred approach means ensuring that these questions are rigorously applied to the evaluation process, ensuring the right balance is struck between reflective, accurate data and an evaluation outcome with valuable insights that can truly improve the lives of citizens.

Too often, engaging with citizens is seen as a tick box exercise, the same way gender once was and often still is. If we really want to make a difference, to bridge the gap, and commit to the localisation agenda in times of crisis, it is vital that our approach to engaging with citizens is centred around the people affected.

Risks and opportunities in research

The global Covid-19 pandemic is giving rise to a welcome and long-overdue shift towards ‘localisation’ in the delivery of research for international development. Traditionally, national researchers have been consigned to secondary roles – often just enumerators completing survey forms, rarely contributing much analytical content, and almost never the principal investigators with a voice in what should be researched and how. With restrictions on international travel lasting longer than national lockdown measures, the international community will now need to entrust more of its research to national actors, creating new opportunities for individual researchers, firms and institutes.

This is a positive development in a number of ways. Building up research capacity in developing countries is undoubtedly a good thing, creating a foundation for improved domestic policy making. It may also help to plug gaps in knowledge. Relying on international researchers creates blind spots, as there are inevitably places they cannot go, issues they cannot discuss and local dynamics they are not well positioned to understand. Localisation is key to ensuring this knowledge is valued and applied.

But the shift towards national researchers also creates some transitional challenges that will need to be carefully managed. If there is a scramble among international donors to commission research from a relatively limited pool of national research organisations, the available capacity may be pulled in too many directions. Coordination among those commissioning the research will be essential to help to address this risk.

Despite this welcome shift to localisation of delivery, Covid-19 has increased risks in other areas of research. On top of tough existing ethical standards and donor fiduciary requirements, there are public health risks involved in travelling around a country or bringing people together for focus groups. Furthermore, as some personnel continue to work remotely, the lack of face-to-face interaction, or a return to the office after a field visit, adds to the difficulty in detecting any potential concerns or trauma among staff and partners prior to, and after, deployment.

Shifting to virtual methods reduces the health risks, but heightens other challenges, including gaining access to vulnerable or marginalised groups without biasing the sample, and ensuring the confidentiality of participants and their responses. Virtual methods used for interviews and focus groups can create a sense of distance and, depending on the circumstances or target audience, may not be conducive to creating the necessary climate of trust for effective, objective and transparent evaluation work. The authenticity and accuracy of some of the findings might therefore be called into question by donors when conducted with lockdown measures in place.

Besides ensuring that the information shared verbally and digitally is secure and does not expose staff and respondents to security and reputational risks, organisations must still ensure they are not putting partner organisations or interviewees at risk by engaging with them in the first place (such as in the context of research on gender-based violence) and that the data collected has not been influenced by individuals present at the time of the call, or aware of the interview. Due diligence processes are essential when operating with third party companies for travel, security support or to conduct research, so as to ensure their approach to risks matches your own.

In a context where the usual assurance processes are difficult to apply, donors will need to trust their local research partners to assess and manage these risks appropriately. Developing trust is a key part of the localisation agenda that will require a culture shift in the relationship between funders and researchers.

Reimagining a return to normal or creating a new normal?

Crises are inherently fraught with challenges; transitional, economic, health, security and many more. But in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, like the climate crisis, it can also present us with unique opportunities. When presented with a drastically different reality to what we have known, we have the opportunity to imagine solutions beyond the norm. Through being forced to work differently, we may learn in ways we had not expected from people we had not considered, and we must use these lessons to reimagine what normal should look like. We can choose to reframe, refocus, and re-evaluate our own practises and approaches, and reflect on whether a return to ‘normal’ is really what we want to achieve in the coming year.

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