Blog post by Claudia Blandon, a PhD student and a Doctoral Teaching Assistant at the University of Plymouth and Internal Displacement Research Programme Research Affiliate.
Ethical approaches to conducting research in fragile contexts, particularly with participants deemed vulnerable, such as refugees and IDPs, are always a major concern. The current COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how critical it is to have a thoughtful, considered, and respectful understanding of Western do-not-harm principles and priorities when conducting research.
This post examines doctoral research in 2020 and 2021 with Afro-Colombian women who have experienced internal displacement and provides a few examples of how ethical concerns were addressed effectively. In particular, it discusses how issues related to access, consent, managing distress, inclusion, and confidentiality were perceived and managed by the researcher prior to and during initial fieldwork.
It is paramount to understand contextual perceptions of displacement that might shed light on how to find tangible solutions that address the key aspects that are triggering and sustaining displacement. In that light, it is fundamental to have a ‘more careful consideration to the contextual profiles of IDPs ‘as their experience is not necessarily similar to that of refugees’ (Cantor and Apollo, 2021). To that end, by exploring the impact of Human Rights Education (which aims to ‘promote values, beliefs and attitudes that encourage all individuals to uphold their own rights and those of others’) on notions of empowerment and agency, the research project discussed here seeks to shed light on how effective this knowledge is on empowering displaced women. Moreover, it aims to understand how knowledge of human rights impacts on contextual perceptions of displacement and empowerment and the desire to seek and sustain viable solutions to displacement. This contextual understanding of communities’ experience and views on what needs and solutions are legitimate and important to their day-today lives is vital to inform durable solutions driven by IDPs themselves (Nguya and Siddiqui, 2021). However, obtaining nuanced and contextual information about IDPs requires access to populations who are likely to be hidden or hard to reach and the use of ethical and inclusive methodological approaches. Although these requirements present challenges in ‘normal’ times, COVID-19 has heightened the need to be more thoughtful and considerate when conducting research with vulnerable populations and in the context of political crisis such as the one currently unfolding in Colombia (Time, 2021; AP News, 2021; BBC News, 2021; PBS, 2021).
Initial Ethical Considerations and Challenges
This project adheres to the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) code of ethics that comply with dominant conceptions of social research ethics that are centred on principles of do-not-harm, inclusion, and consent. It is simultaneously using participatory approaches that seek to ‘equalise relationships between the researcher and the researched’ (Hammersley and Traianou, 2014, p.1), and to recognise participants’ agency in the research process. This approach requires ‘a critical analysis of how inequalities might influence judgements of beneficence or harm, and hence the ‘permissibility of the research’ (Qureshi, 2011, p. 97 as cited in Fox et al., 2020, p. 4).
Early reflections reveal several ethical concerns and challenges while using a participatory approach, including the use of gate keepers (in this case organisations delivering HRE programmes) to gain access to participants, obtaining informed consent, managing participants’ distress, issues of inclusion, and confidentiality.
Using Gate Keepers
Prior to COVID-19, the research methodology included a scoping visit to Colombia to identify and establish working relationships with local HRE organisations. However, because of travel restrictions, all recruitment and fieldwork has occurred online. Unsurprisingly, initial responses from potential organisations have been slow. Those who have engaged with the research have done so sporadically as HRE training has been side-lined to provide urgent and relevant support to the women with whom they work.
To overcome this challenge, a purposive group of gate keepers was used based on the researcher’s personal network. Also, being mindful of organisations’ limited time and resources, the use of clear and concise language in initial communications has proven to be beneficial in terms of recruitment. It is vital to offer clear information about the potential benefits and disadvantages of taking part in the research project to both organisations and participants.
Obtaining Informed Consent
Obtaining informed consent has also been difficult as information needs to be distributed through local organisations. Because recruitment is not directly managed by the researcher, a succinct and clear information sheet has been developed to inform potential participants. This information sheet is separate from consent forms and only includes information about the research project (e.g. description of project, data protection policies, withdrawal process, complain procedure). As a result, there is a potential risk that women may feel obliged to take part in the research. Moreover, as forms are shared electronically, it is likely that women lacking access to the right technology or those who may be illiterate would not be informed properly about the research.
To overcome this challenge, an “ethical consent process has been developed whereby participants rights and the research purposes are explained clearly and consistently throughout the research” (MacKenzie et al., 2007; Goodhand, 2008). This process entails an ongoing conversation with participants about the aims and limits of the research project until the end of data collection. It also includes active observation and awareness of participants’ ongoing assent to participate as conditions in fragile contexts may change rapidly putting participants at risk. This approach has been particularly salient during the current crisis in Colombia as it shows an understanding and respect of the difficult conditions participants are currently enduring. It will continue to be fundamental in appraising contextual risks and building trust and confidence throughout the study.
Managing Participant Distress
In terms of participants’ distress, unsurprisingly, initial interactions have revealed that COVID-19 restrictions have heightened the suffering already experienced by IDPs. In order to provide meaningful support, preliminary preparations for fieldwork involved becoming familiar with free local support services that could provide immediate support to participants should they feel distressed during research activities. This approach proved to be useful during initial fieldwork as participants reported heightened anxiety not only as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, but also by other regional and political circumstances that have had a detrimental impact on their daily lives (Reliefweb, 2020, Reuters, 2021).
Managing Fair Inclusion
Considerations on how to recruit participants fairly and inclusively have also been an initial ethical challenge (Lefever et al., 2006). It is evident that only women who own a smart phone, have access to the internet, have substantial data allowances and are somewhat technology savvy will be able to take part in the research; this is a lamentable limitation as it will exclude women with lack of access to these commodities. In this instance, there is a danger that ‘participation’ may mask tokenism and provide an illusion of consultation (Cooke and Kothari, 2001). In this case, working closely with local organisations has provided valuable insights to address this issue. Organisations have opted to buy participants additional data allowances to facilitate their participation in online training events and create visual data for the research. Although this approach did not solve the problem of fair inclusion, it did help remove some barriers to participation. It is also crucial to create guidelines for video content to consider ethical dilemmas and data ownership (Marzi, 2020).
An additional concern is the exclusion of women who might not wish to interact using online platforms. Initial fieldwork has shown that although some participants connect to online sessions, they are reluctant to participate actively as they remain muted and invisible throughout the sessions. However, this lack of initial interaction need not be interpreted as a negative aspect altogether. It is possible to say that this silent participation might be indicative of a nascent interest and/or willingness to take part in the activity. This, in fact, could be a reminder that participants have different ways of engaging and researchers need to respect those processes.
Finally, initial analysis has shown that maintaining confidentiality may also be problematic. Research shows that in contexts of war, revealing information through open discussions may put participants and the community in danger (Roshani, 2018). Confidentiality issues are a serious consideration in the Colombian context as participants may inadvertently put themselves at risk for sharing information that might comprise criminal groups (Roshani, 2018, Marzi, 2020).
In this light, it is crucial to jointly identify parameters to participate and collect data safely (Marzi, 2020). This is particularly important in the COVID-19 era when many activities had to move online and recording and sharing online sessions has become common practice making confidentiality all the more challenging. Therefore, as part of the continuous consent process, issues of confidentiality, privacy, and participants’ perceptions of the importance of those principles in their lives will be discussed often.
Conducting research in fragile contexts and with participants deemed vulnerable requires strict ethical protocols and guidelines, as well as compassion and constant reflection. It is important to be flexible and responsive to the needs of participants by adapting the research approach to accommodate those needs.
Moving forward, ethical approaches will be closely monitored and documented via an ethical log. This log would be a valuable tool to reflect on and document contextual challenges while conducting research in difficult circumstances and share lessons learnt for future research.
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