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Specificities and Questions about Safeguarding in International Development Research

What are specificities of safeguarding in an international research context? Read a summary of recent research on safeguarding.
© University of Glasgow

There are specificities and questions that relate to safeguarding in an international research context, in particular when projects’ activities are decentralised, which we started thinking about in the previous step. Other researchers have explored some of these issues. Here we summarise the main points of reflection on safeguarding in international research that is funded as part of development projects (e.g. through the UK Global Challenges Research Fund).

Following major concerns in international development and humanitarian aid, in October 2018, leading members of the UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR) issued a joint statement confirming an intensified focus and commitment to safeguarding in international development research. International development research refers to all research – funded by UK leading funders – that aims to social or economic benefits in Low and Middle Income Countries.

In 2018, some research was commissioned to:

  1. scope existing evidence and guidance on safeguarding, including drafting principles for safeguarding in international research, through an evidence review (Orr et al, 2019a, 2019b).
  2. validate those guiding principles through international consultation (UKCDR, 2020a, 2020b).

The UKCDR define safeguarding as preventing and addressing:

any sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment of research participants, communities and research staff, plus any forms of violence, exploitation and abuse… such as bullying, psychological abuse and physical violence (UKCDR, 2020a, p.2).

The evidence review conducted by Orr et al (2019a) notes that this definition of safeguarding is broader than usual definitions, since it goes beyond ‘do no harm’, to also include the so-called ‘bystander’ concerns, which includes researchers who become aware of issues outside of their research activities. This definition also comprises bullying within the workplace, which was not included in other definitions of safeguarding.

The evidence review found that this shift in the definition has caused uncertainty in some organisations around the scope of safeguarding. For example, even within the UK, researchers interviewed during the study reported that safeguarding is vague and confusing and that safeguarding policies were not drafted with this extensive definition in mind, this causing even more uncertainties (p. 28). As such, there is no shared understanding of safeguarding in research. In addition, the term, until very recently has been predominantly used in the UK. This poses challenges in terms of adopting and adapting safeguarding within international research projects.

Uncertainty on safeguarding in research is also a result of the overlaps and the lack of a clear demarcation between research ethics and safeguarding (further unpacked in step 3.9). Higher education institutions in the UK are subject to ethical regulations that include considerations on the risk of harm to participants and researchers. Orr et al (2019a, 2019b) show that on one hand, ethics reviews are specific for research projects, and overall, these are not meant to cover all safeguarding issues. On the other hand, research ethics often takes for granted ‘readiness for more generic forms of harm covered under safeguarding’ (p.31), even though researchers are not trained to face such issues; and those should be addressed in preparation of fieldwork. Another issues that caused lack of clarity is that international development research is often highly interdisciplinary: different disciplines have different methodologies, and as such safeguarding principles in research should be flexible enough to encompass all research methodologies and to be adaptable in different contexts worldwide.

Overall, there is a lack of adequate training and of systematic guidance on safeguarding in research, which may be due to the fact that safeguarding is relatively new, and when it comes to research it is often at least partially embedded in ethical reviews. Basic training should be available to all researchers, and not only to those who deal with human participants, since safeguarding is also about the work-place (Orr et al, 2019a, 2019b).

The lack of training and of guidance affects certain groups more than others. Orr et al. (2019b) found that “women, junior researchers, and local fieldworkers are more likely to be at risk of harassment by fellow researchers and/or risks posed by challenging research contexts, topics, relationships’ (2019a: 5). In addition, unequal power relations are always present in research and this may hinder partners in LMICs. Importantly, Orr et al (2019a) report that:

Discussions about safeguarding with partner organisations should be conducted in the spirit of two-way learning and capacity building, rather than imposed as a set of requirements, with honest acknowledgment of policy requirements that must be met. Agreed codes of conduct can clarify expectations of working relationships (pp.5-6).

Building on these points (and additional findings that for brevity have not been summarised here), UKCDR, after international consultation with various stakeholders, developed a Guidance for safeguarding in international development research.

The Guidance, rather than providing a fixed set of principles which – as informed by the international consultation – “would not only be impractical but also potentially reinforce Global North/Global South power dynamics” (UKCDR, 2020a: 3) – provides a list of questions for different audiences to think about their role in safeguarding. The questions are designed and organised around four main themes that emerged from the principles that Orr and colleagues developed:

– Rights of victims/survivors and whistle-blowers

– Equity and Fairness

– Transparency

– Accountability and good governance

The Guidance provides definitions and explanations of these themes, and for each of those it presents a series of questions that different audiences might want to engage with to ensure that safeguarding is addressed within research projects.

  • In the next step, we will have a look at the questions that the Guidance presents.

For more information, please download these freely available documents by UKCDR:

Safeguarding in International Development Research: Briefing Paper

Guidance on Safeguarding in International Development Research

Safeguarding in International Development Research. Report on Phase 2 International Consultation

© University of Glasgow
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Safeguarding in Collaborative Research and International Development: Contexts, Challenges, and Opportunities

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