As I shake off the jet leg from an 11,000-mile round trip, I want to take a few moments away from what seems like 11,000 emails in my inbox to reflect on an important issue for those involved in international development work.
Governments, foundations, nonprofits, and other funders are making greater investments than ever in programs to improve public well-being in the developing world, intensifying the need for reliable evidence about the impact of these efforts. For researchers, one of the key challenges in producing high-quality evidence is ensuring that we meet ethics standards that can vary from country to country.
I write this after returning from Ghana, where Mathematica is partnering with Camfed on an evaluation of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, which provides scholarships for secondary and tertiary education and leadership training for academically promising but economically disadvantaged students. I spent 10 days in Accra and the southern coastal town of Elmina to train a team of local interviewers who were tasked with conducting surveys of more than 2,500 girls in schools over five weeks. This was the second cohort of students surveyed for this evaluation.
Before proceeding with this round of interviews, Mathematica and Camfed submitted our research protocols to an ethics committee at the University of Ghana and to an institutional review board in the United States to ensure that our data collection efforts comply with international and Ghanaian standards for the protection of human research subjects. Many developing countries have established ethics committees primarily for biomedical research, but not all committees review protocols for social policy research.
These committees are designed to reduce the risk of harm to research participants and to ensure that participants are fully informed of the purpose of the research, any risk or benefit that the research entails, and their right to refuse to participate. Obtaining approval from a local ethics committee may be required by a research funder or by country regulations and constitutes a due diligence step for many evidence-based research data collection efforts.
In some countries, time can be a major hurdle when submitting research protocols for ethics committee reviews, as some meet only a few times a year. This can lead to a backlog of submissions. I have seen some protocols take upwards of six months to be reviewed and approved, so researchers should gather information on ethics committee submission guidelines early and keep in mind these constraints in developing their research plans.
Including local researchers on your team can help you understand local ethics rules as well as learn whether other laws may apply to the research, such as regulations on transmitting data with personally identifiable information out of a particular country. Employing local researchers also enriches your team’s cultural competency and is a valuable capacity-building activity. These are all important considerations for overcoming some of the many challenges of collecting high-quality data in the developing world (which my colleague Kristen Velyvis and I discussed in a recent podcast).
A number of helpful resources are available for learning more about research ethics in the developing world, including:
- The World Health Organization’s practical guide to building capacity in research ethics, which includes key historical events that have led to current standards and clear explanations of concepts and practices.
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ compilation of links to national ethics standards and ethics committees for more than 100 countries.
- UNESCO’s Global Ethics Observatory with information pertinent to conducting research in developing countries.
- Online training videos and modules on ethics and human subjects protections from the National Institutes of Health, Office of Extramural Research.
With better understanding of research ethics standards in developing countries, we can improve our ability to deliver rigorous, objective data to the people and organizations that are working to improve quality of life around the world.
Read more about the work of Mathematica’s Center for International Policy Research and Evaluation.