Understanding safeguarding in international development research: The process and intricacies involved

By Lynda Keeru

On 1 July 2020, UKCDR hosted a webinar titled, “Preventing harm in research – safeguarding in international development research.” The webinar came a few months after UKCDR’s launch of the guidance on safeguarding in international development research in a bid to ensure the highest safeguarding standards in this context.

UK funders of international development research worked with UKCDR to develop a set of principles and best practice guidance on safeguarding to anticipate, mitigate and address potential and actual harms in the funding, design, delivery and dissemination of research.

This webinar, targeted at the international development research community, aimed to:

In the link provided, you see an agreed definition of ‘safeguarding’ as:

Any sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment of research participants, communities and research staff, plus any broader forms of violence, exploitation and abuse relevant to research such as bullying, psychological abuse and physical violence.

There was however a caveat on the fact that this definition was agreed on by UK funders and expert advisory groups and specific to the research context.

What does the guidance do?

The guidance supports all who are involved in the research processes to anticipate, mitigate and address potential and actual harms in the funding, design, delivery and dissemination of research. Safeguarding processes face various challenges in the international development research realm; some of which were outlined as safeguarding falling between the cracks and the idea that safeguarding was something for NGOs rather than academia.

At the breach of safeguarding guidelines, several things come to play that inhibit the reporting of these issues including:

  • Attitudes of colleagues and supervisors, concerns about being a ‘good’ fieldworker
  • Concerns about career prospects and fear of jeopardizing research
  • Rights of victims/survivors and whistle-blowers

Equity and fairness, transparency and accountability and  good governance were the key principles of safeguarding that were outlined in the webinar.

Among the key speakers were Sally Theobald and  Bintu Mansaray both of whom are part of the ARISE consortium which also contributed to the UKCDR guidelines. Sally highlighted that ARISE has written their experiences of preventing and addressing safeguarding concerns and practices, process and positionality in marginalized spaces as a practice paper in the BMJ Global Health. It is a jointly authored paper that draws on the experiences of everyone across ARISE. She ran the participants through what was in the paper and said that it featured safeguarding and global health and vulnerability as relational concepts. The paper delves into the realities of informal urban contexts, where we see the intersections of inequity play out and how they are shaped by gender, class, sexuality, disability as well as unequal power relations.

The paper also outlines the different steps undertaken in ARISE to develop a shared approach to safeguarding as well as the key learnings which includes how safeguarding, ethics and health and safety concerns overlap, the challenges of referral and support for safeguarding concerns within frequently underserved informal urban spaces and Importance of reflective practices and critical thinking about power, judgement and positionality and decolonization.

Bintu pointed out that ARISE started by asking all the countries in the consortium to outline the existing policies of safeguarding which fed into the safeguarding policy that was developed. They also set up a training to give researchers a feel of what safeguarding was, followed by country teams brainstorming on the meaning of safeguarding in their contexts and developing equivalents of the term in their local languages. This provided a unique opportunity to see the similarities and differences on safeguarding issues in the different contexts (between Kenya, Sierra Leone, India and Bangladesh). She concluded by saying:

The UKCDR guidelines act as a guide and then as ARISE, we contextualize them to fit our different contexts.

Sally wrapped up the session with saying that safeguarding just like ethics is not a tick box exercise. It is an ongoing, critical and reflective journey that includes partnerships, participatory processes and building of trust. The process needs to speak to the key values that come through in the guidance of equity transparency, accountability and having the different vulnerable groups at the heart of the process. It is vital for everyone to understand that everybody has a role to play when it comes to safeguarding.

Webinar contributors:

Safeguarding in International Development Research – Presentation by Sheila Mburu, Research & Policy Officer, UKCDR

Developing and applying the UKCDR safeguarding principles and guidance – Presentation by Linnea Renton, Research Fellow on Safeguarding, Antislavery Knowledge Network, University of Liverpool

Reflections on safeguarding – Presentation by Sally Theobald and Bintu Mansaray on behalf of ARISE hub