Evaluation work around social issues is complex. Emerging research on systems thinking and complexity theory explains this; our experience confirms it. This complexity is amplified in situations where human rights are systematically violated. I’ve recently spent some time managing field projects related to documentation in the Dominican Republic, where native-born Dominicans of Haitian descent are often denied their legal right to birth registration and, since 2007, have had their previously issued identity documents revoked by the government. There are many local, national, and international groups currently lobbying the government, implementing programs, and conducting research on the issue. It’s a hot topic attracting significant internal and external attention, which brings the question: How can stakeholders learn more about the issue while protecting those who are affected?
Researchers and evaluators of programs in such contexts are ethically bound to protect the rights of participants, particularly when it comes to confidentiality and consent. IRB protocol is critical, but even the most painstaking attempts to honor its principles can strip the process of its human element (I have a particular aversion to the idea of protecting human “subjects”)! That’s why I’m advocating for greater consideration of how to build trusting relationships with participants in order to not only protect their rights, but honor their dignity and personal histories.
Below I describe some considerations for researchers and/or evaluators who engage in projects related to sensitive issues in complex environments. I strongly believe these considerations should be taken into account at every level, from highly technical external evaluations to grassroots research and program development.
Location, location, location: Let participants choose where they feel most comfortable being interviewed. Some may feel more comfortable in the privacy of their own home while surrounded by family. Others may not feel safe providing information on where they live and would prefer a perceived neutral location in the community, such as a local church.
The company you keep: A local, trusted community member should accompany the researcher to assist in explaining unclear information to the participant, translating where necessary, and generally creating a safe and welcoming environment. Even better if that person is trained to actually conduct the research! Be sure that interviews are private and not overheard by others, unless the participant requests to be accompanied by a friend, family member, etc.
The right to say no: Participants should never feel forced to participate. If the researcher/evaluator is technically an outsider, they may miss important cues signifying that the individual is hesitant to participate. Understand how power differentials may interfere with an individual’s perceived ability to say no, and mitigate against them. Be able to judge verbal and non-verbal cues throughout the entire data collection process and be sure to remind participants that they can choose not to answer a question or decline to continue at any moment.
The right to know: Participants should be informed about how any information collected will be used. Academic research may not be a familiar concept, and there may be (understandable!) suspicion or concern that information will get into the wrong hands and be used against them. Explain why notes are being taken, who will have access to information (both data and results), etc. Give time for them to reflect on informed consent forms and ask questions. Be sure to have documents in multiple languages if the participant is not fluent in the region’s predominant language. Have options for non-literate individuals. Err on over-explaining and providing “too much” information, even if it takes more time. Relationships can be damaged and trust broken within minutes. Ask the participant to repeat back what they are agreeing to in order to ensure full consent and comprehension.
What’s in a name: Only collect personal identifying information (PII) if it is absolutely necessary. Don’t forget that voice recordings are also a form of PII! Participants will want to be assured that their responses cannot be traced back to them. If PII is collected, it should not appear on any materials that could be misplaced or seen by others (survey forms, assessments, etc.). Use another marking system that is linked to participants through secure, internal, and restricted access documents. Consider using pseudonyms for case studies or quotes, but don’t forget that participants might want ownership of their stories. They should have the opportunity to choose whether their identity is used in narratives that describe personal histories and experiences.
Be creative: There are many interesting and creative ways to maintain confidentiality and/or anonymity in situations where face-to-face conversations may not be feasible nor produce honest responses. Implement a creative response system (colored cards, dice, etc.) that give participants a sense of privacy and increased confidence in answering questions. Consider using a dividing screen or private room for submitting responses, as appropriate, to enhance feelings of security and anonymity.
Be human: Open up the session with conversation instead of rigidly following a script or jumping to the informed consent form. It can be considered rude to “get down to business” immediately, and the participant is much less likely to feel comfortable or appreciated for their time and the personal risk they might be taking! Check in frequently with the participant throughout the interview, continuously gauge their comfort level, and make adjustments as necessary. Be open to diverging from protocol if necessary. Letting the conversation take its course is critical when dealing with sensitive topics. Be sure to collect the information you need, but don’t sacrifice the personal connection.
As with any research project or evaluation, the protocol depends on context. What similar challenges have you encountered in the field and how did you overcome them? What advice would you give to others working on sensitive issues in complex environments?
Update: Some resources on human-rights based approaches to M&E. Please add more in the comments section if you know of a great resource!