EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Risk dumping in field research: some researchers are safer than others

Researchers who conduct their fieldwork in unfamiliar or hazardous settings are routinely exposed to risks that can bring them harm if these are not anticipated and circumvented. Often, junior PhDs or foreign researchers conduct fieldwork on behalf of more senior researchers; and in doing so, they also take over the risks that fieldwork poses. The practice of ‘risk and ethics dumping’ that was discussed at a roundtable session on safety and security for researchers at the recent EADI ISS #Solidarity2021 Conference should end, and research institutions and senior researchers should start feeling greater responsibility toward those they work with or employ, write Linda Johnson and Rodrigo Mena.

Balaji Srinivasan (Unsplash)

A quick glance at who is out collecting data in ‘the field’, including in remote and sometimes hazardous environments, is enough to make our point clear: the main executors of in-situ research (also known as fieldwork research) are local researchers and research assistants, sometimes together with junior or PhD researchers from research institutions in the Global North. These groups are being systematically and disproportionately exposed to safety and security issues linked to field research.

Senior and more experienced researchers from these institutions are not likely to be doing hands-on field work. Instead, they often lead projects, supervising those doing the fieldwork and providing advice on to how do fieldwork while keeping a safe distance from ‘the field’ itself. In cases where senior researchers do engage in field research, they usually do it with adequate resources and strong social and professional networks at hand. This protects them from the hazards of doing fieldwork.

Moreover, universities feel compelled to protect themselves from liability, but not their researchers from harm. University managers often approach security with the objective of protecting the university from liability. This means that entire countries and sometimes even continents can become inaccessible to international researchers, mainly by being declared off-limits due to a broad-brush approach in response to hazards identified, but not well understood, by ministry officials and/or university administrators. In reality, such hazards can often be geographically limited to relatively small areas, and relatively safe travel to much of the areas considered off-limits would be feasible, if only more detailed analysis of the actual situation were used in the risk assessment process, and a sound risk plan were developed.

A lack of concern

In her introduction to the topic at the roundtable on “Safety and security for university staff, students and research participants” that formed part of the recent EADI ISS #Solidarity2021 Conference, Thea Hilhorst from the ISS warned about  “risk dumping” on a large scale and discussed some of its dimensions. Risk dumping, which means that risks are diverted to others or simply ‘dumped’ on them, often takes place unintentionally, she argued. She also mentioned that junior staff, PhD candidates, or local researchers are less likely to be insured against risk or trained in risk mitigation, which makes it more difficult for them to identify, mitigate or confront the hazards they come across in the field. Such an insurance policy and appropriate training would also include potential risks for research participants and collaborators. Hilhorst thought that the following four things were crucial for improving the security and safety of researchers:

  1. Safety guidelines. These are essential for ensuring that researchers have a basic knowledge of risks in the field and how they can limit exposure to these.
  2. Safety training. Guidelines without training do not serve much purpose. Researchers with experience of hazardous contexts can help others understand some of the risks better.
  3. Strong safety and security support structures. Universities and research centers need to develop adequate protocols and structures to prevent and manage safety and security risks.
  4. Good insurance cover (including protection against so-called acts of God, i.e. natural hazards and conflict). Both international and local researchers, and those who work with them locally, should be protected in this manner.

What other panellists had to say:

Local researchers are often overlooked

Vagisha Gunasekara from the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies argued that research policies rarely pay attention to the role of local researchers and enumerators, and the main researchers (principal investigators) fail to recognise that there are ethical issues to be resolved in this respect.

PhD researchers are worth their weight in gold…

Rod Mena from the ISS reminded us that PhD researchers play a vital role in collecting and analysing data for research projects led by more senior academics. He stressed this by asking the participants to imagine a research landscape without PhD researchers: huge swathes of research would never happen without them. However, he said, “although they are clearly vital for research, the approach to their safety is often cavalier at best”.

…but they are forced to put themselves at risk

Mena also pointed to the fact that most PhD researchers have limited resources to conduct fieldwork, thus making it necessary for them to opt for the cheapest options in terms of transportation, accommodation, and even food. This necessity to skimp on costs often increases risks, including to their safety and health.

The implementation of guidelines is important

Eric Beerkens from the Dutch funding division WOTRO Science for Global Development pointed out that his organisation requires adherence to the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings, which is a step in the right direction, but feels that funding organisations like WOTRO could do more to ensure the implementation of regulations and to raise awareness about the possible risks involved in fieldwork and the need for protective measures.

Researcher exploitation reveals a colonial mindset

Finally, EADI president Henning Melber said that there is clear evidence of colonial mindsets in academia that lead to asymmetric power relations and unashamed exploitation of both PhD researchers and local researchers.

Collectively taking responsibility

All panellists agreed that it is time to end the (often unintentional) risk and ethics dumping in the field of development studies and to self-critically assess our policies and practices. Only by taking responsibility as an academic community can we ensure that important research in the future will be conducted according to high ethical standards and under safe conditions for all involved. The recent letter to the European Commission from many rectors’ conferences and university umbrella organisations in Europe on ‘Enhancing Research Excellence at African Universities through European/ African Cooperation’ signals an intention to collaborate more intensively on research with partners in the Global South. The need to improve our practices has never been greater.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Linda Johnson was the executive secretary of ISS, but has now retired. She is particularly interested in the societal relevance of research. In addition, she has done recent work on the safety and security of researchers and co-developed a course on literature as a lens on development.
Rodrigo Mena is assistant Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Governance.  Mena is Board Member of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) and as convener of the Peace and Ecology in the Anthropocene commission at the International.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published.

1 Comment
  • Anonymous
    September 27, 2021

    have U ever think of the risk in which the field researchers r in face of conflicting interests such as: in order to safeguard themselves, their families and the information sources they have to ( have to) make some compromise(s) of the outcome to pull the wool over the government’s eye or to get away the government’s control or punishments afterwards?