Ethics in Development Research: `Doing No Harm´ when Conducting Research in the Global South

The purpose of this project is twofold: First, it identifies and synthesizes evidence of ethical challenges that are faced by local and international research staff implementing field research projects in the Global South. Second, the project aims at critically assessing and reviewing existing ethical guidelines and protocols that seek to address and alleviate these challenges. This will then serve as a guidance for developing normative ethical principles and standardized research guidelines that take into account a) the specific complexities linked to research in developing country contexts and b) the protection of local and international research staff at all hierarchical levels.

Project Lead:
Jana Kuhnt

Ana Garcia-Hernandez

Lennart Kaplan

Janina Steinert

Project Team:
Milan Jacobi

David Atika

Joachim Herz Stiftung

Time frame:
2019 - 2023 / completed

Co-operation Partner:

University of Oxford, University of Goettingen, WZB, TUM School of Governance, Universidad del Rosario, Innovations for Poverty Action Colombia (IPA)

Project description

Conducting field research in developing countries is characterized by a wide range of ethical complexities. Research projects often operate on constrained budgets and timelines and therefore have limited capacity to adequately respond to these complexities. In this context, a broad literature has identified challenges pertaining to study participants. As a response, existing ethical guidelines and institutional ethics boards ascribe importance to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of study participants. While we strongly acknowledge the importance of considering the study populations, the key argument put forth in this research project is that ethical issues may also affect involved research staff. These include local and international staff at all hierarchical levels. These experiences have to date not been collated in a systematic way, beyond some anecdotal evidence.
We argue that the key principle of “doing no harm” should equally apply to the research staff.

Several ethical challenges thus need to be considered:

  • Potential racial and cultural frictions within multi-nationally composed research teams, which are primarily managed by principal investigators from the Global North. This is possibly exacerbated by a host country’s history of colonial oppression and institutionalised racism.
  • Threats to the safety and physical integrity of local and international research staff associated with research projects carried out in potentially conflict-ridden, unstable or deprived settings.
  • Unstable working conditions for local research staff linked to socioeconomic inequality within international research teams, including the absence of appropriate health insurances, unemployment benefits, and other social benefits.
  • Exposure to participants’ experiences of trauma as well as the void of institutionalised support structures in the context of many countries in the Global South can make researchers susceptible to experiencing forms of secondary or vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and job burnout.
  • Inadequate acknowledgement of local research contributors, known as “parachute research”.


To comprehensively work on closing this (research) gap, the project team works on different work packages:


  1. Systematic literature review on the ethical challenges experienced by research staff conducting fieldwork in the Global South. This will help establish a sound evidence base on the ethical challenges documented by existing research literature. We also extract any noted recommendations on how to (better) protect research staff “in field”.
  2. Qualitative interviews with research staff from the Global South and North at different hierarchical levels (including local enumerators, field supervisors, field managers, (PhD) students, as well as principal investigators). This will help to verify the ethical challenges mentioned in the literature and extend beyond these. The qualitative interviews are either conducted in the form of individual interviews or take the format of focus group discussions.

    These two work packages will reveal a comprehensive set of the challenges experienced by research staff in different settings when conducting field research.

    Additionally, it is important to understand the emotional and psychological effects that these challenges might have on researchers. This aspect is covered in the third work package.
  3. Quantitative Survey on the working conditions, job satisfaction, and emotional wellbeing of local and international research staff. This will add to the challenges identified in the first two work packages and provide broader and quantifiable data on the impact of the current research environment on the existing actors. Information on respondents’ sociodemographic background, country of origin, gender, age, and hierarchical position within the research project will be collected to identify specific challenges faced by each group of researchers.

    A fourth work package serves the purpose to review in how far challenges are already considered in existing guidelines or safeguarding principles.
  4. Comprehensive review of existing guidelines/principles/procedures to judge if and how ethical challenges for research staff are already considered and followed. Here, we will focus on whether important actors in the field of implementation research have already endorsed such practices to protect their own and the partner organization’s actors.


Ultimately, insights from all work packages will serve as a guidance for developing some normative ethical principles and standardised research guidelines that take into account i) the specific complexities linked to research in developing country contexts and ii) protection of local and international research staff on all hierarchical levels. These could be endorsed by ethical review boards and funding bodies to ensure that no harm is inflicted – neither on research participants nor on the research staff themselves.