There are a number of important considerations regarding ethics when working in Monitoring and Evaluation. With the rise of data, many countries have improved and updated their data protection laws which is an important development, but there are more practical considerations at play too, to ensure that your work remains ethical and beneficial.
One example of where ethical challenges may arise is when participants become aware of something late in the programme which compromises their wellbeing. Another example is where a client pressurizes you to report only certain aspects of your findings, and not disclose elements you feel are important to provide an honest representation of what has taken place, and the true benefit of the work. In more complex evaluations, there are also considerations around denying ‘control groups’ the benefit of the project, and you may wish to design your project such that the control group also receives the benefit in a later stage of the project should the results be favorable. The most important thing is to remember that you will frequently be working with vulnerable groups, and adjusting your work in design and approach, to include these ethical considerations is key.
#1 Maintain independence of judgement
Particularly in the case of Impact Evaluations, this is not just an ethical consideration but a methodological necessity. When working in development practice, vulnerable lives stand to be affected in a myriad of ways by the work being undertaken. As you conduct M&E work, independence is important, particularly where your work may result in key decisions being taken. Resources for development projects are becoming increasingly scarce, and where funding could be better spent, it is important to have a view of this. At the same time, understanding the full benefits of a project is important so that where these may be significant, but complex or difficult to measure, a full reflection of this can be provided. Part of ensuring this is met lies in the design of your work, and part in the ongoing implementation. A truly independent study speaks volumes to funders and networks.
#2 Privacy, Confidentiality and data protection
At times, development practitioners might enter a space with the best intentions, but still become engrossed in the experimentation, at times forgetting that the information they handle is more than just a KPI on a log frame. This is highly sensitive information about the life of a vulnerable individual. Protecting data and ensuring that confidentiality is maintained throughout the project is very important, and a growing legal requirement for all our work. At all times the rights of any and all programme participants must be protected. Wherever possible, anonymity is key – but this is not always possible when participants need to be tracked over long periods of time. Where your work does not allow for anonymity, be sure that you have taken all the steps to ensure full confidentiality.
#3 Voluntary Participation and Informed Consent
Your participants, including any programme beneficiaries and anyone within their eco-system you may survey should be aware of the research you are conducting, and they must be free to opt in or out of the study at any time. Voluntary Participation means that the stakeholders have an option as to whether they want to participate and that they do so voluntarily. People must not be coerced to participate, and there should be no penalty, immediate or in the future, from opting out.
Informed consent means that participants understand what the research is all about, why they are participating, and any risks or benefits associated with this, before providing their consent. It is important to get this consent in writing, which then will ensure that you have outlined what you need to uphold in this agreement between you and programme participants.
#4 Full transparency and full disclosure
It is important that your work remains fully transparent in line with benefit to participants and other stakeholders. Be absolutely clear about what you are doing, any mistakes you make, and any unexpected findings which it important to share. When communicating your results, be honest about what went well, and about what did not, as this will enrich the sector, and provide far more insight that only providing positive information. Remember, development practice is complex, and finding a positive result and your reputation as an evaluator who can show positive impact should never supersede the needs of participants and a global community seeking to learn and through this to create the necessary change. Make sure that you adjust the language of your work where necessary so that it is fully accessible, and people understand well what is taking place. Finally, ensure that you maintain good communication, and that all participants are able to ask questions to fully understand the implications of their participation.
#5 Minimise Harm
When conducting any kind of social research, it is important to minimise harm. This includes any social, psychological, physical or financial harm. Be sure that you are only collecting data which you absolutely need to assess and grow the benefit to all involved. Remember that some of the things you are asking may have impact on the lives of your participants, may alter their self-perception, or have the potential to trigger negative psychological effects. As you conduct your work be sure to employ empathy and consider all aspects of harm. If in doubt, seek the advice of experts, and always consult best practice guides when designing survey questions. Using tried and tested models means that you can rely on your results without unnecessary trial and error.
As you engage in M&E work, particularly in complex cultural settings, be sure that you understand this context as well as possible. Be clear on what you need to know and minimise ‘experimentation’ for its own sake. Collect only what you need, although some of this may be for learning. Find a balance between seeking new information (which might mean gathering some information you may find was not useful) and implementing according to existing best practice. The more research your conduct prior to implementation, the less score there is for compromising these important ethical considerations. Take full responsibility for all aspects of your work, and plan well to minimise disruption, wasted resources, and any potential for negative impacts which might arise from your work.