Power dynamics and research ethics

From a recent article on the nexus between rape and access to healthcare in eastern DRC, by Nicole D’Errico, Tshibangu Kalala, Louise Bashige Nzigire, Felicien Maisha and Luc Malemo Kalisya:

In public forums, Congolese people have also questioned whether or not they benefit from efforts made towards documenting gender-based violence. At one such event organised by patients in a hospital in Goma in June 2010, one survivor of rape stated, ‘[Researchers] say they can’t pay us [for research] because that would be unethical, but they take our dignity for free. They are paid to come here to talk to us but we get nothing!’ Many listeners agreed, with this speaker and a subsequent speaker asked whether or not foreign professors are paid to teach classes based on the knowledge gained from visits to the DRC, and suggested that such payments should be shared with their informants. (p. 53)

This is a huge issue in thinking about the ethics of research in low-income countries, particularly (but not exclusively) as a researcher from a different country.   Western academics are frequently reminded to strive for neutrality – to not to let personal opinions get bound up in their projects, to not pay interview subjects lest they create incentives to participate and bias their samples – but I think we’re often so focused on this that we lose sight of the power dynamics that are also inherently part of the research process.

So what can be done about this?  At a minimum, researchers ought to be compensating their respondents for the time it took to participate in the interview.  Sharing the completed research with respondents is also best practice, although I imagine this might have been cold comfort to the speaker quoted above.  I also respect the work that IPA is doing in disseminating results to government agencies and NGOs in the countries where it works, like this education conference in Burkina Faso, and this savings & payments conference in Uganda.  Other researchers I know have spent some time working as lecturers in universities in the countries where they work.  These ideas don’t address all of the speaker’s concerns, but they’re a useful step towards ensuring that research results aren’t locked in gated journals in the academic’s home country.

What are some other ways researchers can make sure they’re not simply taking from their respondents without giving back?

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