An overview of humanitarian research ethics

In recent years, increased attention has been paid to the ethics of conducting research in situations of armed conflict, disaster or epidemic. Crises are diverse, and ethical issues arising in particular studies will therefore vary, but several overarching considerations have been identified. These considerations are linked to the reality that humanitarian research occurs in situations where populations are experiencing stress and turmoil, in locales where infrastructure has been damaged or overwhelmed, and where social and political strain may be significant. There is also, frequently, volatility or uncertainty regarding how the crisis will unfold (such as the possibility of renewed fighting, increased population displacement, or aftershocks following an earthquake).

Given these characteristics, careful attention is needed to uphold principles of research ethics, including respect for persons, concern for participant welfare, and justice. A few examples of ethics issues include: ensuring the social value of research to be conducted in a crisis, protecting the safety of research participants and research staff, ensuring data security in insecure environments, establishing respectful and effective community engagement, and ensuring effective oversight and accountability.

For more background on humanitarian research, you may wish to read:

  • A short introduction on research and ethics and humanitarian evidence by O’Mathuna and Siriwardhana.
  • A Nuffield Council background report on ethics of research in global health emergencies by Mitra and Sethi.
  • Results of a study presenting how REC members who had reviewed disaster research protocols perceived ethical issues by Tansey et al.
  • A blog series on humanitarian evidence and ethics from EvidenceAid (contributions by O’Mathuna, Slim, Sheather and Hunt).
  • A recording of a webinar given by Donal O’Mathuna on developing evidence ethically in situations of disaster