By Chris Barnett

Earlier this month, I was at 3ie’s Evidence Week 2016, and on a panel discussing ethics in evaluation alongside Heather Lanthorn (IDInsights) and Penny Hawkins (UK Department for International Development). It was interesting to hear about DFID’s recent review of their Ethical Principles, and many issues highlighted were similar to work we’ve been spearheading at the Centre for Development Impact (CDI).

A few interesting observations stood out to me:

1. There is a lack of shared understanding of what evaluation ethics means in international development: Certainly there are ‘pockets’ in some sectors and parts of the research community where ethics is dealt with more thoroughly, but overall the situation is varied. The apparatus of research (such as the Ethics Committee, or Institutional Review Boards (IRB)) is sometimes applied, sometimes not, and may not always be appropriate. While evaluation societies are doing more on ethics as part of professionalisation, there is still some way to go to reach a common language and shared understanding across evaluators in international development.

2. There seems to be too little emphasis on referral mechanisms: The discussions at 3ie raised an important question: 'Where should an evaluator go if they face an ethical dilemma?' In most evaluations (and this is supported by the DFID review of their Ethical Principles), we observe a strong emphasis on ethics during the early stages of an evaluation, but far less during the evaluation. Yet, it is often the dilemmas and ethical trade-offs that occur in practice that are the most important, least understood and reported, and perhaps the ones that should be of most concern to us. Ethical principles are one thing, but what actually happens in practice, for better or worse?

3. And lastly, do commissioners and evaluators too often absolve themselves of ethical responsibility? The discussion raised the important point about whether enough attention is being given to ethical considerations. In some cases, just insisting that every evaluation goes through an Ethics Committee or IRB might actually mean that commissioners and evaluators absolve themselves of their ethical responsibilities. Approval by such committees or boards can provide a ‘stamp of ethical approval’, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee sound ethical practice – which in reality often involves difficult professional judgements, situated in particularly challenging contexts.

While the discussions were fascinating, it seemed like this was only the beginning, and that the debate might be further enriched by discussions on knowledge and power, including:

  • Who has the right to judge and determine success?
  • Whose perspectives and voices should be valued?
  • Is the ‘expertise’ of the evaluator a sufficient justification?
  • What are people’s rights for inclusion in evaluation?
  • And, what about ethical justifications for non-inclusion? 

CDI’s work on ethics in impact evaluation is ongoing and evolving, and we’ll soon be publishing a report on our recent event Democratic Values, Ethics, and Evaluation. We’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on any of the issues raised so far, or what you think we should be exploring.

Watch a video-recording of the session

Partner(s): Itad, Institute of Development Studies