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Ethics in evaluation: Why it is important


Ethics and safeguarding are increasingly at the centre of evaluation practice. Following the 2019 publication of DFID’s ‘Ethical guidance for research, evaluation and monitoring activities’, a document outlining the ethical principles and standards that all DFID staff, contractors and subcontractors should follow, organisations working in international development M&E will have to introduce stricter ways to ensure their staff put ethics at the heart of every project.

At Itad, we have been developing ethical principles, frameworks and guidelines, as well as safeguarding policies, to shape and define the way we work. Ethics have an important role in guiding standards of behaviour with our respondents, our partners and the wider society, and can help respond to the question: are we doing what is right?

Recognising the power dynamic

Evaluators have an obligation to display honesty and integrity in their own behaviour and in the entire evaluation process. Evaluation sits within political and organisational contexts[1], and our findings about the effectiveness, efficiency, sustainability and appropriateness of a project should influence decision-making, funding, policies and management. In some cases, the future of a project might depend on the practical knowledge we provide as evaluators.

Given these considerations, an ethical approach which recognises the power dynamic between evaluators, clients and programme participants, and develops a strategy to address this imbalance is vital for the evaluation process. Working with agreed ethical principles and practice also helps ensure that good decision-making goes beyond discussions on methodology, logistics and professional standards, and shows that consequences of choices made over the course of the evaluation are seriously taken into consideration.

Asking the right questions

The principle of ‘do no harm’ should be at the forefront of all ethical guidelines and planning. Ethical guidelines ensure that participants, as well as the evaluation team, are safe not only when working in the field, but all the way through the evaluation process to when the process has ended. There can be serious consequences of working without clear ethical guidelines, including harm to participants and security risks, such as community unrest, for the participants and for the evaluation team. Guidelines, for example, should be developed to inform judgements on sampling, on how the rights of participants are maintained and how safety is ensured throughout. Good ethical practise should also involve setting up a system of referral services, in case participants disclose they are at risk, or in cases when trauma is inadvertently triggered by evaluation activities. The process of developing ethical guidelines should include asking questions such as: ‘Are your participants safe?’; ‘Is there a risk of identifying vulnerable participants within the community, placing them at risk of discrimination?’;Do your questions have the potential to trigger trauma?’;Is your language culturally appropriate?’.

In practical terms, this translates into addressing issues such as fully informed consent, inclusivity, understanding of local contexts, data management and feeding back to participants.

Understanding ‘ethics’

One of the most challenging aspects of applying ethical principles in evaluation practice is that there is a lack of shared understanding of what ‘ethics’ are and what their role is in international development evaluation and research.[2] There are discrepancies in how ethical guidelines are put into practice across different organisations and sectors. Ethics, unlike methodology, cannot be standardised.[3] Ethics require awareness and consideration of the local and national socio-cultural, religious and political contexts. There is not a comprehensive list of ethical considerations which will fit all evaluations, because of the variability of context and the different ethical challenges that may arise in each situation.

However, ethical principles can guide us at all stages to minimise the risk of doing physical, psychological and social harm to communities and individuals. Adhering to ethical principles also increases the credibility of our data, as participants will be more likely to trust evaluators if there are some measures put in place to avoid the risk of doing harm. Ethics are a requirement of evaluation practice which ultimately helps deliver more relevant and impactful evaluation and ensures professional integrity. At Itad, we are committed to applying ethical principles to the work we do and we welcome the publication of DFID’s guidelines on ethics as a stepping stone for robust ethical principles in evaluation.

[1] Barnett, C. and Camfield, L. (2016) Ethics in Evaluation, Journal of Development Effectiveness, 8(4): 528-534

[2] Groves Williams, L. (2016) Review of Ethics Principles and Guidance in Evaluation and Research, DFID Specialist Evaluation and Quality Assurance Service. January 2016

[3] Duggan, C. and Bush, K. (2014) The Ethical Tipping Points of Evaluators in Conflict Zones, American Journal of Evaluation, 35(4): 485-506


Image © Credit: DFID (in ‘UK aid for people fleeing violence in Burma’ album)