by Sumana Banerjee, DECCMA India coordinator
During the past 4.75 years, DECCMA created plenty of opportunities for interaction with communities. When interacting with communities, the question of ethics comes into the minds of researchers and funders.
When researchers from universities in the UK visited delta communities in India, they had detailed participant information sheets, consent forms, and debriefing notes as a part of their universities’ ethical requirements to conduct interviews with communities. Most Indian universities do not have such processes in place. For us in Jadavpur University, the only ethical consideration form available is used by the Department of Pharmacy for clinical trials. This does not mean that we did not follow any ethical processes while interacting with communities. We had designed simplified forms to cover all bases for ethics, such as anonymity of participants, non-disclosure of their personal details, freedom to withdraw from the interview at any point, contact persons in case they have queries or requests after the interviews etc. and we also resorted to recording verbal consent at times. Now the difference in institutional processes put me in a reflective mood.
Having detailed paperwork as proof of following the guidelines and getting signed consent from participants is indeed a great process. However, based on our experience of working with delta communities in India (West Bengal and Odisha), we faced some practical challenges while executing this process, two of which are outlined below along with the solutions we used:
Challenge – Mentioning contact details of researchers and their supervisors based in the UK is mandatory but this will have no real meaning for the communities as they won’t obviously email (!) nor have the resources to converse with them if they have questions.
Solution – Include contact details of the organisation closest to the participants who are involved in this research, alongside the mandatory mention of the UK researchers and supervisors.
Challenge – The research team explains every detail about the purpose of their visit but there are instances when the respondent feels nervous to sign a paper since the fear of “losing something” lurks in their minds. Also, by handing a pen to an illiterate person to sign we end up reinforcing hierarchies.
Solution – It is important to make it clear that no harm would be brought upon them by consenting to participate by sharing how the researcher does not collect their personal details (government ID numbers etc.) and how the researcher is also bound to maintain the anonymity of the respondents. Handing out a stamp pad along with a pen is often a better idea and gives the respondent the comfort of choosing the appropriate tool without them having to explicitly announce if they are literate or illiterate.
Ethics is not limited to these processes alone. It is the duty of any person who interacts with communities for their work, to keep in mind the basics of moral human behaviour. Focus on vulnerable communities at times leads to teams being extractive and manipulative in their interactions. Staging a scene for a photograph interrupting the daily schedule of a respondent, or coaxing them to say what one wants to hear to support already formed ideas are unethical. Research teams should avoid such practices at any cost and if the team is responsible for any other actor who resorts to such practices, it should immediately be discouraged. These actions not only hamper the trust built with the community, but also reduce the possibilities of fruitful interactions in the future.
As research teams and most importantly as human beings, it is our responsibility to try and reduce the vulnerabilities of communities we work with and not reinforce differences. To conclude my reflections, I share the following quote where the poet sums it up beautifully –
“By plucking her petals you do not gather the beauty of the flower.”
― Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds