IRBs for development projects?

For a survey conducted as part of an aid-program evaluation, the IRB process will ask a researcher if any survey questions might cause discomfort or recollection of highly unpleasant events for the respondent, and if so what are the procedures for preventing this and whether the potential benefits outweight the potential risks. By contrast, a specific aid project could, by introducing a pile of valuable resources, lead to intra- or inter-village competition that might, for all we know, contribute to people getting killed. Those risks might be outweighed by the potential benefits for most projects, but are there any institutionalized procedures for asking the question in the development sector? Should there be?

asks James Fearon

Its a relevant question – the parallels are quite clear, especially with experimental research, where researchers interact with human subjects just as much as any development project implementer would. That’s the reason, we often talk about our jobs as ‘implementing research’. If IRBs are required for these studies, then why would actual implementation be any different?

But any honest field researcher would also acknowledge the challenges in ensuring all IRB rules are followed to the letter. And if that’s the case, the challenges for programme implementation are bound to be even greater – just think ‘informed consent’…

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