Decolonising Safeguarding in a Pandemic: Who has the power to define risk and harm?

Decolonising Safeguarding in a Pandemic: Who has the power to define risk and harm?

Linnea Renton and Leona Vaughn

The world is watching as the COVID-19 pandemic acts as a relentless revealer of existing social fractures and inequalities. Amongst the disparities thrown into sharp relief is how the research relationship between the Global North and the Global South continues to be riven with power dynamics and colonial ‘logics’. How else do we explain the differential treatment of local and international aid staff in the wake of the pandemic, and the case of the French scientists who proposed using Africans as test subjects for any experimental COVID-19 vaccine?

The need to address and remove these colonial legacies from research, along with the harms they create and perpetuate, has never been more relevant or more needed than in this time of crisis. This can only be achieved through a focused approach by research institutions (universities, national research councils and others) to ‘decolonise’ research relationships. That is, they need to make a concerted effort to tackle power imbalances in the design, delivery and dissemination of research.

Addressing the growing issue of safeguarding is an essential component of this approach to decolonisation. As part of the team who delivered a major project on safeguarding in international development research for the UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR), we defined safeguarding as the responsibility to anticipate, mitigate and address harm. In developing Safeguarding Guidance for those involved throughout the international research chain, from funders to participants, our priority was to frame it around the rights of survivors and whistle-blowers and the principles of equity, fairness, transparency and accountability.

The COVID-19 specific advice we produced to accompany the Guidance was an acknowledgement of how the rush to develop research at this time could steamroller over principles of equitable partnership and research integrity, and create additional safeguarding risks and harms that might be overlooked or deprioritised.

Research processes and safeguarding – an exercise of power
The safeguarding focus of the UK international development sector, in response to the Oxfam Haiti scandal in particular, has been primarily, and rightly, on the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. When we conducted a wide-ranging international consultation on safeguarding for UKCDR, however, the issues that came to the fore were much more diverse, speaking to longstanding underlying inequalities in international research relationships that still need to be addressed.

Our findings illuminated the various levels at which the lack of adequate attention to equity and fairness, accompanied by a failure to implement necessary actions to mitigate and address harms in research, provides opportunities for different forms of abuse and exploitation. Moreover, it embeds a culture of Global North/Global South research partnerships that are inherently unfair, especially in relation to funding, pay, authorship and representation.

Our approach to the consultation and authorship of the resulting Guidance was a deliberate effort to put into practice the principles of a decolonised research relationship. The methodology included collaborating with Global South partners on equal terms; the four consultants involved, based in Guatemala, Sierra Leone, India and the UK, were all paid at the UK daily rate, and all were given equal co-authorship with the UK-based Principal Investigator and Research Director.

Data collection took place via an online survey in English, Spanish and French that attracted 555 responses globally, in-depth interviews in three regional hubs (Latin America and the Caribbean, West Africa and South Asia) and events/workshops with stakeholder groups in the UK, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania. We received consistent feedback during the consultation process, through all data collection methods and across geographical regions, that a fixed set of requirements would not only be impractical but also potentially reinforce Global North/Global South power dynamics. In acknowledgement of this, the Guidance is framed as a series of key questions for different audiences to ask themselves and each other as we all think about our roles and our responsibilities in preventing and addressing harm in international research practice.

The power to define risk, vulnerability and harm came through strongly as indicative of the position Global South partners inhabit in the hierarchy of international research relationships. Not only does this echo colonial thinking, which by its very nature presents those who are the ‘other’ as more risky, but it illustrates how using a narrow Northern lens to see what is risky or harmful is likely to restrict the ability to perceive forms of harm outside that context.

As one of our Latin America key informants stated: “These efforts have to start from a change in mentality and that implies working with people to see what they cannot see. Because preventing means avoiding, and in order to avoid you have to anticipate; you can’t see something that you do not have the mindset for….”

A persistent colonial voyeurism or prurience (often linked to some version of the saviour complex or pity-based humanitarianism) also seems to characterise certain areas of study, in which research ‘subjects’ are expected to relive trauma and be revictimized for the professional advancement of the researcher. An East African community-based organisation of and for former child combatants shared with us an example of how they ensure safeguarding in research, namely the active involvement of potential participants in co-creating the research agenda and interview schedule. This includes identifying the kinds of questions they do and do not wish to be asked.

The consensus among the ex-combatants is that questions such as “How many people have you killed?” and “How many men forced you to have sex with them?” – which they have been asked repeatedly by successive researchers – are retraumatising and unacceptable. They want more emphasis on positive questions about the present and future, e.g. “What skills do you have that you are contributing to this community?” and “What are your hopes and aspirations for the future?” In this way, participants in a highly sensitive area of research have been able to exercise choice and control to ensure that their needs and rights are respected throughout the research process.

It is incumbent upon researchers, in the words of Harvard Professor of African and African American Studies Glenda Carpio, to “represent injustice but guard against the commodification of suffering.

What does the pandemic mean for the future of research partnerships and the approach to safeguarding?
A window of opportunity has now opened, but it is no guarantee of future equity. We have seen false dawns before: key moments when ethics and safeguarding have risen up the priority rankings and attracted both the public’s and the government’s attention (e.g. after the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and Oxfam Haiti scandals). However, despite the rhetoric of ‘never again’, these have not always resulted in more equitable or ‘fair’ systems.

As activist researchers in the UK, we must seize this opportunity to embed new ways of working that redress inequities and amplify the voices of our counterparts in the Global South. Nevertheless, there are obvious limits to decolonising efforts initiated (even if done as equitably as possible) by researchers in the Global North. There is a further risk of the decolonising agenda being reduced to something ‘added on’ to existing practice, rather than genuinely displacing it – e.g. changing a reading list in a university course, rather than actually challenging power structures that are maintained and perpetuated by the institution.

Of course this is relevant not only for international research. UK research relationships are equally riddled with power imbalances, with minoritized people circumscribed as the participants and beneficiaries of research, but hardly ever the architects. There is surely a danger that a gesture or nod in the direction of greater equity between research partners, whether in the UK or overseas, may take the place of confronting deeper structural imbalances and acknowledging the need for a continuous and open process that is able to challenge the research establishment as a whole.

To ensure that risk, harm and vulnerability are locally defined and the responses are locally led, owned and sustained, Global North researchers have to be ready and willing to give up some of their power in this relationship. Ultimately, a decolonised approach to safeguarding means that we produce higher quality, more equitable research that has a better chance of delivering long-term change and benefits.


Linnea Renton, MA, MPH is Research Fellow on Safeguarding for the Antislavery Knowledge Network at the University of Liverpool. She was the Delivery Lead for the UKCDR Safeguarding consultation process and co-author of the resulting Report, Guidance and COVID-19 supplement. Leona Vaughn is a Derby Research Fellow at University of Liverpool for the research theme of ‘Slavery and Unfree Labour’. Her research interests are interdisciplinary approaches to risk/harm in the design and delivery of modern slavery research, especially anticolonial methods and methodologies which centre minoritized groups (e.g. women, children, BIPOC, LGBTQI+). Thanks to Professor Alex Balch for useful comments on an earlier draft.

Image Credit: UKCDR, 2020