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Ethical practice in evaluation is everyone’s business

by Keren Winterford

Applying ethical principles in evaluation is about making fair and just choices relevant to the context, culture of participants and evaluation purpose. In fact, whenever we speak to a person – a participant or stakeholder - as part of an evaluation, we need to think about ethics.

Why? Because this type of thinking ensures that our practice, at a bare minimum, is risk management, and adheres to the fundamental principle of ‘do no harm.’ It also shapes your relationships with participants and stakeholders as one of trust, mutual responsibility and ethical equality.

It is only through such practice that evaluation provides an important contribution to effective policy and change.

Creating a culture of ethical inquiry

We can think about ethics as critical and essential to avoid risk for participants of an evaluation, but we can equally consider the value of applying ethics to inform your ‘best-practice evaluation’. The culture of ethical inquiry helps us to consider the design options for our evaluation plan. 

Many evaluators may not consider their work as research, but evaluations share the same interaction with ‘human subjects’ as other research activities. However, the purpose of evaluations often links more directly to policy and programming decisions. The definition of research is broader and is “an original investigation undertaken to gain knowledge, understanding and insight” (The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, 2018).

A culture of ethical inquiry in evaluation is about an appreciation of justice relevant to different contexts, peoples, and cultures. Ethical inquiry is why and how to make choices with integrity in evaluation design and implementation. A culture of ethical inquiry is not just going through the formal compliance processes associated with university-housed Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) when working with human participants.

An example of encouraging a culture of ethical inquiry is the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) working in partnership with the Research for Development Impact Network (RDI Network) to develop an Ethical Research and Evaluation Guidance Note and Checklist. This Guidance Note specifically sets out the requirements for ethical practice in research and evaluation, while reinforcing DFAT's existing policies related to international development management, conduct and risk management. The Guidance Note also embeds the existing international and national codes and frameworks set within the four fundamental ethical principles.

The Four Fundamental Ethical Principles

Four Fundamental Ethical Principles

© Image by RDI Network 2021

There are four principles central to ethical practice in evaluation. These principles underpin the Guidance Note and are consistent to the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research set out by the Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

The principles are:

  • Principle 1: Respect for human beings
    Respect is an overarching consideration that recognises the intrinsic value of ever human being. Respect involves honouring the rights, privacy, dignity, and diversity of those contributing to research. 

  • Principle 2: Beneficence
    Underpinned by the concept of ‘do no harm’ and involves managing risks to participants and ensuring benefit. 

  • Principle 3: Research merit and integrity
    High quality, well-designed evaluation, conducted by individuals or organisations with sufficient experience and research competence.

  • Principle 4: Justice
    Related to equity: a fair process for recruitment of participants; no unfair burden of participation on particular groups; no deliberate exclusion of minority voices and fair distribution of, and access to, the benefits of participation in evaluation.

The principles are presented separately but intrinsically interlinked. The application of one principle can reinforce another. The opposite is also true and negative feedback loops can occur. For example, if there is no ‘merit or integrity’ in the evaluation design, justice or beneficence may not be realised. This may look like the quality of the evaluation findings is compromised because key stakeholders are excluded from evaluation consultations. The findings may lack merit because the evaluator has not heard from a wide range of stakeholder perspectives.

More importantly, the principles provide the basis on which choices can be made in the design and implementation of evaluations. Another example may be amending or adjusting data collection tools or methods to include key stakeholders who may speak a different language or have limited accessibility.

Various choices and decisions in your evaluation design and planning add up to informing the merit and integrity of your evaluation findings. Consider how you would write up an evaluation report that considers the privacy of evaluation participants and is accessible to a wide range of program participants to ensure beneficence from the evaluation findings.

Investing in these methods prior to commencing research is crucial for the research and impact on stakeholders and the broader development community.

The four fundamental ethical principles are easily applied when you consider your position as having a respectful relationship with those who participate in your evaluation.

Guidance for ethical evaluation practice

There is a wealth of freely available resources available to both commissioners and implementors of evaluation to strengthen ethical evaluation practice. In international development and humanitarian aid, there are numerous resources such as:

The above resources are relevant to anyone who commissions, develops, manages, conducts, or reviews research and evaluation, particularly in relation to poverty reduction, development, and social justice.

Ensuring ethical practice is informed by local and cultural contexts includes distinct guidance when working on research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Refer to Ethical conduct in research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities: Guidelines for researchers and stakeholders 2018.

Please note that due to the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples, there is no blanket advice to cover all communities. It is encouraged that evaluators consult locally to understand cultural protocols that are in place for their area..

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Dr Keren Winterford has more than 20 years' work experience in the international development sector. Keren's areas of expertise include monitoring and evaluation; research design in partnership, particularly with NGOs; participatory research; facilitation and training; and strengths-based approaches. She has a passion and commitment to ethical research and evaluation practice.

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