As research interacts with the humanitarian and development sphere, some effort has been made to harmonize core theoretical concepts between the two such as gender and conflict sensitivity and participatory approaches. While gender sensitive and participatory frameworks seek to ensure that local perspectives-- particularly those which have been historically marginalized-- are heard and incorporated into research and humanitarian activities, conflict sensitivity encourages implementers to think about how their activities impact target communities. Further, as a response to the fact that research is too often an extractive, top-down process, a clear push towards participatory approaches has emerged in recent years. This means there are efforts to ensure that local communities play a larger role in designing and executing project activities.
While the notion of protection has been foregrounded in humanitarian and development circles in recent years, only bits and pieces of the concept have been incorporated into research practices. This is particularly true when research activities, often led by scholars and practitioners from the global North, are executed in remote and fragile settings.
What is Protection in Research?
“Protection,” as understood in the humanitarian field, is defined as “activities aimed at obtaining full respect for the right of all individuals, without discrimination, in accordance with the relevant bodies of law” (Global Protection Cluster 2016). According to the Global Protection Cluster (2016) “Protection” encompasses four themes which should be applied across all humanitarian programming:
Prioritizing safety and dignity and avoiding harm: Aid interventions should both seek to promote the physical safety and well-being of participants, and ensure that the aid process doesn’t expose participants to further risk.
Meaningful access: Assistance should be provided without discrimination and in proportion to need, with particular attention paid to individuals or groups who may be marginalized because of race, class, gender, age, or disability.
Accountability: Programs should be managed and delivered in a transparent manner, with appropriate feedback and complaints mechanisms available to beneficiaries.
Participation and empowerment: Affected communities should be involved in shaping the design and administration of aid.
While concepts like Do No Harm and non-discrimination have been cornerstone ethical principles of sociological research for more than a century, surprisingly little work has been done to systematically integrate the four Protection principles into contemporary research activities. How then can we incorporate protection principles into research activities conducted in fragile and remote environments?
On the one hand, protection-related issues like safety, access, inclusivity and participation should be worked into the design of a research exercise. Practical steps-- like conferring about sociopolitical dynamics with journalists or local NGOs, can be taken to ensure that the perspectives of women and elderly are included in a context analysis; field researchers can be instructed to conduct interviews in spaces where vulnerable participants feel safe during the implementation phase. In the subsequent posts these technical activities are referred to as the “programmatic” level of a research process.
However, research does not exist purely in the realm of programmatic choices. Research is an inherently social process in which interpersonal interactions occur at a micro level between participants, researchers, translators, field teams and institutional funders (Celestina, 2018). Instilling a Protection-lens to the social level of research is less a function of specific technical guidance. Rather, it requires active critical reflection on how power dynamics between different actors affect the process of research. Throughout the research process, the four Protection principles should be upheld both on a programmatic level and on a social level.
But what does this mean in practical terms?
The following post will examine how protection can be incorporated into the Context Analysis stage of research at both the programmatic and social levels.