Navigating Complex Field Research Ethics in Botswana

I was conducting my first research interviews at the Botswana Innovation Hub in the summer of 2017, working to develop an ethnographic evaluation study of the Botswana innovation ecosystem. After each intense interview, I asked my respondents how I could make the insights more useful to them. Many gave answers I didn’t expect; instead of answering my question, they posed pressing questions of their own: “So, what do you think about the innovation ecosystem? What issues does it have, and what can be done to make it better?”

At first, these questions caught me off guard. I neither had the time nor the research team to adequately answer the questions the way they deserved. Moreover, to ensure my respondents wouldn’t be swayed by my opinions, I had designed the research so they would answer that question for themselves. Who was I, as a new researcher in the country, to define how an innovation ecosystem should look?

Still, I continued to get these questions from entrepreneurs, researchers, and policymakers in many interviews. There was a clear undercurrent of concern that my research, whatever the outcomes, would be worthwhile to them and their activities. Clearly, I needed to find a way to ensure my research reflected their needs, which is why I needed to revamp the ethics of my research from square one.

A Crash Course in Research Ethics

When looking for guidance on ethics, the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles, researchers commonly lean on institutional review boards (IRB). Also called an independent ethics committee, ethical review board, or research ethics board, an IRB is a committee that reviews a research design to ensure it follows moral guidelines. This system aims to ensure that research respondents are protected from unethical activity during both research design and implementation.

There are many examples of unethical research through history that fertilized the ground for worldwide ethics oversight systems. The most infamous examples are well known: the Nazi leadership that carried out the Holocaust highlighted during the Nuremburg Trials (1945-1946); the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments (1932-1972), a project headed by the U.S. Public Health Service that injected black men with syphilis under the auspices of free health care; and the Stanford Prison Experiments (1971), where the psychological effects of volunteers were studied when they acted out the roles of prisoners and prison officers.

After these abuses, the United States ratified the National Research Act of 1974 and developed the Belmont Report, which outlined ethical principles for human subjects reviews. Researchers must prove three main standards across their designs: that subject risk is balanced by the potential benefits to society, that the subjects can give consent to the activity, and that the risks and benefits are fairly distributed across the potential participants.

While there is clearly a long history of ethics in research, ethics in innovation practice is a new topic, and an intensely debated one at that. Silicon Valley innovation giants like Facebook have previously held the credo of “move fast and break things,” which emphasizes creative speed and growth, instead of understanding how their activities can cause harm. The media has widely publicized how these values have reaped international consequences, ranging from privacy issues to potentially treasonous political influence. Enforcing ethics in innovation is even more difficult because these private innovation actors have few institutions that can hold them widely accountable. It is clearer than ever that in the era of exponentially faster innovative development, the consequences of innovation can be harrowing.

Uniquely, innovation is a topic that is also widely touted as the next potential solution to addressing multidimensional poverty. A World Bank study in 2018 stated that the amount of registered tech hubs in Africa increased by 50% since 2016, and organizations like the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are investing heavily in accelerator labs and innovation offices. Now is the time to begin discussing how to ensure innovation practice is ethically sound, especially in the context of global development.

Fortunately, specialists in the field are starting to develop a foundation of best practices. For instance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review posted an article that describes a collection of ethical principles when innovating for development:

  • designing with the user,
  • understanding the existing ecosystem,
  • designing for scale,
  • building for sustainability,
  • being data driven,
  • using open standards, open data, open source, and open innovation,
  • reusing and improving,
  • doing no harm, and by
  • being collaborative.

Recently, business thinkers have advocated for remaking ethics systems throughout the private sector by selecting for committed leaders, building trust through transparency, eliminating biases through testing, and making ethics universal through a company’s processes and outcomes. The field of ethics is still evolving, and innovators aiming to do social good must hold themselves to a high ethical standard—even as the field continues to evolve. Innovation in global development is even more in need of high ethical standards, because of the histories of extraction, imperialism, and damaging colonialism. Researchers who understand the complex history of ethics institutions, like the ones I encountered in Botswana, will ensure they make morally sound research decisions.

Ethical Histories in Botswana

This story starts with the San, a disenfranchised indigenous minority located throughout Southern Africa. There are few groups of people whose cultures are better documented in research: recently, genetic anthropologists concluded that the origin of human migration is in South-Western Africa, the homeland of San communities. The San in Botswana have also experienced institutional disenfranchisement, discrimination, and oppression for centuries. Researchers have been some of the worst offenders: early anthropologists, whose narratives institutionalized colonialist policies that robbed land and constricted San cultures, took data on the shapes and sizes of their faces, the sizes of their sex organs, the ways they made love, and other unspeakable acts. These researchers’ accounts of San culture have become rendered as truth, and the San have been robbed of the ability to tell their own stories.  

In response to these atrocities, institutions have been built to advocate, support, and empower the many San communities in Botswana. The San Research Centre, for instance, was founded out of a collaboration between the University of Botswana and the University of Tromsø to form a research institute focused on San issues. The program engaged in various support activities, from hosting research conferences to supporting research grants, scholarships, study trips, and San Youth capacity building projects that used affirmative action programs to recruit students with minority backgrounds into academic communities. The San Research Centre also contributed largely to the publication of a San Code of Research Ethics in 2017, which emphasizes research collaborations based on respect, honesty, care, justice, and fairness.

Any investigator that aims to conduct research with the San requires an IRB with San Research Centre certification. My personal research experience started with a unique San community in D’Kar, where I worked with over sixty people to develop local innovations to address unique issues of villagers in the Kalahari Desert. Though the San Research Centre isn’t the only institution that regulates research in the country, their extra emphasis on local ethical bureaucracy reflects the national mandate to protect the San from unethical behavior. The ethics dynamics in the country are complex, and they require researchers to ethically reflect on their work. Personally, the exercise revealed the question I constantly grappled with in the field:

“How will I ensure the most marginalized are not exploited by my research?”

Modifying Research On The Fly

When I started my research, I didn’t have an answer to this question.

I dove into the research with an understanding that the Botswana innovation communities is a new and evolving cultural space. I knew that by using ethnography, I could learn and include unique cultural artifacts I didn’t expect, and I could be open to shifting my research direction as a result. I did not intend to evaluate success or failure of the Botswana innovation ecosystem by my own measures, but instead, by asking others about their evaluation methods, I would learn how they define successful innovation. Moreover, I acquired two separate IRBs which reflected the credibility of my research design: from the University of Botswana, and from my home university, the University of California, Berkeley.

Over time, I learned the insights that brought value to this new community were different than the insights I intended to collect. I began to add interview questions about the nature and qualities of the growing innovation system: who the stakeholders are, what their motivations are, and how they are connected with each other. In time, people began offering their opinions about all parts of the growing ecosystem. I learned about academic silos, impact-based entrepreneurship, funding issues, theories of spreading innovation, and countless other topics.

At the same time, innovating with the passionate San in the Kalahari desert revealed how the community has been overexposed by researchers, entrepreneurs, and development expatriates throughout history. This unique village has experienced decades of harmful development activity hidden from the view of visitors like me. The Dutch Reformed Church, the Kuru Development Trust, the Naro Bible Translation project, even long-term entrepreneurship education programs were all invisible to us, but made an indelible impact on the D’Kar community and politics. If I wasn’t careful, my research ran the risk of doubling down on exhaustive development activity with no outcomes. Ethically, I asked myself: what type of research would be both unique and useful to this interventionist-fatigued community?

I decided to pivot parts of my research from focusing on the current San to the development professionals who came in the first place. By learning from the community members and aged texts throughout history, this research revealed a timeline of development activity that future expatriates can learn from. Though visitors and expatriates yearn to help, they offer assistance based on their own expertise and the problems they’re personally exposed to, while much of the systemic issues of institutional disconnection remain unaddressed. In doing so, the decades of activity have made a ‘development oasis’ – where people constantly contribute aid, skills, education, or funding, but it largely adds to development fatigue and more convoluted intra-village politics. If development practitioners truly want to help in a different way, the history detailed in my dissertation can be used to reframe how they can best help the villagers in this unique community.

For Whom Does Your Research Serve?

Traditionally, scientific research is considered useful if it is both novel and beneficial to the world. Clearly, the examples I’ve discussed here from my own work highlight the need to rethink if research, even IRB-certified work, benefits everyone equally. Just like in the past, Botswana has a tenuous relationship with external researchers, since researchers have a history of using the knowledge for their own needs, and excluding Botswana citizens from the research process. Today, international researchers must be the ones who change this narrative.

Sometimes, research might reveal unexpected obstacles, and the outcomes of the research might not be clear until the work begins to influence those on the ground. However, this obstacle is also an opportunity: researchers can learn how their research designs can be more impactful, effective, and ethical through contextual introspection. Ultimately, it is the researcher’s responsibility to integrate the complex ethics of a space into their research. My research was clearly designed for change and adaptation; preliminary IRB work can only prepare a researcher for so much ethical conflict. Therefore, researchers must be trained to be flexible, empathetic, and knowledgeable about the historical and present context.

As innovation practice thrives on negotiating and distilling complexity, there are never fully clear and repeatable answers to what is moral and immoral. Good and bad isn’t cut and dried, and sometimes research ethics are different than the practical and appropriate ethics when in the field. Before we can turn our world into a better one, researchers must grapple with what exactly it means to be “better”, and how the definition of “better” depends on circumstance. Being aware, responsive, and available for change is cornerstone to ethical behavior, in research and in innovation.

Featured image:  Pierce Gordon working in Botswana. Source: Pierce Gordon.

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