Co-designing guidance on safeguarding: lessons on power and knowledge production 

Co-designing guidance on safeguarding: lessons on power and knowledge production 
17 October, 2023

Reflecting on the legacy of the 2018 London Safeguarding Summit five years on 

Prof. Alex Balch and Dr. Leona Vaughn 

Five years ago today, five UK research funders – The Department for International Development (DFID); the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS); the Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC); UK Research and Innovation (UKRI); and Wellcomejointly committed to prevent and tackle all incidents of harm and abuse in international development research, and pledged to raise safeguarding standards across the sector.  

In the past five years UKCDR has been working closely with them to implement these commitments. Most importantly, in April 2020 we published guidance on safeguarding in international development research, and a companion piece on the practical application of this guidance during COVID-19.  

To mark the five-year anniversary of this landmark moment, we asked two of the guidance authors to write a blog post, reflecting on the co-design process that led to this publication. 

When we had the opportunity to work with UKCDR to develop guidance on safeguarding for international development research in 2019/2020, we had already completed a series of projects with partners in Africa focusing on prevention and protection from harm in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our learnings from that work highlighted the importance of local knowledge for determining risk and safety and the context-specific nature of protection issues. Moreover, it also demonstrated the value of safeguarding as a topic for partners to discuss and critique, expanding how we conceptualise power, dignity, and voice in development research.  

The task of developing new guidance on safeguarding was therefore an exciting one, but immediately raised some significant challenges and questions for us: How could guidance on safeguarding support the international development research sector to improve its practices when the term itself is quite specific to the UK? Considering the linkages between safeguarding scandals and underlying power imbalances in the sector – how can the guidance be produced in a way that is equitable, inclusive and ethical? And how can we make sure that guidance is relevant and useful to all the different actors and organisations involved when their positionalities, alongside the nature of risks and responsibilities in differing contexts, are so diverse and uneven?

We began by bringing together a network of research organisations, partners, and consultants based in South Asia, West Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean into ‘regional hubs’ to co-design the project. While the project was led by the University of Liverpool, it had a deliberately inclusive, collaborative, anti-colonial design that itself aimed to model good practice in international research partnerships. The resulting method was a combination of direct, centralised and devolved data-gathering. This was not only to maximise the quality of feedback on safeguarding principles, but also to mitigate risks that the consultation process would create a kind of echo-chamber. The challenge was to hear a wide range of views, rather than reflecting only those of academics and practitioners based in the UK, who tend to occupy a specific set of roles in relation to the practice of developing, running and implementing research projects. Instead of ‘safeguarding’, the phrase ‘preventing and addressing harm in international research’ was purposefully adopted in the survey on the advice of our international partners, to convey what safeguarding could mean in the context of international development research.  

The power of some actors to define risk, vulnerability and harm, as well as who is determined to be a victim or survivor, came through strongly in the findings of the consultation. A sense of disempowerment in deciding which processes and mechanisms were used was reported as indicative of the position Global South partners regularly inhabit in the hierarchy of international research relationships. They do not get to lead these conversations. They are regularly viewed as the recipients or beneficiaries of Global North research and policy, but not the equal producers of knowledge. We were told that a lack of adequate attention paid 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 to flourish. 

The guidance we co-produced with our network of experts identified four underpinning principles:  

  1. the rights of victims and survivors and whistle-blowers (of safeguarding breaches);  
  1. equity and fairness;  
  1. transparency and accountability; and  
  1. good governance.  

We then generated a series of questions in relation to these four areas for different research actors in the international development space to ask themselves and those they worked with. The aim throughout was not only to validate and refine pre-existing guiding principles for safeguarding, but also to consider how such principles can translate into practical actions for all stakeholders who shape practice across the various, and often challenging, social, legal, cultural, and economic landscapes of international development research

We are proud of the guidance we created, and the feedback has been very positive since it was launched. As activist researchers, we were keen to seize this opportunity to embed new ways of working, to redress inequities and amplify the voices of our counterparts in the Global South. The method and approach to consultation and engagement we developed with international partners has provided us with further lessons for developing our work through meaningful collaboration. Nevertheless, there are obvious limits to decolonial approaches initiated (even if done as equitably as possible) by researchers in/from the Global North. We are keen to understand what impact, if any, the guidance has had for research since its publication. Especially given the global turmoil of COVID-19 and the urgent call of the Black Lives Matter movement in the immediate period following publication.  

Photo credit: Jr Korpa via Unsplash

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