Making Research Safe

Making Research Safe
18 October, 2019

Reflections on our progress towards safeguarding in international development research one year on

Nicole Huxley and Sheila Mburu

One year 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 the Wellcome Trust  jointly committed to prevent and tackle all incidents of harm and abuse in international development research, and pledged to raise safeguarding standards across  the sector. 

UKCDR have been working closely with them to implement these commitments.  In this blog post, we look back on our collective progress towards this, and reflect on the lessons we have learned.

With guidance from the Safeguarding Funders Group and Safeguarding Expert Advisory Group, we have been developing a set of principles and best practice on safeguarding to support international development research funders, universities, research institutes and other organisations conducting development research.  

We commissioned an independent evidence review led by Dr David Orr  and his team at the University of Sussex. The review sought to characterise the nature of specific safeguarding issues and challenges which arise in the international development research context, identify existing guidance and review its implementation. The evidence review highlighted draft principles and good safeguarding practice, and the key findings were summarised in a briefing paper  published in June this year.  

The key lessons we learned from the review are:  

1. Defining and understanding safeguarding can be difficult

The term safeguarding is relatively new, and until recently was used almost exclusively in the UK. Along with the recent broadening of the term in the international development research context (to include bullying and other forms of violence and harassment), differences in understanding of what is meant by safeguarding has been a challenge, particularly when engaging actors new to international development research and stakeholders in low-and middle income countries. Research interviews in LMICs spoke of ‘what we call ethics, and you are now calling safeguarding’.  

Dr Orr’s team found that once people understood the broader definition of safeguarding identified in the evidence review, many could more clearly identify good practice. One respondent remarked ‘actually I’m already doing these things. I just haven’t put it under that safeguarding heading’.  

Over the past year, research funders have collaborated with donors, NGO’s and the private sector to clarify and harmonise the definition in the context of international development research.

2. There is a need to develop training and skills on safeguarding 

One important role of safeguarding training and guidance is to highlight the scope and relevance of safeguarding, even for researchers whose work does not necessarily bring them into significant direct contact with communities. Some research by its nature (such as gender–based violence), prioritises safeguarding risks.  However, researchers in other areas may be less used to considering safeguarding. As one biomedical researcher commented ‘we are dealing with labs rather than refugees’

Currently, research organisations vary in the extent, availability and scope of safeguarding training. Going forward, it will be important to ensure effective safeguarding training is provided to all those involved in, or undertaking development research. Therefore, training should support all members of the research community to identify safeguarding issues, common risks and responsibilities and provide support for reporting and responding to reports.   

3. Risks and vulnerabilities are higher for women, early career researchers and field workers  

The evidence review found that safeguarding risks and vulnerabilities for researchers and research participants are unequally distributed. Women, junior researchers and local fieldworkers are more likely to be at risk of violence and harassment by fellow researchers and/or risks posed by particular research contexts. While no research is without risks, safeguarding policies and planning should anticipate and take reasonable steps to address these risk factors and support at-risk groups.   

4. Mutual learning and equitable partnerships are important for good practice 

Introduction of safeguarding due diligence has sometimes increased demands and workload on partners in LMIC partners, potentially replicating unequal power dynamics. We want to develop best practice guidelines based on mutual learning and discussion, appreciating that in-country partners are often clearest about safeguarding risks. ‘The more grassroots the organisation, the more likely they are to understand these issues. That’s their lived experience’.  

Therefore, it will be important to ensure that development and implementation of the final safeguarding guidance is done in the spirit of equitable partnerships with LMIC stakeholders, emphasising the importance of mutual learning rather than a process which imposes UK-centric standards on partners. 

5. Policies must lead to culture change and practical action

Safeguarding is much more than principles and guidance. In order for this work to be impactful, it will not be enough to develop well-written policies. Real culture change must happen, and victims must be empowered to believe that they will be listened to and that people in power will be held to account. As one interviewee said: ‘It’s down to people’s trust and willingness to use the reporting systems in place’

This work represents the start of a long-term ambition. DFID, BEIS, Wellcome, DHSC and UKRI, supported by UKCDR are all committed to going beyond policy and driving forward real change across the sector, to ensure people are safe and protected wherever they are located.  

What are we doing now?

Guided by the outputs of the evidence review, we will be conducting online and face-to-face consultations, starting in November, with a wide stakeholder base in the UK and in low- and middle-income countries. We believe that these consultations are pivotal to the impact of this work, and will ensure that our guidance is relevant, inclusive, and implementable.  

Incorporating input from these consultations, we will produce a finalised set of principles and best practice guidance, for use by relevant stakeholders. 

We are hoping that as many stakeholders as possible from within and beyond the research community get involved to feed back their thoughts on our draft principles and guidelines.  If you want to be involved, get in touch at

We look forward to hearing from you! 

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