Disaster Research Ethics – A Luxury or a Necessity for Developing Countries?
Dr. Chesmal Siriwardhana
Sri Lanka, along with many other south and Southeast Asian countries has had the unfortunate experience of facing disasters of various types. Natural disasters like tsunami, floods, earthquakes, droughts and landslides create havoc in many Asian regions regularly while man made disasters such as terrorist attacks and bombings also devastate the populations and create instability throughout Asia. These cataclysmic events, natural or otherwise hugely affect communities and countries making them helpless and vulnerable socially, economically and in various other ways.
The 2004 Tsunami that stuck the shores of the pristine island of Sri Lanka wrecked the serene beauty of the Lankan shoreline. The devastation was too vast to be comprehended fully. The tragic loss of human life was beyond measure while with one massive wave the sea had destroyed economic lifelines of many. The country faced a nightmare with valuable infrastructure completely destroyed and many commercial industries washed away beyond repair.
Like Sri Lanka, the 2004 Tsunami struck many shores around Asia leaving massive death and destruction in its wake. The whole world reverberated with the post-tsunami shock waves. In 2005, a deadly quake hit Pakistan where thousands of people were reported killed or missing. The humanitarian catastrophe caused by that massive earthquake still haunts Pakistan unresolved.
Many questions were raised about disaster prone Asian countries after these calamitous events occurred. Most were about their ability to handle large scale catastrophes and how to identify potential disasters beforehand in order to contain the damage caused by them. Lot of questions was raised about the welfare of affected communities, their health matters and resettlement issues.
Many countries, particularly from the western hemisphere, were shocked by the carnage, destruction and human misery that appeared on the aftermath of these disasters. They were prompt to offer help to the affected countries in various forms. Some were financial donations and some contained much needed provisions for the affected while still some others offered human resources to handle various health and labor needs. Most of these actions were taken with utter good faith to help humankind in distress and they did help when it was the need of the hour.
But, in certain instances such as the availability of vulnerable and exploitable communities for easy and cheap research, the opportunity was hastily grabbed by unscrupulous academics with out any ethical or moral standards in order to attain their own goals. In many places across Asia, traumatized populations were systematically re-traumatized by subjecting them to unethical research. Parachute research blossomed and cross-border smuggling of genetic and other material proliferated. Local academics were caught unaware at the beginning of this plundering due to the fact that most of these activities were conducted in the guise of helping the affected communities. Details about the extent of vulnerable population exploitation stated to emerge only after sometime and they were truly appalling.
In the Sri Lankan setting, it is evident that this pillage of national property in the form of unethical human research happened mainly due to the absence of a relevant policy structure to deal with similar situations. Sri Lanka hardly had a policy or a plan to deal with a disaster of any kind let alone a side issue like disaster research. This lack of national policy as well as global lack of disaster research ethics policy paved the way for unprincipled and immoral academics to conduct research on vulnerable communities.
Ethical issues regarding research is a much talked about subject globally. There are guidelines on conducting human research in various academic settings. Although ethical guidelines on conducting human research in disaster situations do exist, there is no comprehensive global consensus about the matter. The existing guidelines were mainly formulated by the developed world while very scanty details are there on disaster research ethics in developing countries. Arguably it is credible and necessary to have a different set of guidelines on disaster research ethics in developing countries due to various cultural, social, economical, educational, logistical and political differences that exist and influence disaster situations in developing countries not only in Asia but throughout the world.
In this background, it is the duty of ethicists and researchers from developing countries to formulate strategic guidelines on disaster research ethics because it is them who are aware what needs to be addressed in order to formulate a successful policy on disaster research ethics.
Forum for Research and Development, also known as Institute for research and Development, an independent Sri Lankan academic institution, recently organized an international conference called ‘Disaster Related Research Ethics: Developing world Perspective’ to address the very issue. Leading academic experts on ethics from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines and other countries of the south-east Asian region attended this conference. FRD initiative to address disaster ethics is based on that “the likelihood of various groups and individuals coming to disaster affected countries just to do research without scientific regard or ethical concerns is increasing” according to its director Dr. Athula Sumathipala.
The academics gathered for the conference had another important agenda to achieve. Local and foreign scholars worked together to generate an all important consensus on developing world perspective of disaster research ethics. A panel of local and visiting experts (Working Group on Disaster Research Ethics – WGDRE) held discussions and debated among themselves for two days to formulate the draft statement; ‘Ethical Issues in Disaster Related Research-A Developing World Perspective’
The draft statement thus formed will be circulated among each participant countries academia and professional communities in order to disseminate the information contained in the draft. WGDRE hopes to improve the draft statement further by utilizing feedback from professional communities. It will be then presented to the global community as a position statement from developing world academics.
Forum for Research and Development (Institute for research and Development) organized another important event parallel to the international conference. This was in the form of two bioethics courses for professional development. The basic and advance courses in bioethics aimed to arm researchers of medical and other fields with bioethics knowledge. People from diverse professions such as doctors, nurses, teachers, journalists, biotechnologists, pharmacists and counselors participated for these bioethics courses.
Participants of the bioethics courses had the unique opportunity to learn from local and foreign experts who participated in the conference. These academics also acted as resource persons for the bioethics courses. This interaction led to some unique, mind stimulating discussions, from which the students as well as the faculty benefited immensely.
Professional development in the field of ethics, especially bioethics is an important factor in building a sustainable and ethical research culture in any country. Sri Lanka has a dire need of a sound ethical base in form of guidelines which researchers can use to initiate self-governance in research.
Developed and developing worlds are both vulnerable to disasters of any kind. Socio-economic, cultural and political factors endemic to developing world countries make them and their populations more vulnerable, leaving them prone to increased exploitation by outside agencies. Therefore it is of paramount importance to minimize the risks of potential exploitation of vulnerable communities. Formulating a set of ethical guidelines on disaster related research with the perspective from developing countries is a landmark step towards curbing unethical disaster research exploitation in developing countries.
- Asian Tribune -