Hazards and disaster researchers often conduct research in settings where disasters have recently occurred.Depending on the location of the disaster, researchers may be entering international disaster zones where they may not be familiar with the local culture or language.1 Research should be driven by the needs of local populations, but far too often, it is determined by media coverage, politics, and access to funding.2 This leaves many scholars wondering whether it is ethical for outsiders to go to places where people are struggling to recover and likely have other priorities than answering questions about their experiences.
Recent disaster events have shed light on how an influx of outside researchers can lead to the exploitation of disaster affected populations.1 For example, during the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, local cultural norms and customs were often disregarded and vulnerable populations were not always explicitly told that they were participating in research.3 These ethical breaches and the lack of cultural humility led to criticism by both local communities and scholars who described foreign researchers as collecting data for their own gain and not appropriately engaging with the locals.4
Entering International Disaster Zones: The Case of the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami
Following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, hundreds of foreign researchers from the U.S., Japan, Russia, France, and other countries descended on the region to collect perishable data. One hard-hit region—the Aceh province in Indonesia where more than 128,000 people died—experienced an inundation of foreign scholars. The influx of scientists led certain communities to be overstudied, contributing to respondent fatigue and frustration.1 As described by the former governor of Aceh province, foreign researchers acted like “guerrillas applying hit-and-run tactics” (p. 376).4
Years later in 2018, when an earthquake and tsunami hit the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, many foreign researchers were unable to enter the country.5 This was because Indonesia had passed a law requiring foreign scientists to obtain a special visa before entering the country to conduct research. To obtain the visa, researchers needed to submit data collection protocols to the government in advance and collaborate with an Indonesian partner. Researchers who violate these terms could face criminal charges and even prison.1
Examples of international restrictions for research are not limited to Indonesia. In the Philippines, research on disaster trauma is only allowed in exceptional cases; Brazil requires all foreigners to have a special visa to conduct research in the country; and New Zealand asks researchers to clearly identify the intended benefit of the study being proposed.1 These requirements are intended to protect vulnerable disaster-affected communities from research-related harm, but they also can lead to dire consequences for researchers and a potential chilling effect on scientific inquiry.
Given the lack of universal research ethics committees in international settings, researchers can also face ethical and logistical challenges in interpreting and applying ethical principles and regulations abroad. U.S. IRBs have noted the wide variations in quality, training, and resources among research ethics committees in low- and middle-income countries.6 A lack of understanding of other cultures’ perspectives on autonomy and risks and benefits of daily life also make it difficult to interpret IRB-regulated rules in these settings.
1.Gaillard J, Peek L. Disaster-zone research needs a code of conduct. Nature. 2019;575(7783):440-442. doi:10.1038/d41586-019-03534-z
2.Barber K, Haney TJ. The experiential gap in disaster research: Feminist epistemology and the contribution of local affected researchers. Sociological Spectrum. 2016;36(2). doi:10.1080/02732173.2015.1086287
3.Sumathipala A, Siribaddana S. Research and clinical ethics after the tsunami: Sri Lanka. The Lancet. 2005;366(9495). doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)67581-2
4.Missbach A. Ransacking the field? Critical Asian Studies. 2011;43(3). doi:10.1080/14672715.2011.597334
5.Schiermeier Q. Tsunami scientists clash with Indonesian government over rules on foreign research. Nature. 2018;562(7727). doi:10.1038/d41586-018-07030-8
6.Klitzman RL. US IRBs confronting research in the developing world. Developing World Bioethics. 2012;12(2). doi:10.1111/j.1471-8847.2012.00324.x