Getting prior informed consent – a thorny issue

By Carolien Jacobs

Reflections from field work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

The use of consent forms is a rather thorny issue within the humanitarian aid context of the DRC. Asking people about their lives and taking note of personal details often raises expectations about the provision of aid. Indeed, many people equate interviews with needs assessment and subsequent aid provision. Getting a written informed consent, i.e. asking for signatures, makes interviews more formal and feeds this impression further. Even if we clearly explain our intentions prior to interviewing, these ideas are stuck in people’s heads: ‘If there is an interview, or if you have heard a lot of bullets at night, you know that aid is coming’, as one respondent told us… Such ideas might obviously also impact on the answers people give: If you expect to receive aid, it is better to present yourself as even more vulnerable as you actually are.

However, getting informed consent is not only difficult when conducting interviews with displaced people, but also when conducting interviews with “experts”. It is not always easy to arrange appointments for experts. In addition to the anyway often difficult situation, obtaining consent forms can be an additional hindrance. If we finally manage to get an appointment, signing a form will make the meeting more official. The experts are oftentimes afraid of providing “wrong” answers. In previous research we already experienced that formal meeting requests easily lead to responses such as: “You should first ask permission from ‘my hierarchy’”. However, if that ‘hierarchy’ is the main office of the humanitarian organisation that is based in a faraway country, it can take forever to get such a permission.

Of course, we are aware of the importance of explaining clearly our research intentions and of emphasizing to people that they can also refuse to cooperate. But, even without the use of consent forms (as in previous projects), we would always do this. Getting a signature that proves this, is mostly a way of rendering upward transparency, but is not helpful in practice, sometimes even unhelpful and not necessarily increasing transparency towards our respondents. The 2-pages information sheet that we have to read out to our respondents contains for instance information about the way in which we store our data and encrypt information. This is certainly important for the way in which the project is managed, but for people who probably never have made use of a computer themselves, it will probably not be of great importance. As a team, we are committed to make use of the forms, keeping in mind that we have to do our best to find a balance between upward accountability, downward transparency, and research interests in an optimal way. The coming months will show us how best to strike this balance!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the TRAFIG Consortium or the European Commission (EC). TRAFIG is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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