We're just here to help: disaster research in developing countries
A recent opinion in SciDev warns against the potential for disaster research in the developing world to become an example of The Shock Doctrine. While there is obviously nothing intrinsically wrong about doing research in the midst of a disaster -- such research is needed to improve future disaster responses -- there are ways to doing it that threaten to increase the vulnerability of disaster victims. Author Athula Sumathipala speaks from experience:
Because natural disasters are often sudden (like cyclones) research can sometimes start without proper scientific rigour or ethical consideration. Researchers may rush to collect data, without adequate planning.
This can lead to undue pressure to participate, particularly when research is combined with humanitarian aid or clinical care. Some survivors may not even realise they are taking part in research.
In my home country of Sri Lanka, for example, the 2004 tsunami was followed by a huge influx of foreign organisations and individuals offering humanitarian aid, including counselling. Some advocated compulsory counselling for survivors, though this runs against recommendations from the WHO and the Cochrane Collaboration — a not-for-profit organisation that provides information on the effects of health care.
In parallel to these 'services', doctoral students from developed countries acquired data to finish their theses, harassed survivors with numerous questionnaires and even collected blood to research neurobiological stress markers. In the rush to provide assistance, a lack of familiarity with local customs caused cultural insensitivities. For example, many people would prefer to seek help from a temple rather than a therapist.
To counteract the feeding frenzy of 'help' from disaster researchers, Sumathipala promotes the usual sort of things: consultation on the needs and priorities of affected communities, the involvement of ethics review committees, and development of international guidelines specific to this type of research.