Ethics is Politics. Whose Ethics counts?

By Pradeep Narayanan, CDJ International Advisory Board

There are innumerable studies on poverty and inclusion. These studies are largely about the poor and those in the margins. Research necessarily requires processes to decipher the reality of poor people to know why they are poor. Often people are poor because they are marginalised. Their participation in the decision making of significant institutions associated with the State and the Market is not strong enough to further their interests. It would be naïve to believe that the research emanating from any of these institutions, where participation of those in margins is negligible, will have active participation of the poor. Like any other programme of these non-inclusive institutions, research, if it proceeds in a conventional way, will reach out to only those who are already influential. Hence, the research will depict the perspectives of the loudest and powerful voices. So there are those people who are powerful and there are those who are powerless. Ideally, research aims to reach out to those who are powerless, so that their reality counts. In other words, positive discrimination towards the voiceless is the very definition of research. Objectivity in research actually means to identify such ’positive discrimination’ processes which would lead those in margins to participate in the study.

Despite many studies insisting on community participation in research, they do not necessarily alter power relationships in favour of the poor. There are a number of reasons for that. Does research ethics play any role? When participatory research moved from tool-centric, extractive research to approach-based community-led processes, what remained constant was the way research institutions controlled the research through ethics. Over the period, the Institutional Review Board has created certain rules and norms that are in the back of the mind of the research-design developer. These rules do influence research questions and methods, as much the use of the product.

Praxis – Institute for Participatory Practices has organised community-led ethical review processes for a number of its studies. As of now, they supplement the Institutional Review Board mechanisms. This is based on certain assumptions. Firstly, there is no the ethics. Ethics is temporal, contextual, social as well as cultural. If the research depends upon temporal, contextual, cultural and social factors, the diversity in the understanding of ethics needs to be integrated into the research design. Secondly, even if common ethical imperatives are discernible among the various emergent perspectives, some degree of prioritisation will tend to be required by an Institutional Review Board, which, for reasons such as time and expertise, may focus more upon one aspect of ethics than another. In that sense, clearly, there is choice making by a set of appointed experts. This means ethics is politics, and depends on the “access to power” of those involved in making those decisions. Finally, there is also ‘received’ ethics, based on the history of what Institutional Review Boards have approved or disapproved over the years. The legacy of these historical decisions often creates varied conceptions of ‘ethics’ among researchers. Hence, there is a varied interpretation of ‘ethics’ even among researcher communities, which, whilst not  monolithic, definitely have a voice to represent them in these platforms to decide what ethics is. Imagine, now, those communities, who are subject of research. They, on the other hand, tend to be voiceless in the way that ethics is defined or in the way that the process of dealing with ethical issues get defined.

Let me take an example of the latest Community-led Ethical Review Board constituted for a bonded labour and child labour study. The composition of the Board consisted of those who are currently child or bonded labour or ex-child or bonded labourers, but below the poverty line and belonging to vulnerable sections of the community. The review process was a two-day process, with one day focusing on training them on ‘ethical review processes’ and the second day being spent on actual review of the study design from an ethics perspective.

The challenge was about the term “ethics”.  The way it was translated in the local language was “How to ‘protect’ powerless in the study from various expressions of power?” The stakeholder mapping was done and various power relationships were drawn. Some of the most prominent power relationships that emerged were of the following categories; (a) between research team and researched; (b) between the research design and researcher, – that is, even if researcher wants to change certain processes, it is impossible because the research design would not allow it; (c) the influence of research methods on the research findings and the researched; (d) among the researched, that is dominant versus voiceless communities; and (e) often even among marginalised communities – for example, between men and women, younger and elderly, and able and disabled and such other aspects. The objective was to ‘address’ all kinds of potential problems that powerless sections might encounter in the context of various eventualities.

Whose Ethics counts? Being part of both Institutional Review Board processes and the community-based processes, one can easily say that both these processes are often biased and influenced by the worldview of participants. There is an active attempt to go beyond the purpose of research into ethical values, but if one look into the ethical considerations that get listed, they very often reflect the social change one wants to achieve. They include values such as transparency, equality, participation of everyone, honest consultation and informed consent. They are not easily achievable in society, and therefore probably not in research as well. At the community level, what is paramount in the mind of the Board is the protection of the community. At the Institutional Review Board, what is paramount is to protect the institution from any risk that may arise if the community is not protected during the study.  There is a big difference between these two ethics. So it is important for us to decide: whose ethics counts? If the community is better placed to define its ethics and to find ways to protect itself from unethical practices, it is better to reach out to the community and understand the problem on the ground. Their ethics count as much as anyone else’s.

How, then, to define ‘whose reality counts’ in research? Participatory research through expansive participatory tools has arguably been able to actually decipher certain realities of voiceless communities. However, there is a possibility that their voices could become just case stories or footnotes. It is probably because the analysis design was not developed in a participatory way; and because the community does not own the research. The irony is that Data belongs to the community whereas research belongs to the researcher. A community-based ethical review process often says that (a) the community should be involved in analysis and (b) the community should be involved in dissemination, because the risk they prioritise is that their data would get lost in the power contestation during analysis. How more unethical a research could be if it ends up not mainstreaming the realities of voiceless communities!

Is a ‘consent letter’ ethical? This is a classic example of how a progressive instrument becomes a regressive institution. A consent letter became mandatory so that the researcher necessarily consults participants and takes consent for their participation after the participant gets informed of the purpose of the study and how the study would use the information. What was important was not the consent letter, but the very process of deliberation with participants. However, invariably, the consent letters have become a record for the institution to use if subsequently the respondent says that they were not consulted. The consent letter probably comes from an understanding that the researched is ‘powerful’. What is important is to understand that the researched community is very diverse in terms of access to power. The consent letter could become very disempowering for the community, when they know that they have already consented to the process, and have less space to back out or challenge the study process or findings. In fact, today, consent letter often happens to be practically the only instrument that is used to enforce ethics among researchers! There is probably a need to study whether this instrument has evolved into a regressive institution.

Interestingly, Praxis had an experience wherein a community group asked researchers to sign a letter that any product that arises out of research that has implications for the community group would require a prior approval from the community group. The first thing I thought was how unethical this group is – by seeking to become gatekeepers of the community – but then I reflected: how different are we when seeking a consent letter from the participants? At the end it is about a letter substituting efforts to build trust between the research team and the community. Trusting the community is an ethics that seems to get compromised. The last recommendation that often comes from community ethics processes is that the ethical review should not be a one-time process: rather, it needs to be embedded in the study, so that the defining of ethics is itself seen as a continuing and iterative process.

Participatory research will not be participatory enough if any aspect of the research is controlled hierarchically. It is important to disperse the power. It is of course also important to understand that if the research is not participatory, it is not ethical anyway. However, it is also true that just being participatory means that the research is governed by certain ethics. The community ethics is not necessarily the right ethics; in the same way, neither is the ethics as defined by the Institutional Review Board. What is important is to allow voices of ‘ethics’ from the community to be counted: because ethics is politics.


*Pradeep Narayanan is Director, Research and Capacity Building at Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices, New Delhi, India ( and Visiting fellow at IDS, Sussex. This blog is based on a presentation hosted by the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action ( and the Centre for Medical Humanities (, Durham University, on 23rd January, 2018.

“Practice Insights” celebrates 65 years of the IACD

2018 is the 65th anniversary year of the International Association for Community Development. To celebrate, the organisation has published a special birthday edition of its magazine, Practice Insights.

This issue reflects on the lessons of the past to draw inspiration for the future. IACD members were invited to submit the names of people from around the world whom they felt had shaped our profession since 1953. The criterion was that the people proposed had shaped the profession through their practice, policy, research or writing upon the field nationally and internationally.These submissions informed the wide range of stories and contributions that are profiled in the issue.

The birthday edition of Practice Insights can be read here.

IACD magazine Practice Insights

Citizen power across the world

While taking a year off to travel around the world with her family, Miriam Levin has been looking at new models of participatory democracy that puts decision-making power in the hands of the citizens.

When 40,000 people in Brazil emailed all the Congress party leaders on one day, they stopped a law granting amnesty for corruption being passed.

In Australia, 100 citizens of Geelong got to decide how their town would be democratically represented after their previous council was fired.

Across the world, people are finding ways of making their collective voices loud enough to be heard, and movements which are experimenting with new forms of participative democracy are mushrooming.

Since August 2016 I have been on sabbatical from the Department for Communities and Local Government, where I have been Mobilisation Manager for Community Rights and Neighbourhood Planning. For one year I am traveling the world from Japan to Mexico with my family. As we travel I am meeting organisations who are tackling the growing frustration with representative democracy in positive and radical ways.

Each of them can provide useful pointers for the UK, but two in particular stand out: Nossas in Brazil and newDemocracy Foundation in Australia.


‘Nossas’ means ‘ours’ in Portuguese. It was started in 2011 as a network for citizen action in Rio de Janeiro called Meu Rio (My Rio). It has since developed offshoots in cities across Brazil and the meta-network of all these is called Nossas. Each network works at a city level as they have found that this is the scale that people are willing to take action on, and the municipality is prepared to respond to their citizens.

Nossa Legislando
Nossa Legislando, courtesy of Nossas

What each of Nossas’ networks does is shine a light on the actions of their local government and politicians, and mobilise people to take rapid actions in response. This is a very recent phenomenon as Brazilian politics has historically taken place behind closed doors, rife with corruption and bribery, and people have felt powerless to influence what goes on. Through the networks, people are informed about what is happening politically, and are able to respond to and pressure their representatives as soon as issues come to light, using innovative online technologies that Nossas has developed. Nossas also trains people in how to make a difference in their community, works through the media and develops offline actions.

Nossas quadro, courtesy of Nossas
Nossas quadro, courtesy of Nossas

They’ve had some notable successes. For example: Meu Rio mobilised 15,000 people to pressure the municipal government to create Rio’s first police station for missing people, and Meu Recife in the north of Brazil mobilised citizens to stand with the residents of a neighbourhood whose houses were to be knocked down to make way for a prison; after several weeks of intense mobilisation, the residents were able to return to their houses. Nationally, Nossas coordinated a campaign when they found out that the central government was going to rush through a law granting amnesty to politicians for monies donated to them, such as by big business interests. Nossas’ campaign resulted in 40,000 emails sent to the all the party leaders in Congress  in 24 hours pressuring them to reject the legislation. The law was not passed.

As 38 Degrees in the UK and Avaaz globally show, campaigning networks are a vital way for ordinary people to take a small action that can lead collectively to a big change. It also demonstrates that in our hyper-connected world, citizen-led scrutiny means that politics behind closed doors is no longer acceptable or possible. In the UK, we have a notionally more transparent political system but the opportunities for influencing the decision-making directly are still rare.

newDemocracy Foundation in Australia offers an inspiring way that this can happen.

newDemocracy Foundation

The newDemocracy Foundation, based in Sydney Australia, is a ground-breaking organisation that aims to ‘do democracy differently’. It sets up Citizens’ Juries to enable ordinary people to get directly involved in political decision-making. They are made up of between 30-350 randomly selected people, who deliberate on a specific issue and provide a response or recommendation to the commissioning body – usually the local, state or national government. The Jury comes together for a minimum of 40 hours of professionally facilitated discussion to reach a consensus on the issue; they are given access to whatever experts and sources of information they choose, and give up their time in the knowledge that the commissioning body has committed to consider, and usually act, on their recommendation.

courtesy of newDemocracy

This process enables people to get far deeper into an issue than knee-jerk reactions. Generally, people are very sensible and, with enough information, can see several sides of any argument, rather than fracturing along party political or personal interest lines.

I was invited to observe a jury in action in the town of Geelong in Victoria, south east Australia. The state government had fired the entire local council of Geelong for incompetence several months previously and had asked nDF to set up a Citizens’ Jury of 100 people to answer the question:

“Our council was dismissed. How do we want to be democratically represented by a future council?”

The quality of discussion that I witnessed would put the name-calling performances sometimes seen in the House of Commons to shame. The Local Government Minister said in her response to the jury’s report:

“Some [Jurors] had fixed attitudes when they walked in, and then after listening, having the opportunity to debate and decide, they came up with the best model for their local area, rather than what individuals wanted.”

She has already committed to putting into action the Jury’s recommendations, including passing new legislation.

Citizens’ Juries in Australia have now been used to decide on issues large and small. From whether to use the South Australia desert for burying nuclear waste (2/3rds of the 350 jurors were against, so the idea was shelved by the state government) to a panel of 34 jurors reporting back to Penrith City Council about what services and infrastructure are needed in Penrith; and how these should be paid for. Elsewhere in the world, Ireland convened the Constitutional Convention of 99 people – 66 citizens drawn at random and 33 politicians –  tasked with overhauling aspects of the constitution. Amongst other changes, this resulted in their recommendation to legalise gay marriage which was subsequently ratified in a referendum – a huge step for a Catholic country. Iceland has used citizen deliberation most radically, even though the process was ultimately unsuccessful: 25 ordinary citizens were selected to re-write the entire constitution, using social media to make the process transparent and to gather ongoing feedback. Despite the new constitution being approved in a referendum, however, the parliament has not ratified it.

The opportunities for real participation in the decisions that affect our lives on a local or societal level are few and far between in the UK. Yes, I know we had a referendum, but in the words of David Van Reybrouk, author of ‘Against Elections’, “referendums very often reveal people’s gut reactions; deliberations reveal enlightened public opinion”.

The UK could up its game considerably by utilising the Citizens’ Jury methodology, as long as decision-makers commit to act on the recommendations made by the jurors. For citizens, there is huge value in participating in, or hearing the consensus reached by an informed group of our peers (not just those with the loudest voices). It would give politicians a more effective barometer to measure public opinion than inflammatory headlines, and if the results are acted upon, provide a pressure release valve on the growing frustrations people have with (un)representative democracy. We hear a lot about trust in elected officials being at an all-time low, but more important here is that politicians need to trust the process and trust their constituents.

Across the world, people are finding new ways to make their voices heard. As disenchantment with established systems of power is acted out in ways both positive and destructive, new methodologies and movements are offering alternatives.

Both Nossas and newDemocracy Foundation are creating informed and empowered citizens, networking and mobilising people to improve where they live, decide on controversial questions, or challenge corruption. Both are working with traditional centres of power, such as local or national governments, and opening channels so they can hear from citizens in new ways. Both demonstrate that people care deeply about particular issues, and will give up their time to help tackle them. The test for them both is whether people in power embrace or marginalise these new forms of collective citizen engagement.

In the UK too, people are neither apathetic nor unable to get to grips with the challenges facing the country, and will generally act in the best collective interest. What we need to do is find ways of harnessing this, by creating new channels where citizens can debate issues and directly inform political decision-making.

In order for this to happen, we need to know what issues people care about (Community Organisers’ door-knocking methodology is a very good place to start); politicians at all levels need to trust their constituents; and flexible, responsive systems outside the party political framework need to be in place which can be triggered as and when needed to bring people together to debate and decide on issues.

Travelling the world this year has given me great hope for the power of citizen-led movements for change. There is still much work to be done, but the people are finding their voice.

by Miriam Levin

Re-posted with permission from My Community.

The Write Idea?

CDJ Board member Dave Vanderhoven reflects on his experience of running writing workshops for community development practitioners and academics.

Academic journals often aim to attract more written contributions from practitioners, to balance the predominance of academic articles. The aims are often to broaden the relevance and interest in the journal, and hence, increase it’s potential impact.

Equally common, is the discovery that supporting practitioners and other new writers towards publication is more difficult than one first imagines. The problem, I discovered in trying to lead an initiative on behalf of CDJ, is the way that we consider it as a ‘problem’.

The CDJ Editorial Board set out to explore these issues by doing some Action Research, (AR) to consider how new writers might be supported effectively. As project lead, I set out to write publicity materials that would inspire potential writers and build confidence of those who sometimes think about writing, only to dismiss the idea before pen hits paper. However, as my ‘pen’ hit ‘paper’ I realised that I didn’t know what the issues were that stop people writing – I couldn’t really articulate the substantial barriers to my own writing practices.

After much thought and procrastination, I realised I couldn’t start where I originally thought I would – I couldn’t write the publicity materials that others would use to recruit new writers, without first thinking about what others go through when confronted with the reality of having to write.

After many informal conversations with respected colleagues, considerable refinement of my own ideas and a degree of crossing my fingers, I sent out invitations to the inaugural meeting of the CDJ New Writer’s Network in Sheffield. Invitations went to people who had expressed an interest and who I knew struggled with writing.

I recognised in the number of apologies, either for absence or lateness and non replies, that the idea of writing, not even the writing itself, could be a source of considerable stress. I modified my approach yet again and thought the point of the first meeting should be to get people talking about the kinds of material that they are dealing with, where I had previously thought we should jump straight into their abstracts (which of course hadn’t been written or weren’t being volunteered for review anyway). The learning I took from this is to get people to talk first and progress to writing in due course, perhaps only later edging towards academic writing.

The first meeting included a group of largely unpublished researchers, a couple of activists with connections to universities, and surprisingly a Professor who admitted that she hates academic writing and a fellow CDJ board member, whose presence was a great confidence booster for me. The discussion was at times intense, but lively and reflective. We barely got past the first question I posed, which was what have you been doing in work. At the end of the meeting, people were genuinely keen and one said he was inspired to write, others that they had really enjoyed the conversation and meeting new people.

I came away thinking it was going to be much harder to get people to write than I thought – mostly because I was absolutely clear that I didn’t understand what was getting in people’s way – they (like me) could talk the hind legs off a donkey, but froze when it came to writing, why?

The second meeting included a different group of people; with two Board members and two new writers from the first session, but this time three new members of the group arrived, with a few others yet to attend. We paired up to consider what we would write about in more detail and spent over an hour sharing ideas and making plans for the next session. People left at different times and so the opportunity to develop a co-ordinated summary slipped away.

From my paired discussion I was left thinking that it isn’t writing that is the problem. It isn’t ideas that are the problem. But that the problem, such as it is a problem at all, is a clash of cultures and all that this might imply. Writing per se, for me at least, is a process of discovering what I have to say followed by a struggle to say it in a coherent way; a process that takes time and energy.

Academic writing contains all the same ingredients, and despite supposedly using the same language, often involves writing with an alien set of rules and expectations. The difference, I began to recognise having been in academic roles for several years, was that it was familiar territory for me, more familiar than I realised. Overcoming the nervousness that seems to emerge in most people, even well published professors (I know a few that might say the same), amounts to developing a higher degree of self-confidence and/or using one’s existing sense of entitlement to have a say in debates.

The ‘problem’ of enabling practitioners to write for publication, follows the problems of class, gender, race and other forms of exclusion and discrimination; overcoming one involves some degree of overcoming them all. That ‘others’ do not write for our journals should be evidence enough that something is wrong. It falls to those of us ‘on the inside’ to make something new happen, if we are to justifiably consider ourselves as relevant?

Accepting that we do not know enough about why practitioners do not write for academic publication would is a useful starting point, against which to try a range of different activities. We haven’t solved the problem through our work in Sheffield, but we have made a good start in trying to understand it better.

Academic knowledge is not always better than other forms of knowing, presuming it is can feel like a judgement on those who lack confidence and can present obstacles to others writing for publication. Learning how to effectively break down the barriers between practice and academic publication is open to anyone willing to try, and in particular those on editorial boards of academic journals – solutions are within reach of the willing researcher?