Ethical Guidelines for Programming and Research

Purpose: These guidelines lay out considerations for CARE staff and partners to ensure that program activities minimize unintended consequences that cause harm. CARE has an ethical obligation to prevent unintentional harm through ensuring high quality program designs, implementation procedures, monitoring and evaluation plans; through ensuring due process in the hiring, training, support, and supervision of staff; and through the development and implementation of comprehensive human resource policies. This guide is designed as a practical, minimum checklist to minimize the risk, especially of gender-based violence (GBV), throughout the project cycle. As a significant amount of CARE’s work is implemented through partners, these guidelines also apply to CARE’s work that is implemented through partners.

CARE's work: CARE’s work on gender and power means that we deal with sensitive issues and work with marginalized or vulnerable groups of people. For instance, GBV has been identified as a concern more broadly in our long-term programs, with the bulk (80%) of CARE’s GBV projects integrated into other sectoral programming (e.g., health, education, etc.). The nature of our work makes it important to have clearly articulated ethical guidelines. To date there has been no unifying guidance on how to avoid unintentionally causing harm while addressing sensitive topics in our research or programming.

Specialized groups and issues: These guidelines do not include separate protocols to manage the risks associated with specialized issues and groups, but it provides minimum steps for general risk mitigation to be used by all staff and implementing partners. If you have a question on how to deal with a special sensitive issue that is not covered here, contact your lead member or the most appropriate technical expert available to you (see resource contacts bottom of the page).

Risk and social change: Social change requires tackling the status quo, which entails taking risks. These guidelines seek to minimize unintentional harm, not to minimize the risks that staff and participants knowingly take as part of being involved in broader social change processes. This means the risks that people know to be involved in taking a job post that might risk putting stress on your marriage, for instance, or running for political office when there may be potential backlash.


Page Contents

  • CARE's Programming Principles
  • Key Ethical Principles
  • Steps to Minimize Risk: Ways of Working
  • Guidance Resources

CARE's Programming Principles

CARE International (CI) Programming Principles play a role in preventing unintentional harm by guiding how we work to fulfill CARE's vision and mission and ensure program quality. The following questions help us ensure that CARE’s program design, implementation, and research align with the organization’s programming principles:

CARE's Programming Principles

In Programming

Via Research

Promote empowerment

  • Do our impact groups actively participate in the design and implementation of the program, and are their voices heard?
  • Is there a mechanism in place to ensure participatory learning and sharing with our impact groups?
  • Does the process encourage learning and growth among participants, including CARE and partner staff, impact groups and other stakeholders?
  • Do interviews/discussions end on a positive note that emphasizes participants' strengths and capacities?

Work with partners

  • Does the process build mutual appreciation, trust and interdependence with various partners (strategic, local, advocacy, academic, etc.) across different parts of the orgranization, and between male/female staff?
  • Does the process engage in a transparent and learning-oriented way with other organizations that may see CARE’s work with critical eyes?

Ensure accountability

  • Are key staff and their managers accountable for the quality of support they give the program design and implementation, and rewarded for fulfilling their responsibilities?
  • Are the processes for design ensuring participation of and ownership by impact groups?
  • Are adequate and timely spaces made for external stakeholders to assess what is learned, and draw conclusions about CARE’s work?
  • Are key lessons disseminated internally and externally with partners and impact groups and used in future iterations of our work?

Address discrimination

  • Does the process engage men and women (in the community and its institutional environment) to explore biases about gender and diversity?
  • Does it challenge stigmatization/exclusion on the basis of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, religion via other dimensions of identity?
  • Does the process challenge staff to explore their own biases/beliefs about gender equity and diversity?
  • Does it challenge assumptions about who is qualified to do analytic work, of whose voice counts?

Promote non-violence

  • Have adequate measures been taken to protect the physical and psychological safety of participants and prevent future armed conflicts?
  • Have adequate measures been taken to mitigate risk of gender-based violence against participants?
  • Have staff been prepared to manage and prevent harassment and conflict that may arise in the research? (For more information, refer to Benefits-Harms Handbook)

Seek sustainable results

  • Does the process leave communities with clear understanding of their own pathways to development and how these can be strengthened?
  • Does the process build competence amonst partners, communities, and other program stakeholders to understand and address gender/power dynamics and research the underlying causes of poverty?


Key Ethical Principles

In addition to CARE’s programming principles, ethical considerations are essential to guiding our work and mitigating risk of physical, social, or psychological harm. Four basic principles of particular relevance to the ethics of research and programming are: safety, respect, informed consent, and confidentiality/privacy.

Safety: The safety of participants and staff is the top priority and should infuse all program decisions. Even when working within a project that may not seem threatening, individuals may still be vulnerable because of their participation. Particular precaution is required for research or programs that address socially sensitive issues, such as gender-based violence, child abuse, informal economic activity, HIV/AIDS, and police activity. As change agents, CARE and implementing partner staff can also be just as much, if not more, at risk than program participants. It is important to take measures to mitigate risks to both the psychological and physical safety of staff as well as participants.

Respect: Respect for individuals entails affirming each person’s dignity, independence, and freedom to make his or her own decisions by providing individuals with the necessary information to make informed decisions about whether or not to participate in the project activities. As aid workers, respect for individuals also means being aware of differences in power between staff and participants and taking measures to balance that power differential.

Informed Consent: Respect requires giving participants the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether or not to participate in any data collection activities. Informed consent requires three elements: information, comprehension, and voluntary consent. See CARE's policy for consent to use stories and images, as well as consent forms and instructions. All participants should be given information about the purpose of the research and how the information will be used.

Confidentiality & Privacy: Confidentiality refers to the treatment of information that an individual reveals to program staff during the course of their participation in program activities. It is essential to protect participants’ privacy and ensure that their information is kept confidential, as disclosure of sensitive information has the potential to put the participant or others at risk.

Steps to Minimize Risk: Ways of Working

Both these ethical principles and CARE's Programming Principles should guide ways in which we work with communities.

Ethically engaging children and adolescents in research requires particular considerations, as a group that is categorically more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and other harms. A number of principles have been developed to work respectfully and safely in communities. These comprise:

  1. Sensitive planning and preparation
  2. Safety
  3. Learn Respectfully
  4. Hand over the stick
  5. Be transparent
  6. Follow-up analysis and presenting research

1. Sensitive planning and preparation

1.1 Aim and resources

Have a clearly defined purpose, audience, and resources necessary to support ethical analysis.

1.2 Research and project design

Discuss with experts to refine appropriate and valid analysis tools.

  • Appropriateness of Tools - Before beginning any research on socially sensitive issues, have you consulted with any local researchers or organizations about potential harms of asking about the issue (e.g., violence)? Have tools been locally adapted and refined?
  • Ethical Design - Only use comparison groups under careful ethical supervision. Use of cohort studies have also raised a number of ethical questions, as information is externally controlled and managed, with little accountability to participants over the course of a study.
  • Ethical Data Management - Do you have plans to separate names from data or not to record names? Do you have plans to lock up data in a secure place with limited access? (e.g. locked cabinet) Do you have a plan and timeline for shredding and/or deleting data?
  • Have you consulted with a diverse group of community members and local stakeholders about the proposed intervention? Have partner organizations been involved and supported from the outset?
  • Have you considered social and cultural norms and practices around gender roles before designing projects/research around GBV or any other sensitive issue? Do you understand women’s needs, current workloads and cultural systems when designing program implementation and delivery mechanisms?
1.3 Build from existing analysis

Understand what other organizations have worked in the area and conducted studies, to ensure that the study or project does not repeat, but rather builds on, what has already been done. In emergencies, assessments should be conducted jointly with other humanitarian agencies, if possible.

1.4 Prepare Staff
  • Staff Hiring - Is the team gender-balanced? Is staff hiring non-discriminatory and sensitive to any potential ethnic, regional, tribal, host/displaced populations, or other identity-based tensions?
  • Training - Do data collectors have the capacity to conduct interviews or facilitate a discussion on specific sensitive issues? Are they aware of the potential risks of inappropriate handling of the discussion? Have data collectors been trained in safety procedures and referral systems for medical, psychosocial, legal, and security services for violence? *If no referral services exist, then do not ask questions about sensitive topics; instead, ask service providers.
  • Gender Equity and Diversity - Have you ensured that staff are given the time to understand, question and internalize learning and principles around gender equity and diversity?
  • Policies - Have staff been trained in and clearly understand the CI Code of Conduct and Programming Principles? Do staff have a clear understanding the CI Policy on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Child Protection (PSEA-CP) and of reporting mechanisms (EthicsPoint) and protocol for SEA?
1.5 Working with Communities
  • Who to talk to - Take into account what types of groups to meet for information. Who is in the group, and what power dynamics may affect how people participate?
  • Host community sensitization meetings to counter stigma.
  • Explaining the study - Researchers may be highly visible and a source of local interest. Introduce self, the general study topic and motivations for research at the beginning. This should also temper expectations of benefits, or suspicions about intentions, that communities may hold from NGO inquiries and interviews.
  • Where to talk - Consider what space to use for interviews and discussions.
    • Neutral Space - Is the space neutral, or does it belong to a certain kinship, clan or ethnic group? Is it easy to access for people across different caste, class, ethnic or occupational categories?
    • Privacy - Does it offer confidentiality or privacy (and is it important to have this)? If not, what are you going to do?
  • When to talk and for how long – Have you consulted with community members to find out when different groups of people are generally free? (e.g., men, women, boys, girls) Be up front about how long an exercise should take and ask permission to conduct the discussion.

For example, in Lesotho, the Strategic Impact Inquiry with garment factory workers organized interviews and discussions in hour-long blocks during lunch breaks or immediately following work. Further, teams arranged for transportation home for evening respondents.

1.6 How to approach certain topics in discussions

Discussing various subjects may be sensitive to communities and respondents, requiring an indirect approach. By asking people directly about sensitive topics such as violence, you are asking people to disclose information that may put them at risk.

The Social Analysis and Action team discussed marriage, kinship and other social relationships with different groups in order to learn about female genital cutting. The team never brought up female genital cutting during discussions, however, if people brought up the practice, then the team would have ‘permission’ to talk about it in more depth. This approach helped the team learn about marriage and its larger social meanings, as well as how cutting fit into the broader social context.

Considerations Working with Children and Adolescents

Ensure that team works well with children.

Engage independent advocates - Work with an independent advocate to represent the rights and interests of children/youth.

Adults present in research - Studies that take place in a central location should always have more than one adult present in the same room throughout the interview.If the research takes place in the home of the child/young person, either in person or by telephone, an adult should remain on site - though not necessarily in the same room - throughout the interview.

2. Safety

2.1 Explore risks from participation

Researchers and project staff should explore risk of harm for both engaging particular groups at all in discussions, as well as in terms of all issues addressed.

  • What topics are considered sensitive, in context?
  • Use the least stressful research procedure whenever possible, and if unsure what harms may arise, consult others. Only begin if services are in place to address possible consequences.
  • Staff well-being - Have data collectors been informed of resources and referrals available to staff? Have managers created an environment where staff feel comfortable seeking support, reporting threats, and discussing concerns?
  • Are mechanisms in place to monitor for and address possible adverse outcomes?

Use of recording equipment (e.g., cameras and tape recorders) poses additional risks to confidentiality and privacy. Have you gained additional and separate approval for use of any recording media? Do participants fully understand how their information will be used and who will see it? See CARE's consent policy and release forms for use of likeness and materials.

2.2 Be sensitive to the time of participants

Sampling should ensure representation across the community, and be sure that the same people are not selected repeatedly for exercises.

2.3 Adapt methods to the context

Review and adapt methods with key stakeholders before implementation regarding acceptability of methods, group composition, and discussions space/privacy.

2.4 Establish protocols for confidentiality and accountability

And how to deal with breaches – as well as safer alternatives in obtaining information should be established.

  • Explain confidentiality procedures when obtaining informed consent.
  • Have clear, practical and accessible complaint mechanisms for Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) been established?
2.5 Discuss safety plans

Through discussions of strategies that have been successfully deployed to address discrimination, harassment and violence in a local context.

Considerations Working with Children and Adolescents

Be extremely sensitive to the nature of activities and question whether it is appropriate to contact children or adolescents. The exercises should directly benefit the children/adolescents or their community.

3. Learn Respectfully from the Local Community

3.1 Learn progressively

Assume you will not learn everything immediately. Learn with conscious exploration, use methods flexibly, and be prepared to adapt to the situation. Have a plan, but allow for the unexpected.

3.2 Seek diversity and triangulate information

Do not assume that everyone in the community shares the same opinions. Seek out diverse groups of people and opinions, including people who are not in the mainstream, those who are often silent or marginalized, as well as leaders and experts.

  • Cross-check information from various sources to identify patterns and themes. Be aware not only of what is being said, but what is not being said.
  • Watch body language and observe power dynamics.


3.3 Practice self-critical awareness

Try to be aware of your own biases. Be open to new ideas and ways of thinking. Embrace error; try to do better next time.

3.4 Be sensitive to local norms

Phrase questions respectfully, and non-judgmentally. Dress appropriately. Do not carry cameras or take pictures unless granted expressed permission. Take cues from field staff on who it is appropriate to approach and ask questions, appropriate questions or topics to discuss, and acceptable items to bring along (i.e., personal water bottles, cell phones, or outside food are often not appropriate).

  • Do any activities and strategies reinforce patriarchal norms that promote violent behavior?
3.5 Frame language carefully

Use language that is simple, but not patronizing. Be non-judgmental and respectful toward participants and community members throughout the study.

Considerations Working with Children and Adolescents

Avoid physical contact with the child or adolescent at any point.

Appropriate questions: Avoid questions that may lead the child or adolescent to make unreasonable demands on their parents or guardians. Avoid classification questions that may seem intrusive, and save them for discussions with adults.

Anonymity: Obtain permission from responsible authorities in charge of records before accessing them, and preserve the anonymity of the information.

Jeopardy or unforeseen consequences: If information may jeopardize the child's well-being or lead to unforeseen consequences, the research is responsible for discussing the information with parents or guardians and with experts in the field to arrange for needed assistance for the child. Redesign procedures for subsequent studies.

4. Hand Over the Stick (or Chalk, or Pen)

4.1 The processes engaged should be focused on learning

In a way that is not extractive, but enables the participants themselves to engage and learn from the discussions.

4.2 Make time for participants to ask questions of the research team following exercises.
4.3 When concluding, gain feedback and focus on strengths

Researchers should conclude sessions by emphasizing the participant’s strengths or capacities, discussing skill building, and asking for the participant’s feedback regarding the quality of the interaction and how it can be improved in the future.

Considerations Working with Children and Adolescents

Participatory Engagement: The participation of children and adolescents are essential to inform interventions.

Engage methods that are participatory, inclusive and facilitate learning for the team and participants alike.

The treatment of children and adolescents simply as respondents can be intrusive and this method should be kept to a minimum.

5. Be Transparent

5.1 Gain informed consent

Clarify the intention of exercises, who is conducting it, methods and the time involved. Ask participants of their availability or interest to participate. Give space for participants to discontinue at any time.

  • Do participants fully understand how their information will be used? Have they agreed to it?
  • Have you discussed possible safety risks with potential participants?
  • Do participants understand that they will not be compensated in return for participation?
  • Do participants understand that participation is voluntary and there is no penalty for declining?
  • Do participants understand that they can refuse to answer certain questions or discontinue participating at any time and request that their data be destroyed?
  • Is the process explained to potential participants in their first language?
  • Have you gained additional and separate approval for use of any recording material? See CARE’s consent policy & release forms for use of likeness and materials.
5.2 Discuss safety risks with all potential participants regardless of population studied.
5.3 Discuss confidentiality measures

With participants at the beginning of the certain interview session.

5.4 Share ideas and information

Encourage openness of dialogue and exchange in a non-judgmental atmosphere. When PLA exercises are completed, share the overall results with the general community.

5.5 Deception

If it is considered essential to withhold information as a part of the study, measures should be taken after the study to ensure the participant's understanding of the reasons for the deception.

Considerations Working with Children and Adolescents

Seek Consent from children/ adolescents and key adults: Inform and gain consent from children/adolescents and separate approval for parents/guardians. Please see CARE’s consent policy and forms for interviewing minors.

Clarify all research features that may affect his/her participation.

Make space for the opportunity for the child/parent/other key stakeholders to give or not give consent to participation as well as to choose to discontinue at any time.

Incentives: Incentives to participate in a research project must be fair and must not unduly exceed the range of incentives that the child normally experiences.

Mutual responsibilities: Enter a clear agreement with the parents, guardians or those who are acting in this role, as well as the child/adolescent, that defines the responsibilities of each. Honor all promises and commitments of the agreement.

6. Follow-up, Analysis and Presenting Research

6.1 Safety-screening questions

Should be asked of participants to assess possible risks after completing the research or other activity, and referrals/accompanying steps (whether taking participants to NGOs or other services, or making follow-up visits) taken as necessary.

For a cash-transfer pilot program in Benin, the emergency team held focus group discussions with female recipients after each distribution to learn about any possible negative effects of the cash distribution (e.g., spousal violence).

6.2 Informing Participants

Immediately after the data are collected, clarify to participants any misconceptions that may have arisen. Report general findings to participants in a way that is appropriate for the group.

6.3 In emergency contexts, do not wait for a fully completed assessment to distribute vital relief supplies.

Before entering communities, research teams should be sure that they can conduct and communicate assessments safely as well as reliably.

6.4 Implications of Findings

Be sensitive to the social, political and human implications of research and how to present research findings.

6.5 Uphold Integrity of Analysis

For the integrity of the work, research cannot involve the fabrication or falsification of data, plagiarism or misrepresentation, or dishonest practices.

Considerations Working with Children and Adolescents

Confidentiality and information on potential harms: If a child/adolescent discloses information confidentially that may be potentially harmful to the child or adolescent, deal with this information sensitively and responsibly.

Reporting results - Be sensitive to how reporting results or giving advice, may be received by children/adolescents, parents, teachers, etc.

These recommendations should be viewed as an initial framework.

It may be helpful to reach out to local women’s rights organizations, staff and partners – if safe – to review and refine a proposed methodology that is appropriate for the local context.

In addition, the research team must remain sensitive to what types of discussions we are prepared or qualified to explore. For example, touching on traumatic / highly distressing experiences requires context-specific expertise in psychosocial health and it is not ethnical to probe into such experiences. Teams should discuss alternate means to address research questions around distressing experiences, ethics concerning such research, or if external expertise is required.

Guidelines on Ethics and Safety

When conducting research, it is critical that analyses follows 'Do No Harm' standards. To provide useful guidance for teams conducting research, CARE aligns with a number of ethical standards:

All Programming

In Research with Children / Adolescents

On Gender-Based Violence

In Emergency Settings





Psychosocial Support and Safety