Big shame of researchers breaking ethics in Kenya's low income areas

Residents of Bangladesh slum in Mombasa wait for drinking water following breakdown of the main pipeline that used to supply them with the resource.


Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • There is legitimate concern that Kenyans have become the guinea pigs for RCT researchers to polish their CVs.
  • Also, 60 percent of communicable diseases are linked to lack of clean water and sanitation.
  • One does not need to hold a PHD to see that this research is morally empty and ethically wrong.

 “Using poor people to build a professional CV should not be accepted.” – Sir Angus Deaton the British-America economist in his recent working paper raising the ethical concerns around researchers using Random Control Trials on very poor people in evaluating social policy interventions.

There is legitimate concern that Kenyans have become the guinea pigs for RCT researchers to polish their CVs. Economics of the poor and poverty alleviation have become a fascinating subject for development economists to fetishise and romanticise on with little ethical obligations needed when researchers use human subjects.

Field experimental research on human subjects can affect people individually and collectively, therefore, ethical principles to protect the human subject is the most important issue to be due consideration

Last week, an ethically bankrupt research paper was appallingly published by National Bureau of Economic Research drawing fury of economists all over the world.

Three American consultants were contracted by the World Bank to research on enforcing payment for water and sanitation services in Nairobi slums. They found out that cutting off and threatening to cut off supply among tenants in the slums areas was an effective way of increasing water utility payments by the landlords and the political cost to Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company was minimal.

Morally empty

One does not need to hold a PHD to see that this research is morally empty and ethically wrong. It is in complete violation on the ethics and protection of human subjects.

In the RCT, 97 out of 299 residential compounds in the slums who had pending bill shockingly had their water cut off for the purposes of this research.

After nine months, the researchers found out that most of them had settled their bills with little community activism against NCWSC, concluding that cutting off water to tenants in Nairobi slums induced utility payment.

It gets worse when the authors defended their research after the uproar saying that NCWSC before the research had the proposal of cutting water supply in the slum areas because of non-payment, the idea was not theirs.

So NCWSC chose to approach the World Bank to help with an evidence-based policy on how to increase payments with minimal political cost. The researchers are simply admitting conflict of interest because they seem to have been brought in to give legitimacy to NCWSC to cut off water services in slum areas through an unethical research study. The research has a pre-determined outcome.

Basic commodity

Everyone associated with this research should be ashamed because water is a basic need and in the slum areas the situation about access to water is dire. It is expensive for those who buy from water vendors (those who do not depend on piped) relative to their income, and it is a basic commodity that is hard to find.

Also, 60 percent of communicable diseases are linked to lack of clean water and sanitation. So, when a researcher asks for water to be cut of so as to observe response of slum dwellers in an RCT, are they ethically and morally dead?

It is similar to conducting an RCT on death penalty vs life sentence. How this research got approval despite its glaring ethical issues, disconnect water services which is a basic need to the most vulnerable in the society, is astounding.

This is a research with no social benefit and has no rationale to be approved, like researching on the benefits of reducing voter turnout in an election.

Ethical framework

To show how problematic the whole issue is, in their defence the authors claim that they complied with all the needed ethical framework. They got Institutional Review Board approval from University of Berkeley and University of Maryland whilst locally it was approved by Maseno University.

The researchers are oblivious to the fact that being compliant does not mean it’s ethical. Institutional review boards in the US, as noted by Angus Deaton, have been facilitating unethical research in Africa and India.

He even draws parallels with the debates about pharmaceutical companies testing drugs in Africa. This research got approval because the field experiment was being conducted in Africa, it would not have passed in the US.

There is need for government to re-look at the ethical review framework of social science research being done in Kenya, lightening can’t be striking the same place repeatedly.

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