Research and Child soldiers: Who are we helping? Us or them?

I was a little taken aback when my boss/practicum supervisor came into our office today and asked us to stop what we were doing to compile a list of former child soldiers.  Apparently a team of American researchers was going to be arriving on Friday and wanted to access our clients to conduct interviews about their experienced trauma.  As a researcher myself, I could understand the visiting team’s desire to sit down and talk to former abductees.  As a counselor however, I felt protective of their privacy and above all of the potential for exploitation.  Reluctantly, we did as we were told.  We put together our list and then began contacting them to ask if they were willing to participate in the project.  When one young man appeared in our office later that afternoon, my initial apprehension was confirmed.  He politely told us that he was tired of white people coming to his village to ask him questions.  The process of continuously reliving his trauma for research purposes was exhausting.  He relayed that several teams had come, asked him questions and then left without offering anything in return.

The American Psychological Association (2010) stipulates that “Psychologists make reasonable efforts to avoid offering excessive or inappropriate financial or other inducements for research participation when such inducements are likely to coerce participation (p. 11).  What however is reasonable?  If the paticipant you are interviewing is experiencing extreme hardship exacerbated by psychological and financial factors, can one ethically avoid offering the participant some compensation in exchange for their time and above all for the painful memories they must excavate?

Our 20 year old former child soldier had been abducted by the LRA when he was nine years old,  forced to kill his brother and serve as a combatant for two and half years.  Through psychosocial rehabilitation, individual and group therapy at Gulu Referral Hospital’s Mental Health Unit, he was able to return home and begin the process of rebuilding his life.  Stressors such as unemployment, poverty, family problems and learning difficulties are however continually re-triggering his PTSD symptoms.  The recurring symptoms arrest any efforts to carry on with his life.  Within this vicious cycle, researchers keep popping up in his village wanting to ask him questions about the atrocities he witnessed.

After listening to his story, I told him that it was entirely acceptable to refuse or at least ask for some form of compensation.  While there is no amount of money that could alleviate his suffering, a small financial token of appreciation could help him pay for his transportation to the clinic when he needs to see a counselor, it could assure his next couple of meals, and ultimately help him pave the way for a better future by subsidizing his school fees.

Working as a US trained counselor in a Ugandan mental health clinic, I frequently find myself quietly contemplating the ethicality of practices I witness here.  Today I got the benefit of looking at APA (2010) professional ethics from the outside in.  If our ethics code is designed to encourage us to do no harm, practice our craft with fidelity, responsibility, integrity and justice, it is necessary to revisit our obligations as researchers in countries that have been or are affected by armed conflict.  What is the purpose of our research ? Who are we helping: us or them ?