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When consent is broken!

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Alex Ross
June 27, 2022
February 6, 2023

“I am sorry I cannot speak with you. Last time I was promised money in exchange for my data but I was never given anything. I also shared information on how the project had transformed my life but I did not know that the information was going to be aired on national television,”
lamented a project beneficiary.

As a Communications Specialist, I have come across different scenarios where project beneficiaries refuse to share information about the impact of a project or they share information with the expectation of receiving a payment.

In the above scenario, I came face to face with a sex worker who had participated in a project that was funded by an international development organisation but was not happy with how her personal information was exposed without her consent. She was shocked when she realised that her personal information was in the public domain.

“Everyone was talking about it and it really affected my line of work and how I relate with my family. From that day I vowed that I would never speak with an NGO or share my personal information,” she added.

When a project is being implemented, there is always emphasis on documentation, concise written narratives and pictorial evidence of success stories.  In doing this, organisations often take beneficiaries for granted and assume that they are always ready to speak, they do not care about how their data is used and that they are not knowledgeable about the importance of data protection. 

The end goal of many organisations is just to show impact and solicit more funding from their donors without taking data protection of beneficiaries more seriously.

However, it is always important to interrogate the following questions before collecting any information: what data is collected and why? How is it handled? Who “owns'' ‘beneficiar’ data? Who is responsible or even liable if a security breach allows data to be used in a harmful way? It is important for organisations to conduct thorough risk and threat assessments as well as implement highly ethical data protection policies.

While reading the Handbook of the Modern Development Specialist (pdf), I noted implications of handling data recklessly and these include:

  • When personally identifiable information is leaked in sensitive contexts it can spark violence, discrimination, or exclusionary policies. Services can be denied to entire groups and individuals targeted.
  • Groups can be harmed without individuals ever being identified, through discriminatory policies on the basis of data, on the basis of perceived relationships, or through subtle social dynamics or engineering.
  • Project credibility and relationships with local partners and beneficiaries can be harmed when stakeholders feel exploited for data without receiving benefits, or when projects have adverse and unintended consequences.
  • NGO brands and operations can be harmed, with negative consequences for funding, legal liability, high level policy discussions, or credibility with public institutions or the audience they seek to serve.

Talk To Loop Case Manager, Lian Yong encourages organisations to uphold the humanitarian principle of “do no harm” and she writes:

‘Do No Harm’: a guiding principle for all Loop actions

The principle of ‘Do No Harm’ has its origins in medical practice and stems from the Hippocratic Oath.  It has been applied to the humanitarian and development sectors to ensure that there are no negative effects to aid; that is, that humanitarian and development actors should cause no further damage or suffering as a result of their actions.  It has been adopted in various humanitarian guiding documents such as the Core Humanitarian Standard as well as the SPHERE project and is widely considered to be a guiding principle for all humanitarian and development programs.  

Loop also applies the Do No Harm principle in all of our actions.  This includes how we strategise our roll-out in a country, and the preparation work that we do before roll-out: for example, testing with communities, mapping referral pathways particularly for gender-based-violence and child protection, vetting local partners and staff, ensuring data protection and safe data storage, among others.  We also ensure it is central to our moderation and referral of sensitive stories.  If a particular story may cause harm if it is posted on our open platform, we will treat it as a sensitive story and refer it to the Case Manager.  When we handle sensitive stories, we communicate closely with the author of the story to make sure that any next steps are taken with their consent and are guided by them.  

As a new organisation, we want to make sure that we are guided by best international practices and are always striving to improve. Our staff (Moderators and Case Managers) undergo continuous training to ensure that we are aligned with best practices and in each country's context, we are engaging with stakeholders to make sure we are well integrated into the existing ecosystem.

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Alex Ross
Loop Lead