Informed consent working with children internationally: Young Lives project

Young Lives is an international study of childhood poverty funded by UK aid from the Department for International Development (now part of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office). The study is longitudinal and involves 12,000 children in four countries (Ethiopia, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in India, Peru, and Vietnam) over 15 years. Two cohorts of children – a younger cohort born in 2001-02 and an older cohort born in 1994-95 – are being followed.

A variety of survey and qualitative methods are used to collect data with children, parents, and other community members. Young Lives explores children’s experiences of poverty, the outcomes of poverty for children, how families move in and out of poverty, and social policies.

The study raises numerous ethics questions about research with children and families in low-income settings, and research that requires sustaining of relationships over time.

Ethical process

The first phase of Young Lives (2002-05) used institutional standards set by a consortium of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of Reading, South Bank University, University of Sussex, South African Medical Research Council, and Save the Children, UK.

Following the transfer of Young Lives to Oxford, formal approval was obtained from the ethics committee of the Social Science Division, University of Oxford in 2006, using the following guidelines:

  • University of Oxford’s Department of International Development
  • Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth
  • Save the Children Child Protection Policy (2003)

Ethics approaches were developed collaboratively with Young Lives research teams in each country. Before each round, research teams undergo training on research ethics, and fieldwork manuals contain ethics guidance.

Following piloting of the qualitative research in 2007, a Memorandum of Understanding for fieldworkers was developed, setting out basic guidance about respectful communication with research participants.

Informed consent is obtained from children and their caregivers. Fieldworkers take extra care to explain the study in ways that children can understand. In Young Lives study countries, children are generally taught from a young age that they must obey adults. This may make it difficult for them to refuse.

Every effort is made not to put any pressure on children to participate in the research, and to make it clear that there will be no adverse consequences for them if they decline. Children are told their identity will be kept secret and that the information will not be used to identify them.

Ethics questions are systematically recorded, transcribed and translated (for qualitative research) and documented (for the survey). Thus ethics can be monitored throughout the study, and ethics is seen as a process which is the responsibility of all researchers.


Young Lives has found it useful to keep the following in mind:

  • practical cases raising ethics questions are regularly discussed across teams, with the aim of developing a shared understanding of research ethics
  • understanding the contexts in which the research is conducted is crucial to understanding how ethics operate in practice
  • consent is an ongoing process and is renegotiated at each visit
  • research teams are aware that, in situations of poverty, outsiders are the objects of speculation, and it can be difficult for people to distinguish researchers from development agency staff. Managing people’s expectations requires careful thought
  • a Memorandum of Understanding for fieldworkers acknowledges power differentials between research teams and participants according to gender, ethnicity, age, and class.
    While shared ethics principles are important, these need to be applied with some flexibility
  • fieldworkers use locally-relevant concepts when explaining notions like random sampling and archiving
  • researchers are not going into neutral situations – social change can be rapid
  • any child protection concerns are discussed with the lead quantitative/qualitative researchers in each country. The coordinating team in Oxford provides guidance and support
  • compensation is paid for people’s time in some, but not all, countries. Care is taken that this remuneration not seen as an incentive to participate
  • other forms of research reciprocity are undertaken at community level, and teams report back findings to participants and communities in locally relevant ways

Related content

Young Lives research ethics: project website

The ethics of social research with children and families in young lives (PDF)

Last updated: 27 June 2022

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