The debate on the ethics of international clinical research involving collaboration with developing countries has achieved a high profile in recent years. Informed consent and universal standards have been most intensively debated. Exploitation and lack of adequate attention to justice in the distribution of risks/harm and benefits to individuals and communities have to a lesser extent been addressed. The global context in which these debates are taking place, and some of the less obvious implications for research ethics and for health are discussed here to broaden understanding of the complexity of the debate. A wider role is proposed for research ethics committees, one that includes an educational component and some responsibility for audit. It is proposed that new ways of thinking are needed about the role of research ethics in promoting moral progress in the research endeavour and improving global health.