Sunday, November 21, 2010

What do I mean by "research on development projects" anyway?

So I’ve explained that IPA does “research on development projects” to understand what kind of an impact they are making and why that is important to do.  But effectively what all this “research” means is that we hire people to go out into the surrounding villages and survey folks they find on just about anything – spending habits, planting habits, household income, attitudes about sex and gender, how often they/their family has been sick in the last month etc…   IPA then does an intervention (a discount for fertilizer, a savings account, installation of a chlorine dispenser) and then resurveys the households to see what how much has changed  among those who received the intervention compared to those that did not.  To grossly oversimplify. 
But the point is the surveys are often the crux of the research.  Most of IPAs 200 employees are surveyers or “enumerators” and the bulk of daily activities have to do with organizing trips to area villages, tracking down respondents and completing as many surveys as possible.  It’s a herculean task and most projects have thousands of respondents and dozens of enumerators.  With this much data if the project is having an effect, they should capture it. 
I’ve gone out into the field with a number of enumerators and I’m always amazed at the willingness of villagers to sit down – sometimes for up to three hours – and talk to virtual strangers about intimate details of their lives.  If the same surveryer came to a house in the US and asked if they could come in and talk about your savings, income and spending habits for around 2 hours, they’d get door slammed in their face about 90% of the time.  Maybe the odd lonely elderly person would acquiesce to a discussion, but that’s about it.  You simply couldn’t do this kind of research. 
But in Kenya, if you can find someone, they will talk to you.  I think this is largely a result of a culture of hospitality and maybe a bit of deference to a large and well known NGO.  Maybe the small gift (salt or soap) we give them for their time helps.  Maybe a visit from a stranger breaks up the monotony of farm life enough to be worth the time.  Who knows?  But the IPA researchers have the luxury of collecting a remarkably high percentage of respondent data they seek. 
The other thing that makes all this extensive surveying extraordinary is the sheer ability to track down the same people for a post-intervention survey round.  There are no street names (or streets really), few people have phone numbers and people are often known by different names than what they tell you.  So, enumerators often have notes like “Just after the Funyula market.  Down the hill from the church. Ask for the late Moses Okweta’s house” to find a respondent. Again, the generosity of perfect strangers is a huge help.  The enumerators can be fairly sure that if they make it to the right village someone they meet along the way will act as their guide to track down the respondent. 
But the enumerators themselves are also quite incredible.  They often remember the exact location of a shamba and stop along the road at the right place even though there are no obviously discernable landmarks.  And despite having interviewed several dozens of respondents throughout the project, they remember and greet their respondents with inquiries about particular family members.  Again, I can’t imagine this happening in the US.
I keep thinking about the recent US Census.  A total of about 10 questions taking under 10 minutes, which required an extensive publicity campaign to get Americans to buy into the importance of doing so and to reassure them that their privacy and security would be protected. 
So, despite the slow internet connection, unreliable power and byzantine government bureaucracy, it’s definitely also a luxury to do research in this context. 

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