Data Collection in Developing Countries… Stories from the Field

Consider the following unrelated facts:

  • About 1 in every 19 Kenyan children dies before his or her fifth birthday.
  • Only 9 percent of health facilities in Bangladesh offer diagnostic services for tuberculosis.
  • The percentage of households in Uganda owning at least one insecticide-treated anti-malarial net increased from 16 percent in 2006 to 90 percent in 2014-2015.

Our first reaction to numbers like these is to imagine what they imply for the lives of people in those countries. But there’s another dimension to the statistics that’s easy to overlook: someone had to go to the field and collect the underlying data. Behind each of these neatly summarized findings (from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) program) lie stories of personal hardship, risks, and logistical challenges faced by data gatherers—the unsung heroes of international health and poverty research.

This is from a recent article that made the rounds in ‘development Twitter’, which concludes…

Most charities and aid agencies don’t publicize these behind-the-scenes stories, mainly because they see the challenges of working in the field to be an everyday part of the job. But these aren’t everyday jobs. Next time you see health or poverty statistics, or data used to evaluate the effectiveness of charities, take a moment to reflect on the hard work and dedication that must have gone into collecting that information.

I’ll add two short stories. I hope others add more.

The first is from Kenya. I was working on an impact evaluation for an NGO. A local pastor and I were driving around Kitale Kenya and had to drive about an hour out of town to catch up with an individual in our sample. Just as we arrived at the farm the individual owned, a heavy rain began. After performing the survey the individual, refusing to let us leave in the middle of the rain, fead us tea and mandazi. After the rain stopped we returned to our car, which we found had sunken into the mud. We spent roughly the next hour digging our car out of the mud. The road (actually pictured in the header of this blog) leading back to town was long, narrow, and now sufficiently muddy. As we attempted to drive, the car inevitably slid off the side of the road and into the surrounding bushes and ditch. Eventually a fairly large group of kids came and helped guide our car on the center of the road and away from the deep and muddy puddles on each side until we reached a semi-paved road. All told, we spent an entire afternoon just recording one individual’s survey.

The second is from Myanmar. I was working with the Myanmar Development Resource Institute implementing a rural household survey in Mon State, a coastal region close to the boarder with Thailand. The survey was designed to provide statistics that were representative of Mon State. Representative statistics are so essential to modern policy-making that the effort required to collect such data is often glossed over. To collect this data our wonderful research team and enumerators traveled throughout rural Mon State – in cars, but also by boat across water and on foot along rice paddy bunds. Once at the survey location, enumerators tirelessly walked through a 2-3 hour survey covering topics such as assets, agricultural activities, and household consumption. Below are a few pictures from the Mon State Rural Livelihoods Household Survey.

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Myanmar Days [Part 3]

I’m back in Myanmar putting the final touches on a household survey on the economics of hope (and this is this blog’s third installment of “Myanmar Days” – parts 1 and 2 here and here).

These days my work is filled with pre-testing and revising, and repeating. Every day. It is challenging and tedious but also entertaining and fun.

One of the key tasks is correctly translating the survey from English into Burmese (technically it’s ‘Myanmar language’, but that’s hard to say). This process, as you many imagine, is quite involved. We spent quite a bit of time the other day thinking about the difference between these two statements: “I am energetically pursuing my goals” and “I am meeting the goals I have set for myself”. After carefully translating the English survey into Burmese the survey is then translated back into English. This allows us to identify instances where the translation is not quite right.

Following this, we go out to local villages and pre-test the survey. This allows us to identify where questions and statements in the survey need to be worded better so that respondents can best understand what our enumerators are asking.

We have received many very interesting reactions to our questions as this survey is a bit unorthodox (as household surveys in developing countries go).

One question in our survey asks how much land does [the respondent] want to own. One older man did not want to answer this question because, as he said, such things are only for children to think about. At risk of reading too far into this statement, I am going to read into this statement.

Perhaps he is saying, as an adult we have to be realistic about our dreams. It is nearly impossible for me to achieve much more land than I currently own (he currently only owned the land on which his house sits). Part of the literature on aspirations in developing countries supports the idea that the experience of living in poverty squelches and prohibits the formation of aspirations (goals and dreams). Perhaps, this is what this man is saying: When I was a child I had dreams of owning lots of land, but now that I’m an adult (who is living amidst life-stealing poverty) I know what is actually possible for people like me and owning more land is simply not achievable. The hope of owning more land is child’s-play.  I’m not certain I have it 100% correct but somewhere in his short answer there is a profound lesson about the reality (and tragedy) of living a life in poverty.

Another man launched into a story: “My life is like that of a gardener”, he said. “I plant many fruits and vegetables but reap almost nothing because pests have destroyed my crop.” (He later made clear, pests were the government.) Another part of hope theory, as developed by social psychologists, is that hope includes a certain amount of personal agency – the belief in ones ability to succeed and accomplish the goals one has set for him or herself. Again, I’ll risk reading too far into this statement: It sounds like this man is stating that no matter how hard he works, his future outcomes are ultimately determined by the “pests” in his life.

Social psychology has developed an idea of “locus of control”. People can be characterized as having either an internal or external locus of control. Meaning, control over the future is within oneself or outside oneself. An external locus of control is thought to be correlated with feelings of hopelessness and leads to low levels of effort in investments or other (so-called) “rational behaviors”. Our survey is focusing on the three ingredients of hope: aspirations, agency, and avenues with validation checks by also asking about the closely related topics of self-efficacy and locus of control. It’s exciting, sobering, sweaty, dusty, challenging, and fun work. Stay tuned for more on this topic.

The pre-test team was invited for a snack at the town-level government office in Paung.

The pre-test team was invited for a snack at the town-level government office in Paung. (Yeah, I’m eating ice cream.)