Research snapshots

That said, my last post doesn’t particularly convey the sense that I like my job, which I very much do.  There are all these small human moments that account for that, that liking, such as the following.

  • Perhaps the most wondrous thing about field research is people’s grace in allowing strangers into their homes, their lives, to pose a series of questions whose purpose must surely seem cryptic to them.  (The surveyors do introduce themselves, and the purpose of the research, of course.  But I think it’s a far cry from those introductions to understanding the worlds of academic publishing, or [in the case of this study] insurance product design, that are the prime movers behind these surveys.)  And yet they do let them in.  They even let me in, when I am monitoring surveyors in the field, and I have been profoundly grateful for these chances to sit under respondents’ carefully thatched roofs and listen to snatches of their lives in my mediocre Dagbani.
  • It’s been great getting to know our surveyors.  The team leaders are just great – thoughtful, organized, and intelligent – and I’ve slowly moved past my initial monolithic impression of the larger survey team as “that group of 20 men (and one woman) who do a lightning strike on the office for their netbooks each morning” to individual interactions, individual personalities.  There’s L., who willingly took on additional work when his team leader fell ill, and D., who is perpetually flashing the friendliest smile at everyone, and many others.  They have been a fantastic group of people to work with.
  • And honestly, much of what’s enjoyable is a succession of small daily things.   The temporary cooling of buying cold Pure Water sachets on the way to the office and drinking them as quickly as possible.  Chasing chickens and small beautiful children out of the open door of the Walewale office, somewhat halfheartedly, because they think it’s a game to come into the office and get chased, and I enjoy the break.  An unexpected frog hopping out of a backpack containing soil samples and into my hands, to be set free outside.  All of these, perfect pleasant diversions from a job that is at times overwhelmingly busy, but always worthwhile.

Where I’ve been

A random sample of a different sort

There is a very strong correlation between my returning to Africa and my completely neglecting this blog – which says less about African internet than about how busy I always find myself when I’m here!  I came into my current position with IPA at the beginning of a two-month household survey examining underinvestment in agriculture in northern Ghana, and since then our whole team has been working non-stop.  Our surveyors leave between 7 and 8 am every day, so I’m usually at the office by 6.30 to make sure that everything’s prepared.  Then it’s a long day of tracking survey documents, sorting soil samples, assigning survey teams to new communities, preparing per diem payments, troubleshooting the netbooks & survey software, selecting respondents for audits, taking calls from surveyors, and making frequent three-hour round trips up to our satellite office in Walewale, among any number of other things.  An early day might end at 7 pm, and a late one at 10 pm.  The sheer amount of work has forced me to grow more as a manager than I have in any other position I’ve yet had, which has been fantastic.  It simply doesn’t leave much space at the edges of my days for anything else.

Microfinance & child labor

I’ve seen some interestingly conflicting reports lately on the impacts of microfinance upon education.  Someone directed me to one which showed that microcredit clients were more likely to pull their children out of school to do the domestic work which parents gave up in order to run their microcredit-supported businesses, but I’ve also seen another which found that the children of microcredit clients were actually more likely to be in school, as their parents could more easily pay their school fees.  I can think of several different ways in which these elements of small businesses, children’s labor, and schooling could interact:

  • Maybe the parents who pulled their children out of school to cope with successful businesses worked far from their homes and didn’t have the time to handle both business and domestic work, while successful clients whose children stayed in school worked closer to home and were more easily able to balance the two.
  • Perhaps there’s some sort of U-shaped curve of parental income (as supported by microcredit) and the likelihood of children’s schooling.  Parents who are suddenly busier with work than previously, but are still too poor to afford to hire domestic help, may be the ones more likely to pull their children out of school – the low point of the U.  Parents whose businesses are quite successful, on the other hand, might better be able to pay for both domestic help and school fees.
  • This is probably also correlated with whether parents were successfully able to repay their loans.  There must be some exogenous shocks to parental earnings that affect both their ability to repay their loans and their financial capacity to send their kids to school – drought, for instance.  So one might find microcredit clients pulling their kids out of school for reasons unrelated to their loans.

On an unrelated note, I came across a sentence I totally loved whilst rereading Understanding Poverty recently – “these essays presage what we feel is an important new trend in the economics of poverty: a willingness to take the social and psychological environment of the poor seriously.”  This is probably the most fruitful interaction possible between qualitative and quantitative disciplines in the study of development – a genuine respect for the psychosocial lives of the poor.