Entries tagged with “fieldwork”.


There is a great post up at Good on “Pretending to be Poor” experiments, where participants try to live on tiny sums of money (i.e. $1.50/day) to better understand the plight of the global poor.  Cord Jefferson refers to this sort of thing as “playing poor”, at least in part because participants don’t really live on $1.50 a day . . . after all, they are probably not abandoning their secure homes, and probably not working the sort of dangerous, difficult job that pays such a tiny amount.  Consuming $1.50/day is one thing.  Living on it is entirely another.  (h/t to Michael Kirkpatrick at Independent Global Citizen for pointing out the post).

This, for me, brings up another issue – the “authenticity” of the experiences many of us have had while doing fieldwork (or working in field programs), an issue that has been amplified by what seems to be the recent discovery of fieldwork by the RCT trials for development crowd (I still can’t get over the idea that they think living among the poor is a revolutionary idea).  The whole point of participant observation is to better understand what people do and why they do it by experiencing, to some extent, their context – I find it inordinately difficult to understand how people even begin to meaningfully parse social data without this sort of grounding.  In a concrete way, having malaria while in a village does help one come to grips with the challenges this might pose to making a living via agriculture in a rather visceral way.  So too, living in a village during a drought that decimated a portion of the harvest, by putting me in a position where I had to go a couple of (intermittent) days without food, and with inadequate food for quite a few more, helped me to come to grips with both the capacity and the limitations of the livelihoods strategies in the villages I write about in Delivering Development, and at least a limited understanding of the feelings of frustration and inadequacy that can arise when things go wrong in rural Africa, even as livelihoods strategies work to prevent the worst outcomes.

But the key part of that last sentence was “at least a limited understanding.”  Being there is not the same thing as sharing the experience of poverty, development, or disaster.  When I had malaria, I knew what clinics to go to, and I knew that I could afford the best care available in Cape Coast (and that care was very good) – I was not a happy guy on the morning I woke up with my first case, but I also knew where to go, and that the doctor there would treat me comprehensively and I would be fine.  So too with the drought – the villages I was living in were, at most, about 5 miles (8km) from a service station with a food mart attached.  Even as I went without food for a day, and went a bit hungry for many more, I knew in the back of my mind that if things turned dire, I could walk that distance and purchase all of the food I needed.  In other words, I was not really experiencing life in these villages because I couldn’t, unless I was willing to throw away my credit card, empty my bank account, and renounce all of my upper-class and government colleagues and friends.  Only then would I have been thrown back on only what I could earn in a day in the villages and the (mostly appalling) care available in the rural clinic north of Eguafo.  I was always critically aware of this fact, both in the moment and when writing and speaking about it since.  Without that critical awareness, and a willingness to downplay our own (or other’s) desire to frame our work as a heroic narrative, there is a real risk in creating our own versions of “playing poor” as we conduct fieldwork.

UNDP has launched its 20th anniversary edition of the Human Development Report.  In the report, they argue that development is working better than we realize – and use this to argue that aid is therefore working better than people think.  However, there is an important caveat in the report which calls this general claim into question.  As the BBC reports “There has been most progress in the areas of health and education, sectors which have received most focus in development assistance.”

This is a huge caveat.  These are the sectors that are easiest to measure – at least through traditional indicators.  Development programs have been designing programs around clear indicators and pumping money into achieving those indicators for some time – the same indicators used by the human development report.  Of course literacy rates are up.  Of course life expectancy is up.  These are low-hanging fruit.  But what does this really mean for the quality of life of people living in the Global South?  Are they living better, happier lives?  Or are they living longer, in greater misery than ever before?  Are any of these gains sustainable, or are they predicated on continual flows of aid?  There is no answer here – and it is an answer we need to obtain not through indicators, but by getting out there and talking to those we intend to help with development.  Get on your boots, and get out of the SUV/Mission Office!

I do, however, like that this report is trying to make an evidence-based case for the persistence of market failures around public goods.  We have seen, time and again, that when governments fail to provide security, access to healthcare, and education for their populations, the markets DO NOT step in to fill the gap.  A lot of poor, vulnerable people get left behind.  (Given recent trends and this week’s election results, it is entirely likely that South Carolina will empirically demonstrate this  can happen even here in the US, at least in the area of education, over the next four years).

My family and I are in the midst of a relocation to Washington, DC, a city with a cost of living at least 35% higher than my current home here in Columbia, SC. The rent for our (nice but hardly lavish) new place approaches double that of my current mortgage, and childcare is going to run us 50% above what we are used to here. And I am moving to take up a fellowship that grants me a 13% increase over my current salary to make up these costs . . . yes, I am going backward to take up this position, but I think this opportunity is too important to pass up. Luckily, my wife agrees.

The net outcome of this is a situation where my family will be living hand-to-mouth for a year or two, despite having two pretty good salaries under one roof. This situation reminds me of a story I use to explain the importance of purchasing power parity when comparing incomes and/or material standards of living in different places. Purchasing power parity is a measure of what your money will buy you, based on a “market basket” of goods that you might buy in each place. Since things like food are much more expensive here in the United States than they are in farming communities in sub-Saharan Africa, it makes no sense to compare incomes between these two places without normalizing for what those incomes can purchase. Which leads to my story . . .

My first year doing fieldwork in Ghana, I spent a lot of time simply hanging around, talking to people, getting my bearings and building relationships. Once the folks in Dominase and Ponkrum realized that I was 1) actually listening to them when they spoke and 2) willing to answer any questions they might have of me, I never lacked for evening conversation. This was especially true when I was buying the akpeteshi (distilled palm wine – it’s pretty serious stuff).

Fun at the akpeteshi still, 1998

One night, while I was talking about money, incomes and making a living with a group of people in Dominase, the issue of my income and net worth came up. Now, at the time I was a graduate student in Anthropology, just about to start a Ph.D. program in Geography. I was fortunate enough to have a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which is (by grad school standards) a very generous award . . . but it was still not much to live on. In the interest of honesty, I told them exactly what my annual stipend amounted to: $14,000*. Once someone managed to convert that into Cedis (the local currency, then trading at about 2300 to the dollar), this news resulted in shouting and amazement.

I then asked if I could explain what things cost me in America. I began to lay things out – my rent of $350/month (this provoked a near-riot, as $350 is as much as some households earn in a year in these villages). Then the cost of food – and another near riot, as the farmers began to realize that crops like the oranges they sold me for the equivalent of 5 cents were worth at least twenty times that amount in the US. I then explained about my car, gasoline, insurance, clothing, etc. Never let anyone suggest that a lack of education leads to deficiencies in mathematics – despite incomplete elementary educations, nearly every person in these villages engages in trade in markets in nearby towns. As a result, they can add and subtract large and complex sums in their heads very, very rapidly. Several of the villagers talking to me were converting the amounts I was listing into Cedis, and then adding this total up as we went along. As I came to the end, one of them looked at me and said (in Fante, via my field assistant’s interpretation) “then you have nothing!” “Yes!” I replied (in English – I did not yet speak Fante – but yes is pretty well understood in Anglophone Africa). There was a pause, and then a general cheer of “nothing!” broke out among the assembled group – and with that, most residents of the village stopped seeing me as particularly rich, and therefore much more able to understand what it meant to live from hand to mouth as they did**. At the end of each month, we all had nothing!

Here I am, some 13 years later – with tenure, and paid reasonably well. And moving into a situation where, once again, at the end of each month I will have nothing! I’m not sure if the folks in Dominase and Ponkrum will be horrified or amused. But they will understand . . .

* I should note that I was completely screwed by NSF with regard to the size of my stipend – there was no cost of living adjustment across the four years I held the fellowship. As soon as it ran out for me, though, they instituted a 50% (!!!) increase – the next year. Yes, I am still a little bitter about that.

** This is not to say that I did, in the end, completely understand what it meant to be a resident of these villages. While I tried as hard as I could to live under the same strictures as the villagers when I was in the villages, I also spent time in more comfortable settings in Cape Coast. Further, when things went wrong (such as in 1998, when the monsoon failed and a lot of the farms around these villages failed), I experienced short-term discomfort and frustration, but always knew that I had resources to meet my needs, if only I chose to walk a few miles to the nearest road and catch a cab. Thus, while I spent a few days without food in 1998, like everyone else in these villages, I always knew that if things got really bad, I could get to a road and to a store where I could buy food with money from my bank account in the US. Thus, I cannot say that I understand what it is like to live on the edge like the people I work with do each and every day – honestly, none of us really can.