Sadly avoiding Nairobi this week…

I was scheduled to fly out to Nairobi this Saturday night to do 3 days of work, including some social science research methods training to the Uwezo staff, before heading to Dar es Salaam for a multi-day conference with the various teams that have been working on the Twaweza initiative. In light of the awful attack on the Westgate Mall, a place I have frequented several times, and the fact that it was not absolutely essential to be in Nairobi, we decided to bypass Kenya altogether. I’ll go “straight” (i.e., with two other layovers) to Tanzania instead. Notwithstanding the pleas from the Standard Newspaper against international travel advisories… my inbox piled up this morning with lots of them and frankly, I just couldn’t justify to myself or to my family a good reason for entering the fray in the midst of all that’s going on, especially since it would likely be impossible to be very productive. But I’m disappointed to not be going to Nairobi, and more so that Kenyans are taking it on the chin once again.

Meanwhile, I know it’s 2013, but I’m still dumbstruck by the ubiquitous nature of communications technology and social media during a terrorist attack. Seems as if many citizens at the scene, despite threats to life and body, have been using their smartphones to broadcast images from the mall. Shabaab and the Kenyan military have been exchanging public tweets about who has the upper hand in the standoff. CNN writes, “ Are you in Nairobi? Send us your images and experiences, but please stay safe.” Unfortunately, the spectacle and global stage of violence almost certainly makes it a more appealing strategy for the very groups who perpetrated these heinous acts.

P.S. I know I have been a delinquent blogger for quite some time. I really don’t know how these folks with full time jobs can manage to blog so frequently… but perhaps the Fall will bring greater inspiration and speedy fingers in generating blog-worthy posts. I am likely to tweet more frequently at @evlieb

On ipads in rural development reseach

In June of 2011, when our Uwezo evaluation team was getting ready to go out into the field with our household survey, I marveled — or more accurately, panicked — at the sight of mountains of paper that we kept hauling into our conference room from the local copy center. We needed to verify, collate, and stamp each questionnaire, distribute each to its appropriate box, and transport them out to the rural villages, where we would conduct our studies. Later, those thousands of pages would be marked up, separated from their identifying cover sheets, and transported back to Nairobi for coding. A team of coders would take on the tedious task of inputting all of the responses into a databse. And fearing the possibility of coder error, we transported the thousands of pages of anonymous surveys back to the U.S., so we could check back on any suspicious data entries.

It was 2011, and it was clear that there had to be a better way. But I had just heard from a colleague about his horror stories with a tablet-based survey: the programming was faulty, and despite great cost and effort, the research project was completely unsuccessful. Despite my intrigue, I was easily persuaded that it was too soon to bring tablets into rural Kenyan villages and think that we could effectively field a large survey in a relatively short amount of lead time. So we used up quite a few trees and hours, but successfully completed our work the “old fashioned way.”

Still, researchers are clearly out there using tablet-based surveys for all types of social research, and Markus Goldstein of the World Bank offers two excellent posts (part I and part II) on the use of Computer-Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI). In it, he thoughtfully reflects on some of the tradeoffs I discuss above, while clearly coming down on the side of technological progress!

Now I must admit that while I was in Kenya this June, conducting more informational and informal conversations around the country, I found my trusty new ipad to be invaluable. The new version allows you to swap in a local SIM card, so it was possible to use Kenya’s quick, reliable, and very inexpensive mobile 3G network virtually everywhere. While speaking with volunteers in informal offices in rural villages, I could take notes, upload them to a cloud, take photos, and plot the best route home using google maps. And in terms of one issue that Goldstein does not discuss, I did not sense that my device was in the least bit distracting for those with whom I was speaking. (Distracting for me, perhaps, as there is always that temptation to check email…) I had feared on our last survey that the introduction of a high-tech device into people’s homes would make the survey enumeration even more artificial and distorted than the endeavor necessarily must be. I did not find that to be the case. I am quite certain that a glimmering tablet would not have impeded the quality of a household survey — and as Goldstein points out, it almost surely would have assisted in maintaining accurate skip logics (for instance, if you ask a question about whether someone attended school as a child, you won’t pig-headedly ask the follow up question, what is the highest grade you ever completed.)

In any case, I will be curious to learn more about the experiences of others as they leverage this technology to more efficiently and accurately study social processes in the developing world.

Kenya-bound for more Uwezo research

I head off tomorrow for a few weeks of meetings and research in Kenya. I’ll join my collaborators, Lily Tsai and Dan Posner, and our project manager, Jessica Grody to continue our work trying to understand the impact of the Uwezo initiative. We’ll get started in Nairobi, and from there we’ll do some traveling around the country.

In our research so far, we have examined whether the direct provision of information to parents – specifically, their own children’s literacy and numeracy test results as well as information about what parents can do to be more active citizens – actually leads them to higher levels of local involvement in education. Like many other scholars, we are trying to understand if and when the provision of information leads to greater government accountability in terms of the delivery of key services.

For good reason, a great deal of impact evaluation research these days is being carried out using experimental methods. And if the definition of an experiment requires that the analyst randomly assign treatment to subjects, then technically speaking, ours was not an experiment. But fortunately, Uwezo had decided for various reasons to carry out this portion of their initiative to a random sample of villages around the country. Thus, one could not make the claim that there was something systematically distinctive about the villages that received the intervention. In order to estimate the effects of these informational “bundles” we required a control group. So prior to beginning our study, we identified a set of villages that were highly similar to the ones that had been randomly selected by Uwezo. Then we conducted surveys, focus groups, and other research in both sets of villages. We will complete a draft of a scholarly paper on this study fairly soon, and we will be presenting our results at the late August meetings of the American Political Science Association.

As for our estimates of the effect of those “information bundles”…. Well, we didn’t find any substantial impact. But in fairness, we didn’t hold particularly high expectations for an effect. It was important to see if this aspect of the initiative could drive desired outcomes on its own. It can’t. And now, we will investigate whether some of the much larger information dissemination campaigns make a difference.

On this trip we won’t be carrying out any systematic research – just learning about what Uwezo has been doing and what they plan to do going forward. Hopefully, we will finalize some interesting proposals for research in the coming years.

Nairobi-based accountability for Global Fund

As I contemplate an imminent trip to Kenya in less than two weeks, I was doing a bit of research on government accountability, and stumbled upon an interesting organization — Aidspan — which is, ” an international non-governmental Kenya-based organization whose mission is to reinforce the effectiveness of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.” The director recently penned an article about the non-disbursement of round 2 funds, in which he concludes that 20,000 lives were “not saved,” as a result of the bungling. Apparently, he has been closely following all of the grants to Kenya and has identified local and international mis-management, while also highlighting some real improvement in recent years.

In some ongoing work I’ve focused on accountability at the very local level. But in a world in which development is being governed at so many levels, this type of “watchdog” organization seems extremely valuable. In certain circumstances, overly zealous critics can de-legitimize important aid projects by crying foul at every minor wrong turn. But Aidspan seems truly committed to making the Global Fund work, and communicates its concerns both publicly and privately, as appropriate. Clearly some research is needed, but such citizen-based accountability initiatives would seem to be a key ingredient for promoting effective global governance.

While the organization appears to have been founded by a British economist — Bernard Rivers — he decided to base the organization in Kenya, and to develop a Kenyan staff to implement its mission. In the unlikely event that I have some free time in Nairobi, I will try to learn more about their work.