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.

Should an African lead the World Bank?

I don’t mean to pose the question in a rhetorical, politically correct manner. It’s not obvious that the answer should be yes.

Sure, the World Bank’s mission is to reduce poverty, and its biggest challenge remains the African continent. But there are lots of reasons to answer in the negative:

For one: Africa is not a unified political entity, and any single leader could easily be viewed as favoring one country or region over another, casting the institution into even greater institutional legitimacy crises than it currently faces. Moreover, I admit that I hate to see top-notch African talent, especially in government and the financial sector, get scooped up by international organizations. I am all for a free market for executive labor (an oxymoron?), but it does send the wrong signal when the best and the brightest leave their own countries for a job based in Washington or Europe.

And of course, to the extent that the bank depends on resources from Europe and the U.S., pragmatically speaking, it’s pretty easy to predict that these rich governments would become even tighter with their aid dollars, euros, and yen if one of “their own” were not at the helm.

Despite all this, at present, a pretty good case can be made that the answer should be yes.

First, I have been surprised to read some of the lukewarm endorsements for Obama’s candidate, Dartmouth President and Partners in Health co-Founder, Jim Kim. I would have thought that Laurie Garrett would have been a big supporter, but she writes that he is “not a shoe-in.” Her blog posting offers some praise, but sometimes in a backhanded way that makes clear that maybe Kim is not the best idea:

Kim’s possible appointment is both a blessing and a challenge for global health and development advocates. Because he is the first individual nominated to lead the Bank who lacks either economics, business or US government  experience, Kim will be watched closely for failures to comprehend or maneuver through the often Byzantine world of finance and development. Experts in the field argue financial figures in language more akin to that used on Wall Street than inside the NGOs and schools of public health that execute global health programs. Moreover, Kim is prone to speaking with moral authority, putting the weight of his experience tackling tuberculosis behind controversial calls to action. Bankers and “moral authority” don’t usually mix well together, even when the financial institution is meant to lend to the poorest of the poor.

Meanwhile, many, including Richard Dowden of the Royal Africa Society, have argued that the time may be ripe for abandoning the tradition of an American appointment.

This year there is a really good candidate: Ngozi Okonjo Iweala. She is highly competent, energetic with a real vision of what the bank should be doing. But she is African – the Nigeria Finance Minister. The World Bank will be judged on the success or failure by what it does in Africa. She has the backing of the African Union…. The Bank led the way on structural adjustment. Its reforms may have helped in the long run to bring investment, but what really turned Africa’s economies round was China’s decision to buy its raw materials from the continent. That, combined with the arrival of mobile phones, and the rise of a new African middle class, has given Africa more than 10 years of growth. In 2008 the Western free market model exploded and since then the US and Europe have demonstrated neither success in their own economies nor found a new theoretical model to impose on others through the Bank and the Fund.

So what better moment to appoint Ngozi? She has already laboured in the dull desert of the Bank’s Washington offices and twice walked unscathed through the terrifying valley of Nigerian politics. She retains a strong vision of development for people, not for ideologies or theories. It’s time for America to listen to others – especially Africa. Mr Obama, are you listening?

It would be nice to say that the appointment should be decided based on personal qualifications alone, but that would be naive. Country of citizenship matters in terms of influence and perceptions. I think there are some risks, but in the current context, I agree that Ngozi woud be a very attractive choice for the post.

Evidence for the information-accountability-school performance link

After months and months of proposal writing, revision, and planning, I was excited to learn over the past few days that Princeton approved the human subjects protocol and all the other bureaucratic details for an evaluation of the Uwezo initiative in East Africa. I described this project briefly in my initial post — but the main idea is that Uwezo will try to improve education outcomes in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda by providing various forms of information to citizens. First, they go to randomly selected households and administer a series of tests to children; second, they provide immediate results to the parents; third, they provide printed information for parents and for the school and community more generally about what they can do to improve education directly (e.g., read to kids) and through policy change and oversight; and fourth, they reinforce that information and put it into broader perspective through information campaigns that describe the results of the assessment. There are some other nuances that I’ll write about later, but that’s the gist.

In our work on this project, Dan Posner, Lily Tsai, and I will be trying to assess the degree to which information empowers citizens to effect meaningful changes with concrete benefits for the education of children. Much of the research will consider whether the information provided is actually “news” to parents and other citizens; whether such information changes people’s views on the services they are receiving; and whether it effects the likelihood of their taking any action. We’ll get started with extensive field research in Kenya this June.

But in the meantime, it’s worth discussing the highly relevant, recent World Bank study, Making Schools Work: New Evidence on Accountability Reforms.

World Bank, Making Schools Work

Education – Making Schools Work.

This is an excellent review of a series of recent studies that have sought to improve education outcomes particularly in developing countries. What’s particularly important about the study is that starts with the premise that there is a huge amount of variation that is NOT due to differences in resources allocated. We certainly know in the United States that money doesn’t solve all of the problems of providing acceptable universal education.

They focus on a series of studies that involved randomized interventions in various  countries, including efforts to effect teacher performance, and school management. But most relevant for our study is chapter two, which investigates a bunch of studies — conducted in India, Pakistan, and Liberia. So far, the results have been pretty mixed, and not terribly encouraging in the sense that information campaigns have not had overwhelming effects on citizen activity or educational outcomes. For example, Banerjee et al (2009) conducted a study in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, and found that the provision of information about local governance and self assessment tools had only a slight effect on citizen awareness, and virtually none of participation, or learning outcomes, when compared with households from control villages. On the other hand, only a few studies have been conducted, they differ in several ways, and as the authors of the World Bank study conclude, this type of research is in its infancy, and we still know very little about whether and how such interventions can have a measurable effect. To our knowledge, no similar study has been conducted in East Africa. The idea that better information should help citizens to realize the promise of democratic governance is too important to discard based on just a few studies, and while we will let the results of our study speak for themselves, it will be extremely important to understand if and how new information influences citizen participation in development.