Published on Development Impact

Notes from the field: community entry and seatbelts

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I just got back from two weeks visiting a bunch of ongoing projects in Africa.   During the trip, the issue of community entry came up again.   
For those of you who aren't familiar with the idea, this is the question of how, when you are doing a survey, you facilitate the entry of the survey team into the community.    If, as we often do at the World Bank, you are working with the government statistical agency, this is fairly simple.      They have established protocols and official procedure on entering a community:  who has to be informed, checked-in with, etc.   Permits are issued, letters are signed and things go ok.
However, if you are not working with the government statistical agency, things may be a bit more tricky.   Making sure that people in the community feel comfortable with your survey team is going to be key to getting good data.   And if you don't happen to be working in your home community, the initial introduction is critical.  In addition, once you have your sample frame (and while collecting it), you need a way to find Mr and Mrs X in the community, since most of the places we work don't have names on the mailbox.    

This is where the various folks who facilitate community entry come in.   And in my experience they range from Sacagawea to Tony Soprano.   In the Sacagawea case, this is someone who may or may not be interested in the research, but is willing to help you make the connections with key community leaders (or could be a community leader herself), and helps make sure the survey team gets to the right household and that the household members won't be overly suspicious of your survey team (e.g. no "they are here to see if our land has gold, and they will seize it with the government").  Now, this person (and the other locals she mobilizes) are taking time from their busy schedule to help you out so some thanks are called for.   In my experience, transport reimbursement is in order, and maybe some thank yous for the opportunity cost of time -- sodas, airtime.   If all goes well, and you intend to bring your results back to the survey communities, this person may help out again.
But of course, there are Tony Sopranos out there.   And that relationship goes differently.    Basically what Tony is selling you is protection, because if you don't hire him, well "life will be difficult" since "these communities, they are suspicious, and these are dangerous places to work."    But "I know people, they can help you."   "You need to pay me, you need to pay them".   You get the idea -- it runs like a mafia protection racket, with that not so subtle indication that if you don't work with Mr. Soprano, bad things will happen to your survey.   Now, as with well functioning protection rackets, things do tend to go smoothly when you pay a lot.    I just am left with the sense that we paid too much to the wrong people.    But once your local Mr. Soprano knows about your project, it may be hard to avoid him.  
So, how to have a Sacagawea experience instead of a Tony Soprano one?    I haven't totally figured this out.   Part of the story is getting an early read on the situation before you indicate that a survey will be happening.   And here, getting references on whom to talk to from people you trust before you even set foot in a country/community is likely to be a big help.    I've also had experiences where bargaining with Mr. Soprano ("you know, the budget is really tight, this all I can squeeze out" "the funders will only let us spend X on this") sometimes gets you away from the total hold-up (wearing my World Bank staff t-shirt, on the other hand, does not help with the bargaining position).   Lessons from others on this are welcome.  
Another issue that occupied my mind during this trip was road safety.    While I was visiting one country, a good friend and long-time development economist was involved in a rather spectacular, complete roll-over, car wreck coming back from survey training.    He and the other occupant of the vehicle were shaken up but otherwise fine.   Both of them wearing their seatbelts.    So here's my public service announcement plea: wherever you are going, please wear your seat belt!  And if there are no seatbelts - speak up.  


Markus Goldstein

Lead Economist, Africa Gender Innovation Lab and Chief Economists Office

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