Life / Work Update

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind.  I recently applied to transition from my current position on the Rainwater Storage Device evaluation in Kamwenge to a new IPA project in Kampala.  The project is a little different than the traditional line of work for IPA, namely rigorous impact evaluations, instead we plan to work with NGOs to support and improve upon their Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) systems.  Two weeks ago I got the new job, last weekend was spent looking for an apartment in Kampala, and the past four days were spent running around Kamwenge putting things in order before my departure.  Yesterday I packed up my life and hitched a ride with a government truck headed into Kampala.

And with that I said goodbye to Kamwenge.  While this is a transition I wanted, and am very excited for, it was oddly strange to leave.  Many of the things I loved about Kamwenge in the first six months lost their glow in the spring (eg: doing my laundry by hand on Sunday mornings went from a refreshing chance for some mental housekeeping to a monotonous chore).  At first the pace of work kept me preoccupied but this spring, with a more regular work schedule, I definitely hit the doldrums from time to time.  I had all the time in the world to read and cook and play soccer.  If I had decided to I could have set myself to studying the local language or volunteering in one of the nearby schools.  I never did either of those things; partly because I wound up not being there for much of the last three months, but mostly because I wasn’t comfortable initiating a commitment I couldn’t keep.  In the end I had three good friends in Kamwenge.  They are all guys who are young, smart, and eager to succeed and I’ll miss seeing them around town and learning from them.  While most of the town recognized me as the mzungu who lived “up at Balaam’s place”, to them I was still just that, another mzungu.  And after another year in Kamwenge, or even three, I’m not sure that would have changed.

One thing sank in this spring: in being the only outsider in a community it’s easy to forget that there was another before me and there will be an endless stream of others that follow.  For the first several months last summer I was frequently called Stuart around town.  Each time I corrected them, No, Stuart was a Canadian man and he left Kamwenge several months ago. Frequently I also had to explain that not only were we not brothers, I had in fact never met the man.  Similarly I imagine that anyone who shows up in town this summer will hear my name from time to time.  We outsiders operate much like a revolving door, turning over in time with the projects we come to implement.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to live and work in a rural setting.  I don’t think I would have been content if my first position had been in a developing capital.  That said, I am ready to live in Kampala, ready to have colleagues in an office and share an apartment with a roommate, ready to have the regular amenities of a city (supermarkets with perishable items, sandwich shops, tennis courts, live music, decent internet, etc.), and the daily interaction with other expats.

Professionally, I’m excited for the new challenge.  The M&E project is still very much an abstract idea: NGOs often want or need to evaluate the impact their projects have on beneficiaries.  IPA does really great impact evaluations but the methods we employ are sometimes simply not feasible for certain NGOs and are not appropriate for certain types of projects (eg: first pilots).  That said, excluding a long and expensive RCT style evaluation, what is the best method for NGOs that want to evaluate their projects?  What data should they collect?  And, ideally, how should they interpret and use the data they collect?  We don’t know all the answers to these questions and therein lies the challenge of this new initiative.  Personally the appeal of the project is this idea that we can help bridge the gap between rigorous evaluations and actionable M&E work.  Hopefully the partnerships that we form and the systems we propose will build upon current best practices and help NGOs better understand their current projects and use this knowledge to implement better projects in the future.

Meet the new BOB Rainwater Bag

Today was the big day.  RI Uganda launched the BOB Rainwater Bag in Kabale Town this morning marking the official release of the product for commercial sale.*  A group of local leaders, businesspeople, NGO representatives and folks from some of the media outlets were on hand as the product was introduced.  The final product has 1,400 liters of capacity (~350 gallons) and will be sold in local hardware stores for 125,000Ugx (~$52).  Sounds like a lot of money but the best alternative is a hard-plastic container (locally known as their commercial name, Crest Tank) which sell for between $100 – $150 and have the further disadvantage of being difficult to transport to a rural village.

RI will be selling the bags in three districts, Kabale, Isingiro and Kamwenge.  The evaluation is confined to Kamwenge.  The plan is to launch there in two weeks and then we will begin to introduce the study treatments which will vary the price and promotional strategy by houeshold and village, respectively.  So still a few weeks from the launch of the study project but it is exciting after all this time to see a finished product that is ready for sale in the shops.

They’ve also had a great catchy song written to use as a radio advertisement, (un)fortunately it’s in a local language but I’ll try to track down the lyrics for posting.  I had to explain to the RI team that Bob is a quite popular name in my extended family and I might have secured some schwag for anyone I know named Bob… Photos to come.

* For any newcomers (however doubtful), BOB is a flexible rainwater harvesting device being introduced in western Uganda by Relief International.

And we’re back…

Ok, to be honest I’ve been back since January 11th but have been slacking.  A couple general updates:

Break:  home was nice.  Very nice.  Odds are if you’re reading this I saw you and therefore I don’t need to write anything more about home.

Cairo:  on the way back I stopped for 3 days in Cairo to work out of the IPA office there.  And by work I hope you know I mean: visiting the pyramids (they’re big), the museum (mummies literally stacked on top of mummies), the mosques (lots of them with some very interesting architecture that was largely lost on me), the markets (hilarious interchange with a spice vendor), and then spending the remaining hours of each day taking tea at street-side cafes.  I went primarily to visit IPA colleagues and Midd roommates Matt Groh and Matt Lowes.  I have to admit I had no idea just how famous the two are in Egypt: at one point we met up with two students from the current Middlebury study abroad program and they insisted on taking a photo as evidence that they had met The Matts.

Work:  with the baseline survey complete the next phase of work for my project is preparing for the introduction of the rainwater storage device to the study area.  The final product that Relief International decided to go with was manufactured in China and is now packed in a shipping container and somewhere in the Indian Ocean headed our way.  Unfortunately for this and every other development project of 2011, February is going to be a slow month.  The Presidential election (see below) has some people nervous but for the most part NGOs are inclined to sit this one out to avoid their projects becoming politicized or seemingly so.  In preparation for the intervention I have been analyzing the data from the survey, assigning villages to treatment or control groups, and  designing the protocols for each treatment.  The idea is that, for example, certain villages will get one marketing strategy and other villages will get either another marketing strategy or none at all.  Furthermore, within each villages we’re going to be holding public lotteries as a means to distribute discount vouchers that are worth varying amounts; so some households will win the chance to purchase the product at a much lower costs than others.  The administration of these treatments must follow some very strict protocols to ensure that we have 100% participation and everyone has an equal and fair chance of winning.  In addition I now have time to write a manual for future IPAers on how to use the Pendragon Forms software to program electronic surveys, and let me tell you it’s an exhilarating read, email me for a pre-release copy…

Life:  work has slowed down considerably, which is a welcomed relief.  Surveys are widely acknowledged to be backbreaking work and the hardest part of the IPA gig.  I’ve reclaimed my evening hours and am back to playing soccer and reading and cooking a lot more.  Cooking has been assisted by two luxury items that found their way into my suitcase: a cast iron skillet and Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything”.  Each added about 10lbs. to my luggage but were well worth the weight.  Also, I know Bittman has done a “How to Cook Everything, Vegetarian”, now I just wish he would write the “How to Cook Everything, on a Stove”.  Quasi successful dinners to date include homemade pastas and an Indian chicken dish I was really excited about until I discovered that I could only get vanilla yogurt, but at that point I was committed and went ahead to chef up a delicious if slightly sweet bird.  I’ve also managed to accumulate a respectable pile of real books (vs. Kindle books) next to my bed.  These pair quite well with the new hammock that now hangs on my front porch.  I’m just finishing up “How to be Idle” which is an hour by hour account of the idyllic day of the idler.  The author has essentially scoured the history books in support of his strongest love: being lazy.  It’s a great read for a sunny evening in the hammock – now if you were to attempt to read it during your commute to work, eh, it might not be as enjoyable.

The Election:  February 18th is the big day.  In December I posted about some stories in the newspapers that seemed to foretell some coming strife.  Now it seems as though the outcome, with Museveni well in the lead, is such a sure thing there will hardly be anything to protest.  Doesn’t mean I believe it’s all free and fair, but it does mean that I think it will be largely stable and peaceful.

There are two very telling slogans from the Museveni campaign.  First, “Pakalast” which literally means “Until the end”; and second “Stability and Unity”, perhaps implying that the opposition would introduce the opposite?  I actually just missed the chance to see Museveni at a rally here in Kamwenge but I passed by in a taxi on my initial return to town (I didn’t think it’d be wise to try to get past the metal detector with my cast iron skillet and the rest of my luggage).  I could not believe the size of the crowd.  Yellow t-shirts filling a soccer field to capacity (and let me tell you, Ugandan’s have a different idea of capacity) with plenty of very visible security forces.  The message from the people to the president is clear: we love you, please give us a hospital, or a road, or more money in general.  The message from the president to the people was equally clear: if you vote for me in sufficient numbers I will give you all those things and more.

The mindset is fascinating; because Museveni is so likely to win he can essentially strong-arm the populace into a landslide victory by implicitly promising to reward those districts that give him the greatest margins.  Whereas in the US the incumbent might work harder to please (or buy, whatever) a swing state from the previous election, here they seem more apt to punished these troublemakers for their insolence.

Other news: there’s been the referendum in Sudan that turned out not to be a “Ticking time bomb” as Mrs. Clinton had prophesized.  Southern leaders have claimed they reached the 60% participation rate needed to legitimize the vote and the 51% vote for succession was never going to be an issue.  More interesting right now is the situation in Cote D’Ivoire with the president elect holed up in a hotel surrounded by blue helmets (UN) and the grumbling incumbent trying to seize money from the banks to pay his soldiers to keep him alive and viable.  That’s a fascinating situation because African regional leaders have taken the lead on negotiating for a transition without the overt assistance of major western powers.  The UN stance has been to recognize the legitimacy of the opposition’s victory but to defer diplomatic and military intervention to African Union leadership.  I think that’s a step in the right direction.  Oh and then there’s that other part of Africa, Tunisia, Egypt, etc., but I haven’t really got a clue as to what goes on up there.

For another day.

10 day forecast

I wrapped up the baseline survey last week.  3,240 is my new favorite number.  At the end of each day when I would receive the data onto my computer a little summary statistic would pop up with the number of completed surveys.  There were definitely a few days when I thought we would never see that number but sure enough we got there on December 1st.  I’ve since been back in Kampala writing reports for the donor and beginning some preliminary analysis of the data.  None of those results can be shared here but it is interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing (what a tease, I know).

The 10 day forecast calls for mostly sunny hovering around 75* through Thursday the 16th and then 35* in Boston on the 17th.  I’ll be headed back to the States for three weeks so this is likely the last post for about a month.  I trust that when I return I will be back in the blogging mood, especially in the lead up to the election in February as the international media storms the scene and things get interesting.

There are already some fascinating developments in the buildup to the Presidential election in February.  It looks like some people are trying to take a page out of the Kenyan history books and the government is getting nervous for sure.  The Electoral Commission recently said it would pull from the ballot any candidate that refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the EC (appointed by Museveni); NRM in Parliament just strong-armed a bill that makes it a crime to criticize the EC in a manner than might incite violence; reports this morning suggest the government is arming youth militias in northern districts; and old timers around the breakfast table in Kamwenge keep referring euphemistically to the need for an “Option B” if the opposition candidates want any sort of seat at the table.  Also out today, a couple of those WikiLeaks documents quote American embassy officials calling Museveni “autocratic” which comes as a surprise to nobody except perhaps the man himself.

I nearly wrote a paper last spring about the potential dangers of the precedent set by the power sharing agreements thrown together in Kenya and Zimbabwe following election violence in those countries.  At the time I made a few friends hear me out, but now that I have a captive audience, here goes: before the era of rapid international communication (think telegraphs), if a revolutionary in a far flung land wanted to start some trouble it could take weeks or even months for the international community, or perhaps a colonizing power, to catch word of the struggle and weeks more for them to respond with words of condemnation or any sort of military might.  Since then the lag time between uprising and reaction has shrank from a matter of months to a couple of minutes.  Today where trouble is brewing somebody will have a camera and CNN will buy the reel and over the 5 o’clock news the civilized people of the world will be forced to witness blood on the streets of some faraway place.  And before you know it the State Dept will be on the ground doing everything in it’s power so that people can watch the 5 o’clock news without being exposed to such horrors.  It’s pretty hard to argue in favor of letting an ugly fight run its course, but by interfering as we now seem inclined to do we set the precedent that we will continue to do so in the future.  Opposition parties and evening waning incumbents could potentially use this as a strategy to gain / keep a seat at the table of power.  So “Option B” calls for a three prong approach: 1st, campaign and vote; 2nd, protest to the international community that the results as deeply flawed; and 3rd, when 1 and 2 fail, take to the streets and cause a stir.

I can’t say whether I think power sharing agreements are good or bad, but I definitely don’t believe they are something to celebrate.  Especially when you consider the type of government you get for the bargain: in both Kenya and Zimbabwe the unified governments have failed to cooperate in even the slightest manner.  So ending the violence is good, but not if it actually just provides incentives for violence in other places when they want attention from the international community.  This stuff is very interesting to me, and I will certainly continue to post about it, but it might have to move to some anonymous blog site to keep my mother from worrying too much.  On that note, I don’t think things will get too bad here in February and I believe it will be largely confined to Kampala and some isolated incidences in the north.

And finally, check this out, the 10 day forecast from only shows the next 9 days?  I guess in these lean times everyone has to make budget cuts somewhere…

“I have neither given nor received…”

Every Midd kid can finish this sentence in their sleep.  I took the liberty of borrowing the my alma mater’s (that sound’s weird) honor code for a quiz I gave to enumerator yesterday at the conclusion of the first day of training.  Some of the trainees have worked with IPA before but many have not.  IPA has a vetted list of enumerators from Kampala but I brought in 18 people from Kamwenge, most without experience but all with university degrees and all passed an interview.  That was important to me, and hopefully they’ll do well at training.  All agreed that the tone set yesterday morning was more serious and more productive than most training sessions they have previously attended.  That’s nice to hear, but also doesn’t mean all that much;  “Going for workshop” is one of the most commonly heard lines when you are trying to find people of some importance.  The aid industry’s emphasis on “capacity building” (whatever that means) has led to such an outgrowth of these workshops with fat per diems that it has become a favorite pastime of government officials and corporate managers.  By some accounts a middle level civil servant can double his monthly pay through attending certain workshops where invitee lists are screened by political connections or friendly patrons.

There’s none of that going on around here.  We brought in about 40 trainees and will only be selecting 25 for the job.  Everybody is well aware that they must preform and most seem to be responding to the incentive which is great to see.  Best Icebreaker in Uganda?  “Simon (or Brian) says”,  nobody had ever played before and everyone loved it.  That was my way of saying, even after lunch, you still need to pay attention.  Training will run for two weeks, which is good because it gives me another few days to work out the bugs in the PDA programming before introducing the electronic data collection in week two.  If anyone knows good icebreakers for large groups please share!  I’m running out and there’s still 8 more days to plan and google was not helpful at all.  Thanks.

Work Update (Part 1)

It’s been over a month since I last bored you all with details of my work but believe it or not it’s not all safaris and cultural immersion these days.  So here’s what has actually been occupying the vast majority of my waking hours of late.  As I previously mentioned  I have created a lengthy survey which focuses on a few broad themes:

First, Household Roster – who lives here?  Second, Employment Details – what do they do for a living?  how much do they work and how much do they earn? Third, Consumption & Assets – what do they buy and what do they own?  Fourth, Water water water – what sources do they use? how far away is each?  how do they collect?  who collects water and how much time do they spend collecting?  how much do they use for various activities? and how does rainwater play into all of this?  Fifth, Social Networks – who knows who? who likes who? who is widely respected in the village and who is active in the community?  Finally, Behavioral Games – simple scenarios that try to elicit risk and time preferences, much in the same vein as my senior work at Middlebury.

That’s a gross oversimplification of a survey that has over 1,000 questions (when you considering asking many questions about each of the 10+ people in a given household, and asking other questions about each of 40 other households in a village sample) and will take about 90 minutes to administer.  So that’s kept me on my toes.  But what’s been the real focus for the last three weeks is moving this beast of a survey from a clean and simple Excel spreadsheet into a software program called Pendragon Forms which is used to conduct surveys on PDAs such as the Palm Pilot or in our case the HP iPAQ series device.  Forms is a very powerful tool in that it is relatively simple to program but still gives the survey designer lots of freedom – if they can figure out the tricks.  Once on the PDA the survey functions much like an online survey that you have likely seen before – questions and pre-coded answers that allow you to “select one”, choose “yes or no”, rate something on a scale of “1 to 10”, etc.  The difference is in our case the enumerator is the one inputting the answers, not the respondent.  The value of electronic data collection is hotly debated in this industry – even within IPA some professors swear by it and others won’t even consider it.  Pros and cons:

Pro – Complete control over the movement from one question to the next.  In all these surveys there are many skip patterns, ie: if the answer is A, go to question 5, if it’s B, go to question 10.  With a paper survey you can only hope that your enumerators are paying attention and following instructions.  PDAs give the programmer complete control over what action is taken every time a response is entered.

Pro – Erase the potential for illegible or incomprehensible survey responses.  The ink doesn’t run and the 5s never look like 6s.  That’s nice.  Also, if an enumerator accidentally enters an age of 150 instead of 15 I can set the program to catch this unlikely observation and prompt a correction on the spot.

Pro – Eliminate the total headache that is data entry.  The only thing more stressful then preparing for a survey is dealing with sloppy data entry companies, or so I’ve heard.  Fortunately I’ll never have to find out – at the end of each day the data from completed surveys are transferred directly to my hard-drive and immediately backed up (about a dozen times!).

Pro – Cut costs.  Printing 3,240 copies of a 40 page survey costs real money.  As does paying the sloppy data entry teams to enter each of those 130,000 pages, twice.  Twice not because they will mess up the first time (which they will), but twice because double entry is the only acceptable standard and the only way to conduct error rate checks, which usually results in us sending them back for round three.  Either way the manual entry of 260,000+ pages of survey data eats up a good chunk of change.  Even when you consider the cost of purchasing new PDAs for a large survey team the savings are real.

Personally those four reasons seemed pretty good so I threw my weight behind electronic data collection and we decided to take the plunge.  While I still believe this is the right thing to do and should pay off in the long run, using PDAs frontloads much of my work and demands a level of preparation above and beyond locating a safe dry place to store stacks of paper surveys  for a later date (ok, there’s a lot more too it than that!).  After three solid weeks of Pendragon Forms programming what I can say is that there is a very real reason why the program has a small band of IPAers around the world contemplating ways to rig a skeet launchers to toss up PDAs for target practice.  One example – the creators of Pendragon Forms decided that, as if correcting hundreds of little screens in a row wasn’t punishment enough, every time you hit the Backspace bar they would cheerily remind you of your mistake with a short sharp BEEP!  Thousands upon thousands of BEEP!  Another, there is nothing really intuitive about the program, you just kind of have to learn it step by step.  Where are those steps located?  In the user manual.  The 599 page user manual.

So those are the cons.  The pros still have it, but they are mostly long term while the cons are immediate.  I hope to be bragging about smooth sailing soon.

How hard can random be?

Work update:  I’ve had a busy week or so doing all sorts of things we describe using ambiguous and / or otherwise unintelligible words such as Stratifying, Sampling, Mobilizing and Pre-testing and now I’m preparing for a big Listing exercise.  So here it is, a week in the life of:

Imagine (purely hypothetical) you wanted to study the patterns of technology adoption among rural dwellers in a developing country.  Well who are you going to talk to?  These folks, the study participants, collectively make up the sample.  Sampling is a really creative verb used to describe the process of choosing who to include in the study.  Ok, so we’re going to sample a whole lot of people – makes for a strong paper – how are we going to find them?  Well, we’ll go to the villages and get a list of villagers (that’s called Listing, don’t worry, full explanation to come).  You’re going to do that in every one of the thousands of villages in Uganda?  No, obviously not, we’ll work from a study area – in this case the district of Kamwenge.  Ok, so you’re going to go to all 615 villages in Kamwenge district and get a list of households?  No, that’d cost a lot.  Oh, so which villages are you going to study?  Well we’ll choose some number of them at random in an effort to select a group that is representative of the broader study area.

Sounds good – but wait, does new technology reach really remote villages as quickly as it reaches trading centers located near the main road(s)?  Perhaps not.  But aren’t the vast majority of the villages in this area a good ways away from the main road?  Yep, looks like.  Ok, so maybe we should take some villages that are near the road, and some that are further away – that’s called Stratifying, or Oversampling, when you pick your sample to include various characteristics in proportions that do not exist in nature.  Ok, no problem, let’s grab the map of the entire district with all the villages on it and just – wait, we haven’t had an up-t0-date map for nearly a decade due to some impressive gerrymandering efforts.  Fine, let’s find some proxy for the size of each village and use that to oversample larger villages: plug some commands into the right statistical software and out pops a nice clean list of villages.  (I stopped to smile at this point)

Ok, so we’ve picked a whole bunch of villages, some near the road, and some further away.  So now we go march on in there and ask for a list of residents?  Naturally the records are well kept and there’s always someone in the office ready to assist.  Maybe not.  Mobilization is essentially doing a quick trip to each village to introduce the study to the local leaders, collect contact information, and explain to them what we’re going to do next.  It’s the prep work necessary for a successful Listing exercise.  The looming Listing exercise involves going to each village and conducting a small pow-wow with local elders and generating a list of each household in the village.  Sounds simple, but when we tried it out the other day the council told us “this is silly, we know there are 68 households in our village, here’s the list”.  We sat there until they came up with 76 households and then we went and did some spot checks to ensure that they’re all real and we didn’t miss any others.

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget Pre-testing: the word used to describe the constant process of revising the survey through trial and error.  Which survey?  The Baseline survey – what we usually consider the first step (ha!) in studying the patterns of technology adoption among rural dwellers in a developing country.

The Details

I have so far skirted around the meat of the issue – so what exactly am I doing in Uganda?

I’m the field researcher for an evaluation of a development project which will introduce a rainwater storage device to villages across several districts in rural Uganda.  The story goes as follows:  Relief International (RI), a US based NGO, has designed a new device which holds rainwater collected off the roofs of households via gutters and downspouts (hence, rainwater storage device…).  The Gates Foundation is the primary donor, and before they write the big check they want to know what the project is really going to cost and what the impact is really going to be.  Professor Mushfiq Mobarak (my boss) gets a call from the Foundation to do a rigorous evaluation using an experimental, or randomized, protocol.  Mushfiq is affiliated with Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a group of development researchers, who collectively hire a bunch of over-eager recent econ undergraduates like myself (and 2 of my roommates, as it were) to go administer a couple thousand household surveys and conduct a “randomized evaluation” of various projects around the world (more details on “randomization” to come in the future).

The Rainwater Storage Device:  Think really big rubber/plastic bag encased in an even bigger woven plastic bag (about 5 feet across & 5 feet tall when full).  The device is capable of holding 1000 liters of water (about 260 gallons) – estimated to meet the basic needs of a family of five for 10 days.  This capacity is not going to provide a year round solution, but rather during the rainy seasons and for a period stretching into the dry seasons, villagers will be spared countless trips to the creek or borehole (actually, we’re probably going to count them…).  After purchasing the device (not a give-away)  the villagers are responsible for constructing a simple earthen foundation to hold it upright and the gutters to collect and direct the flow of water into the bag.  A simple spigot at the bottom of the device allows users to withdraw water.

The Evaluation:  The evaluation is one part market analysis and one part impact assessment.  Using an experimental protocol we will be conducting a market analysis to determine an efficient price point for the device.  To do this we will be randomly allocating rebates of different values across different villages.  The adoption rate among those with each level of rebate will allow us to understand the demand for the product and inform future price points.  In addition, various marketing strategies will be used across villages and we will be able to compare the results of each.  Then, using household surveys from before, during and after the introduction of the device we will be able to understand the impact of purchasing a device on household welfare.  Specifically we will be looking at the impact on women and children who are primarily responsible for gathering water.  From a development standpoint the ultimate impact would be higher school attendance, allowing women to be more economically productive, less water-bourn illness, etc.

This is still a very rough sketch, but I’ll wait to fill in the details in real time as they become relevant.  Anything that is unclear above would probably make a good blog-post topic, so let me know!


A collection of observations, thoughts and experienced going back to 2010.