Having recently received her PhD, Transfer Project Research Analyst, Jennifer Waidler, embarked on her first fieldwork observation mission with UNICEF Innocenti. Jennifer visited Ethiopia with a team of researchers to train enumerators on data collection for Ethiopia’s Integrated Safety Net Programme pilot. In her blog, Jennifer gives us an insight into how research on the ground compares to research at a desk.

As a researcher working on poverty and social protection, I analyze household survey data, create indicators to measure or predict poverty, and estimate whether government programmes, aimed at reducing poverty, actually improve the situation of the participants of these interventions. Researchers create intricate indicators with lots of variables—from measuring nutrition and mental health, to gauging entrepreneurial attitudes, assets owned, education levels, and so on. We then apply complex econometric techniques to analyze whether these variables change as a result of an intervention. Does a participant now own two assets instead of one? Has the stunting rate among children decreased by 0.5 standard deviations, or has their mental health improved by 5 percentage points?

When your work is so data-focused, it is easy to get lost in numbers and abstraction. UNICEF Innocenti researchers working on the Transfer Project work closely with national research partners and UNICEF country offices to formulate research questions, develop study designs, and implement these plans to evaluate real world programmes. This means that Transfer Project researchers frequently travel to the countries where these data are collected in order to better understand the context that grounds the figures, to co-facilitate data collection training and to observe how the data are collected. In this way, we get a sense of what life is like in the households whose data we analyse. This blog is an account of my first real fieldwork experience with the Transfer Project.

"Fieldwork puts us face to face with the stories behind the numbers."

In November 2018, I travelled to Ethiopia as part of the UNICEF-supported Integrated Safety Net Programme pilot. Together with my colleagues from UNICEF Innocenti, BDS Center for Development Research and UNICEF Ethiopia, we are analyzing the impacts of this programme, which combines cash transfers with waivers to enroll in health insurance and additional interventions aimed at improving knowledge about health, nutrition, and child protection outcomes.

Engaging in fieldwork is a reminder of just how much work is done before researchers like me can dive into data to analyze impacts. For one, interviewing people is not easy, and finding their houses can be even harder! A lot of unexpected problems can emerge during fieldwork or training, and we rely on the experience and expertise of our local partner, BDS, to navigate the situation and deal with issues in real-time. In those moments, our indices and percentages become irrelevant, and it can be difficult to immediately distinguish levels of poverty when all households seem (and generally are) really poor (despite one household having, on average, 0.5 assets more than the other, according to the data analysis).

Fieldwork puts us face to face with the stories behind the numbers and shows us that poverty is different in different countries. The poverty in Latin America, where I come from, is totally different from the poverty I saw in the rural areas of Ethiopia. Despite living in a globalized world, in which technology is ubiquitous, there are still people who lack access to clean water and electricity, and there are still children who are stunted due to lack of healthy foods and infectious environments. As a researcher who loves analyzing data and looks forward to coming to work every day to crunch numbers and contribute to UNICEF’s mission, I am reminded that one day in the field can be more rewarding than one month with STATA, not to mention the amazing landscapes!

Data analysis of this study is due to begin in February 2019, with a baseline report to follow. Reports and data will be shared on the Transfer Project website as they become available.

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