Saturday, December 4, 2010

Punk'd: Liberia Style

What works for development? One of the main problems with development is that in many cases, we simply don’t know. Failed approaches get tried over and over again by different organizations or even the same ones – in Ghana, an organization with which I worked was planning a community grain storage scheme in the same manner that had previously failed. When I got assigned to the task, I started asking questions, doing interviews, and digging deep for data – at least in the handful of organizations with which I worked, there wasn’t any organized manner for looking at past results (partly due to digitization only since the late ‘90s). And there certainly isn’t any database between organizations to document past experiences. So, most of the records are either buried deep in the archives, found in some long chain of emails, or recalled only from the memories of development workers who may or may not still be with the organization.

Compounding this problem is that even when you do find the records, it’s almost always a self-evaluation. What a breeze Vanderbilt would’ve been had I been able to grade myself! I was actually brought on with TechnoServe in Mozambique to gauge the impact of its poultry project. I tried to be objective as possible, but when the organization that you’re evaluating is paying your bills and giving you all the contacts, there will be some bias. And there’s pressure to paint a positive picture, because that improves your chances of getting a gig at another project, as it did for me in Ghana. Most NGOs are guilty of this.

Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) is trying to change this. Based out of Yale, the NGO and its sister organization J-PAL at MIT are conducting randomized controlled experiments to test and improve the effectiveness of poverty alleviation interventions. So, they will generally go to an NGO that has or will have a program soon starting, take a baseline survey of random villages both included and excluded from the intervention, and after the intervention administer the same survey to the same villages.

IPA interested me because of its unique role as an NGO that supplies the implementing NGOs with the information they need (though IPA has recently started doing implementation itself). To get to know the organization better, I volunteered just for a week and a half helping design a very small part of a survey that was to determine whether peace education was worthwhile (peace education is big in post-war Liberia). The UN and Liberian government had implemented a huge program to train communities in conflict resolution.

For my part, the setup was that after the team had finished administering the survey to the entire village and right before they were to leave, several enumerators were to get into a staged fight in the presence of the village chief. How would the chief respond? Had the training improved his “conflict resolution”? I was tasked with designing the skit and training the enumerators to act it out. Not the budding Shakespeare everyone believes me to be, I asked for the help of some locals in writing it. Training them was hilarious – when they practiced it out in the church (above), several unknowing pedestrians came by to try to mediate the fake fight. Liberians (and I tend to believe Africans in general) are amazing performers, at least when it comes to getting in fights – I think because they often do get in real fights themselves.

It really got fun when we went to local villages to practice on unsuspecting village leaders. We first asked permission to act it out, but this didn’t work since they knew what was coming. I did a quick 180 and in the next village we did a fake mini survey as a pretext for being there. I excused myself to go to the bathroom so that I – as the survey team leader – could not be assumed by the chief to take action when the fight broke out. I took a video, which was previously posted but had to be taken down in response to IPA's human subjects liabilities. The chief comes out saying, “We don’t fight here! I will fine you!”, and the village chair soon after runs out too. From there we go to the palava hut, and evenutually reveal the skit as a fake. There’s a moment of disbelief and then everyone just starts laughing hysterically. Invariably this was the response of the villagers. Everyone was a good sport, and the chiefs were especially interested to know how they performed.

(Ivory Coast Update: On Thursday the election results were announced with opposition candidate Ouattara winning in a 54% to 45% margin. On Thursday night, incumbent president Gbagbo's ally in the Constitutional Council called the results announced by the Independent Electoral Commission null and void. Gbagbo has instituted a curfew, closed borders, and threatened to kick out the UN envoy. Gbagbo's henchmen are patrolling the streets of Abidjan, and on Thursday night they opened fire at point blank range, killing 8, at the opposition party headquarters in Youpougon, the exact compound I spent time interviewing opposition supporters. Riots have broken out across the country. As I write this, both candidates are being sworn in as president, and the country is on the brink of civil war. International community supports Ouattara, and the African Union is holding an emergency summit to decide a course of action. The news is coming out by the hour. For a good article and stunning pictures, go here.)

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