Sunday, 3 November 2013

Ms. G – Why Talk to People

October turned to November and I've probably given out the impression that I haven’t been doing a lot of useful stuff here. Well, actually I have.


How you get information about stuff is a big number in higher education. That’s what methodology courses are all about. The most complicated and detailed methods might serve their purpose in many empirical, “The Big Bang Theory”-science, but as for the rest of us, to most questions we have someone somewhere already has the answer to.

At least that’s the thought I’ve been following with Ms. G.

Development geography and development studies in general always (should) strive to solving problems, either by simply identifying and explaining them or coming up with solutions. As was maybe to some extent explained earlier, I’m working under the second heading. Now, I believe (on the basis of a not insignificant amount of hours of reading) with most other people that emphasis in coming up with these solutions should be put on the views, experiences and preferences of the final users of the solutions.
It often surprises me, and maybe many others, how many times past development aid has failed or even done some more damage only because the right people apparently were not asked the right questions or were not listened to carefully enough. A classic example (that first came to my notice through Dambisa Moyo) is when bed nets (protecting from mosquitoes and therefore malaria) were imported from the west to a tropical country without realizing that there is an enterprise already working on this at the location. Yes, protection from malaria was probably improved and less people fell sick in the short run. But lots of people were put out of work in the bed net business, pushing them into poverty. A would-be industry was destroyed by taking away its markets. And people were made more dependent on aid instead of local production. Plenty of money is lost in the ‘business’ of aid on completely wrong ways of doing things, leading to huge inefficiency and corruption (that last one just some guesswork of mine). These things could be avoided by, yet again, asking [the right people what they think] before doing.

My thing here is no exception. If anything, the toilet business is a field where the preferences of users is most important in making sure that someone is actually going to use any solutions you come up with! Just consider yourself (at least those back in the north) being introduced to a very new way of handling your products, for instance changing from sitting to squatting and from flushing to shoveling.

This is why I start by simply ask people, however differently I might formulate it in the final thesis.

But of course it’s not that simple. A frustrating amount of time goes to deciding what questions to ask, how to formulate them and in which order to ask them so that you won’t be leading the guy/gal to answer the questions he/she might think you want to hear. Or so that the interviewee won’t get the impression that you are ready to offer those solutions or any other tangible benefits here and now, which is a problem especially when talking about human development within a generally poor population. Everyone needs or wants something (a tree seedling, cash to pay for school fees, or your camera), and however well you try to appear informal (dressing very casually, using simple terms for things, which is especially fun under my theme), you are seen, in my case somewhat incorrectly, as a powerful man with connections and as a potential resource for the people.

Being the lazy b*astard I am, I didn't learn any Swahili before coming here (not that even all locals speak it very well…), so my lack of skills forces me to use an interpreter/assistant/friend in my work. This comes with many issues to consider, which anyone can imagine or look up themselves, but in short: Who is really conducting the interview when (this is a real, if single, example) you’re question is a short sentence, the translation of the question is short, the original answer takes a couple of minutes and the translated answer is a simple, pithy: ‘No.’? This is usually signed for, most of the time probably correctly, with the fact that people sometimes just like to ramble along more than a bit outside the theme.

This also comes along with ethical issues that I don’t have the energy to consider in this text, maybe later… Another story for another day is also the questions they come up with.

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