field survey and africans

December 6, 2007

Chris Blattman reflects on some of the challenges he encountered while running questionnaires for a field study in Northern Uganda:

Take an apparently simple question: “How many children do you have?”

Respondent: Five.
Surveyor: Do all of these children live with you?
Respondent: Well, I have two other children who live with my brother.
Surveyor: I see. So you have seven biological children?
Respondent: No, three of my children belong to my sister who died last year.
Surveyor: So you have four biological children, plus three children you have adopted.
Respondent: Well, one of them lives with his father sometimes. I also take care of the children of my cousin, but he is away at school.

Welcome to the Extended Family™. Now that’s complicated, but Chris Blattman has mentioned ethnic groups in Western Kenya who have a taboo against stating their exact number of children. Now go ahead and try to work with that (on top of understanding the extend family network).

However, the part of interest to me is the second survey, designed by the Demographic and Health Surveys project, on gender equality and women empowered:

Take one question designed to understand financial independence:

Q. Do you have any money of your own that you alone can decide how to use?
Problem: the primary answer is “no, I don’t usually have any money”. The question measures access to funds rather than decision-making power. A better option might be to first ask “when money is available…”

It turns out, however, that the answer to this question is still, “it depends”. Most of all, it depends on whether the woman earned the money herself.

We had similar problems with almost every other DHS question we adopted.

Q: Are you permitted to go to the health center to buy things on your own, only if someone accompanies you, or not at all?
A. What do you mean by permission? I usually consult my husband, especially if I have to pay money. Also, I can go for a short visit, but I need his permission to stay

Q. Do you yourself control the money needed to buy clothes for yourself?
A. What do you mean by control? You mean I keep it myself? How expensive are the clothes? Who earned the money?

Now my understanding is that the problem with the first questionnaire is cultural. The number of children one has usually differs from the number of children one takes care of. And furthermore, the number of children one takes care of varies depending on what “taking care of” means and some children are “taken care of” by more than one household.

On the other hand the second set of question seems to vary on who earned the money and the meaning of “permission”. And that makes me wonder how it’s interpreted by the data analyzers. Is a woman who consults her husband before making a monetary decision in a dependant relationship or in a healthy one ? Does the women empowerment index go down when women don’t have spending money of their own because they don’t have independent income ?

Somehow, that reminds that causal issues in gender inequality in Africa are probably poorly misunderstood because the surveys are designed with other cultural settings in mind and I wonder how many policies reflect those flaws.

(I need to write a proper post on gender issues in Africa soon)


8 Responses to “field survey and africans”

  1. omodudu Says:

    That is really challenging, goes to confirm that you can hardly transplant studies nd theories from western economies to Africa. Africa needs so much more quantitative research carried out by locals. That is locals that will allow themselves to think outside theories put in place by European scholars.

  2. omodudu Says:

    I must add that i really enjoyed this entry…

  3. Gabriel M. Says:

    This reminds me of something else that Westerners find puzzling… in some cultures you’re supposed to get jobs for all your relatives, regardless of their skills and qualifications. Therefore, many countries end up with large bureaucracies and organizations filled with relatives of those in power.

    For them, simply paying their relatives to stay at home is unacceptable and an alien thought. (The European solution for getting income to those that can’t work in a competitive marketplace.)

  4. omodudu Says:

    Still expecting your comment on the corruption thing…counting something thought provoking. Thanks. You can leave it as a comment here, or email or comment on my blog. I trust you will have the usual twist to it.

  5. aflakete Says:

    I wonder where are those cultures where you’re supposed to get jobs for all your relatives, regardless of skills and qualifications.
    And moreover, I don’t think nepotism and bloated bureaucracies have that much to do with each other, at least in places like Africa.
    If anything the main reason is the constant adjustments of a political/ethnical/regional equilibrium and more precisely the fact that the adjustment is always made by hiring more people.
    In Gabon, which probably has the biggest public sector, the president brags about the fact that no Gabonese is more than 4 degrees removed from someone important. In Nigeria, the layers and numbers of subnational administration has been increasing to reflect the ethno-regional divisions and redistribute the “wealth” equally. Hell, they have at the federal level, a commission whose sole job is to make sure the nomination by the federal government reflect the “federal character” of the nation. That’s 36 commissioners and their staff working full time. Or there is a litterature out there that explains that, especially in Single Party settings, the size of cabinet increased to have as much diversity as possible (40 ministers cabinets are common).

    I wouldn’t say the thought of paying people to stay at home is alien. it’s just that giving low wage jobs to 1/20th of the population is cheaper than paying them all (and of course, it would be a bit harder to justify why your friends, relative and allies get more if what they get is simply a payment and or not a job).


    tommorow, i promise

  6. Gabriel M. Says:

    I’m sorry to say that I know little about Africa. I was thinking about the Middle East when I wrote that.

    It’s supposedly shameful to get a transfer from the government or a relative, versus simply playing Solitaire in a governmental office.

  7. aflakete Says:


    There too, it’s political more than cultural.
    it would be quite easy to create a political/economical/sociological model in which having your cousin playing solitaire in an office is benefitial than sending him a check once you factoring in the potential trouble “cousin” represents.

    Why I don’t think it’s cultural ? Historically, those are trader/entrepreneur economies and Islam puts a premium on charity.

  8. omodudu Says:

    update please…

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