I remember it was a cold March in Milan. I was sitting in class as Professor La Ferrara was teaching the Marshallian Hypothesis, a theory that seeks to explain the efficiency gains from a variety of contractual forms. The purpose of that lecture was to demonstrate why land markets in many developing countries show coexistence of fixed rent and sharecropping tenancy contracts, although the latter is less efficient. If you attended that class, you would know that the risk aversion can partially explain why we observe this pattern. However, I remember getting lost in thought and wondering “What does it really mean? What does it feel like being a farmer in Africa who has to face that decision?”.
Few months later I found myself in a field in Kamuli with a beautiful view of the lush Ugandan landscape. I was interning at BRAC, a development organisation dedicated to alleviating poverty by empowering the poor, for a project aimed at testing the Marshallian Hypothesis experimentally. I recall I was really excited because I was going to have the opportunity to meet a real farmer and obtain some answers to my question. But reality is always different from expectations. I realised we couldn’t speak the same language, and that she looked really distracted. All of a sudden, I got the feeling that my presence, a “muzungu” (white person) landed from Italy in the middle of Uganda, seemed a little odd.
That day I realised that I went to Uganda with this simple question and I found out that the world is much more complex than a model, that I had so many more questions in my mind and that the woman herself, farming in the sun with a baby strapped on her back, must have been wondering “Why is this muzungu here?”
So, here I am, one year after that experience still wondering why those days in Uganda have changed my life so much and why I would recommend every student who is passionate about development economics, and wants to put his interest and skills to action, to pack his bags and head towards a developing country for an experience in the field. I guess the first questions that come to mind are “Am I ready for this experience? What can I expect?” Since I had the same doubts almost a year ago, let me share what the elements of a typical day in the field looks like.
Be ready, because you will see things that are not considered normal by most of your peers; not all of them will be pleasant, but they will be challenging, fascinating and sometimes exciting. You can find yourself stuck in chaotic traffic in a minivan for hours, listening to a street preacher that reminds you that God is forgiving, while a local seated next to you tries to sell you the chicken he holds in his bare hands. You could meet a cheerful group of children all perfectly dressed up for school walking in the street between an open-air garbage dump and stray cows. Or you could even be stuck in the mud with a GPS tracker in your hand trying to measure the coordinates of a field.
According to my experience, there is no “typical” day, as I have been involved in many aspects of the project. My work largely depended on the stage of the Randomized Control Trial; it was between the midline and the last follow-up surveys. The internship entailed field visits to the project districts in addition to analytical work from the country office in Kampala. This meant that my days were basically divided between getting intimate with Stata, partaking in numerous meetings in the country office, and traveling to the field to ensure the regularity of the data collection process.
As far as the analytical and managerial work is concerned, my duty was to coordinate the team members in the field (20 enumerators and 6 field supervisors), to write daily reports on the data collection progress (trends, challenges and additional findings from the field) and to spend most of the time on the data cleaning and analysis.
Aside from this daily work at the office, I had the opportunity to go in the field and meet the enumerators and program administrators to solve the problems directly on site. Sometimes there were technical problems with the tablets, sometimes it was just a communication issue, and other times it was a problem of incentives. You can understand that it was truly a “hands on” experience that brought me into the real world, unlike a conventional desk internship. This is why I think studying poverty is intriguing but direct exposure to the field is crucial, as it allows us to participate substantively in many issues that we normally discuss only passingly in class.
Perhaps, the most unexpected aspect of working for an NGO in a developing country is the fact that you’ll find yourself constantly inspired by the sincerity, determination and resourcefulness of the people with whom you are working. My experience in Uganda was honestly monumental in sharpening my abilities and in developing a holistic interest in poverty alleviation programs. I still feel lucky I was side by side with truly inspiring people, working to overcome difficult situations despite unfavourable odds.
With this post I hope I have inspired you to seek your own field experiences. If so, I invite you to get involved in the activities of LEAP, the new poverty lab at Bocconi University.
Emilio Dal Re