A demain, inch’Allah. Fieldwork in a not-so-easy country

During the last two months, as a LEAP student, I had the privilege to follow the first steps of the project Peers in Action in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso.

The project’s aim is to study the impact of peer pressure in changing attitudes towards harmful traditional practices among adolescent girls, with a specifical focus on female genital mutilations (FGM) and child marriage. The intervention, which will start in September 2022, is in partnership with the local branch of the NGO Children Believe, who will be in charge of setting up girls’ clubs, in order to create a safe space for them to share their thoughts and also to learn new skills that will boost their self-confidence.

Burkina Faso is not an easy place to work in. The country’s history has been marked by frequent episodes of political instability (the last significant political event is a coup d’etat at the start of this year, which has left the power in the hands of the military), and the central government is not currently able to control vast areas of the country, leaving the local population prey of continuous terrorist attacks perpetrated by jihadist groups.

Here in Ouaga I mainly worked to coordinate the works of the baseline data collection, based in the offices of the local data collection firm IHfRA (Innovative Hub for Research in Africa). Unfortunately, I was not able to personally go in the field (it is highly discouraged for foreigners to leave the capital) due to the security risk, but I participated in all the other steps of the data collection, such as programming the questionnaires and other materials, training and selecting of enumerators,  checking the quality of the data that we collected and cleaning it.

 Although I already worked as a research assistant, and even did fieldwork in Italy, taking part to this project in the last few months taught me many important lessons about what conducting research in a developing country feels like, and about what actually goes on in the field, with its challenges and its issues.

One of the things that I learned is the importance of being flexible, and of being able to come up rapidly with alternatives to what was previously planned. Countless times we had to rearrange aspects of the research once we faced the reality of the field. Even after discussing for weeks, or even months, central points of the projects such as which should be the relevant population to be surveyed, or the list of villages in which to conduct the analysis, these aspects needed constant readjustments, due to the ever-changing security situation, or more in general as we started to get a better idea of the reality of the villages in which we were working in.

At times we also had to adopt a flexible approach due to the lack of data available that we had. Even basic information such as rough estimations of the population living of an area, or the position of villages in which we planned to do the data collection were not always available, or had not been updated in so many years that they were of no use for the design our analysis.

An aspect that I thought was particularly interesting was the importance of a good knowledge of the context in which we were going to work. Information such as in which season it would be better to conduct the intervention in order to find more people available to attend the clubs (it is autumn, since in summer, which is the rainy season here in Burkina, many people are too busy with work in the fields), or which ones of the local languages the enumerators to be sent in a certain area should be able to speak, are all essential components that will guarantee a good output for the research, that are lost by looking at data alone.

Understanding that the researchers’ culture might be different from the local one is another thing that should be taken into account when preparing the materials that will be used in the data collection. Concepts and words that to us might have a clear meaning might not have the same one for the population that will be surveyed. For example, while discussing with the enumerators about the questionnaire translations, we discovered that the question we asked about how many times the interviewee played with her friends in the last week hid an unintended sexual double meaning, which could lead respondents to give us a different answer to the one we actually wanted to know. Similarly,we realized that we had to explicitly state in the questionnaires to list in the same household children from different marriages of fathers in polygamous relationships if they were living together, or else enumerators would have listed them as belonging to different households.

Furthermore, culture can change across different groups of people even in the same country. This became apparent when we had to identify objects or colors related to the FGM ceremony, and every person we spoke to gave us a different answer, since each culture had its own symbols that were used in the ceremony!    

Being able to coordinate this data collection in Burkina Faso has been a great opportunity to learn new things and to broaden my horizons both from an academic and personal point of view, and I would strongly encourage everyone considering a career as a researcher in development economics to engage in something similar. I believe that getting a first-hand idea of the necessary practical actions that need to be undertaken and of all the issues that might show up in the field will be crucial when planning to do your own research, and that this experience can not be replaced by coursework alone.

I conclude by wishing the best of luck for the implementation phase of Peers in Action, and for the future of Burkina Faso in general! These months have been so formative and I will always bring memories of them with me.

Alessandro Palucci

If you want to connect with me write me an email at alessandro.palucci1@gmail.com, I’ll be happy to have a chat with you!