Field Work? An amazing learning opportunity for aspiring development economist.

by Cécile Pierre

In January 2022 I started working as RA and Field Coordinator for Prof. Lucia Corno, on the Project Breast-Ironing Breastfeeding and Child Mortality. This study investigates a harmful tradition common in Cameroon called “Breast Ironing”. It is a traditional practice that involves scarifying, massaging or pressing the breast of adolescent girls and is usually performed by close relatives such as mothers, grandmothers and aunts in order to reverse and thwart the development of the breast. As part of this position, I moved to Yaoundé, Cameroun for 6 months. My job was to set up and supervise the intervention phase of the project, it followed a baseline data collection, and another data collection would come afterward.  

This was not my first job as a RA, but it was my first time in the field and it has probably been the most enriching experience of my life. First of all, it gave me an unrivaled opportunity to understand the issue I was working on. I met victims and perpetrators of breast ironing, I had the chance to witness their testimonies and grasp better the logic behind this practice. Secondly, this project brought me to Central Africa, with all the adaptive challenges this entails, but the core value of this experience is, I think, present in any kind of fieldwork, no matter how far from your home and your culture this field is. What I mean by this is that, yes, a big share of what made this experience so salient for me is linked to being in a completely new country, new culture, and learning to adapt to new standards of life. But what I‘ll remember and carry with me for the rest of my working life are the skills I acquired during this time.

As an aspiring development economist, I have worked with complex datasets, learned to code, and followed advanced theoretical classes during my studies and previous RA position. But even though I thought I already had a clear understanding of the challenges and logistics embedded in the rollout of an RCT, it was not until I found myself actively in the middle of one, that I could properly measure the extent of it. You’re taught about the rules of a good experiment, you probably also can imagine that data collection is not an easy task, and that there is a practical side to consider in every project. But it is also so easy to forget that this line in your dataset is a person, with a life, a job, a family to feed and only 24 hours in her day. I have learned that a perfect design in your office has no value if it does not take into consideration the reality of the people and the contexts in which you are working. This may sound evident, I also thought I knew this already, but there is nothing like a first-hand experience to really understand something.

In a nutshell, the main takeaways for me have been the following: The importance of timing, especially in agricultural settings. People have rhythms, work, and cultural rhythms, that you cannot ignore. This also concerns weather, being in the field during dry or rainy seasons is not the same, this affects your budget and the quality of your output. One week later, or one week earlier is not the same. Secondly, there is a delicate balance between knowing when to listen to your local team and when to push for your way of doing things. Especially when you work in a context like I did, where cultural norms are very strong and different from yours. Naturally, you care for the quality of data you’re collecting, or of the intervention you are rolling out, so you always have in mind all the criteria that should be met for them to be theoretically valid. You should push for such criteria to be respected and know that you’ll face opposition because sometimes your collaborators do not understand the value of doing things a certain way. But you should also value their inputs, they know the people and the culture you are working with and really often there are things you would have never imagined that can have an enormous impact on your work, no matter how open-minded you are or how aware you think you are, you’ll be surprised. To give you an example, there is a part of Cameroun in which we collected data were giving 1 item of something, in our case 1 piece of soap, is a sign of witchcraft. It is hard to take this as a serious issue, however, it is. Communication is also a key element of course, you have to adapt to the communication standard of where you are. In my case it was the speed of speech, people in Cameroun no matter how educated and smart they are, speak slowly, much slower than what I do. I realized that the speed at which I was speaking was an obstacle to efficient communication with my colleagues. Moreover, and a guess this is true for every partnership, speak to your collaborators in terms that make sense to them, and emphasize what has value for them, and sometimes you’ll have to explain things that seem so evident for you.

I believe this is addressed to recent graduates that, as I did, contemplate the idea of applying for a field RA position. My advice to you is: do it. It might be the hardest thing you’ll ever do or the most amazing time of your life, but the amount of knowledge you will retrieve from it is invaluable. For me, it has been such a great time. On top of the learning opportunity it has represented, my stay in Cameroun was a blast. Of course, it has been hard, I had my share of difficulties, but nothing compared to the good side of it. I met amazing people, learned so much about myself, and discovered that I was much stronger than I thought I was. I also witnessed that you really don’t need much to be happy, cliché I know, but so true.

As I am writing this, from my apartment in Kigali, Rwanda, where I just started a new field coordinator job, I realize how much I have learned and grown over the past 6 months, both as a young adult and as an aspiring development economist. I am deeply grateful to have the opportunity to do what I do.

Cécile Pierre

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

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