Field visit- a joke on folks who are visited!

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A set of school kids engaged in making quill greetingcards post school hours to raise funds for their community work. Location: Agra slums, 2013

Field visits (of sociological nature) , from my limited understanding, were a part of Masters in Social Work (MSW) courses alone in the past. Nowadays its mandated for program that study Development, Public Policy and others dealing with matters of public or social nature.

The whole idea of field visit and exposures is to help people see from real close quarters what it means to – live under certain conditions, do a particular job, and understand many aspects of their lives. It is to de-number the identity of the people whom we statistically study from census data or quantitative reports. It is to see them as peolpe like you and me.  When I started to do these  field visits it was as a part of my Master’s theisis to understand the impacts of a marine engineering project on lives of fisher community. Since then I have been learning and absorbing everytime I go into the field. These visits have helped me bridge the knowledge gap I have due to irregular readings. More than this, they have helped me stay more rooted, human and reminded me about the values like humility (Not that I claim to be humble all the time, I do tend to have my own streaks of arrogance now and then, 😉 ). A field visit can be to a village, surban slum, a factory floor, a manufacturing unit, some local organization or school or any place that is relevant to study that one is engaged in.

As a part of this course there was a mandatory month long field visit in the first year.In the second year of the course few electives have field visit as part of thier curriculum. I am writing this post to just reflect on the attitudes some of us have towards these visits, and how it is uselesss for people with certain attitudes to make such visits.

During the first visit of mine as a part of this course, the attitude certain members of the team visiting exhibited was that of entitlement. It is as if, just because you are from a city ( which in the heads of the visitors is a proxy for developed) the vilagers should be obilidged to share information about all the things we vistors question. This is pretty evident from the way we sat, questioned and interacted with people. It is amazing how we would want to pay and stand in quess to go to some places and act all civilized and nice, for instance a famous pub in a city. At the same time when we are recived with warmth and given the space to interact, we act all bossy and cocky. The villagers/laborers or slum dwellers have no reason to spend their valuabel time in talking and providing information to you. Our research and study is useless to their lives, if anything they are doing favour on us by sharing about their lives.

Similarly when few of the classmates came back after visiting a labor union organization, their remark  about the life of an indiviudal shared is  – “it sounds like a hindi soap opera” or mock at the fact that, now they may be assigned a project to write a biography of the live of the lady who shared her life story with them. Another set of smart alec from the class  want to practice their ability to argue and debate with these poeple by asking “smart theoritcal” questions on gender discrimination – about not having a “single” male members on the organization board. This is being asked to a woman who has  just shared her life story on the kind of  discriminations done to her by men all her life.

I have felt quite sad seeing the way these people go about doing their field visits. I dont mind if one doesnt like to do field visits. Its ok to not like it. But when engaging with it , the attitudes that these folks carry is not right. The attitudes of – carelessness, of disregard, of disrespect and of lack of sensitivity. This is sad, utterly sad. I am not excluding myself from this. There have been times when I have also been careless, I have my share of faultlines too! I am taking an opprtunity to reflect on myself and other in this program with respect to these attitudes.

Why is their experience of life, be it difficulty or struggle less valuable than our own struggle to study late nights to get good grades? Why is their life less important than our lives? If we all cannot appreciate an individual sharing their lifestory with us and if we can not respect them just like we will want anyone else to do to us, what policies will we create? What public policy professional will we become?

The idea of these visits and interactions is to atleast have a peak into the lives of those individuals differnt than us. We most of the times visit people who have lesser social and economic capital than us. Experineces shared usually are about their struggles-matters that are quite close to their hearts and minds.  Fieldworks of social orientation are sledom on rich lives. Just because these people are weaker, should we be careless about it? Simply asking.

No point being a gold medalist or knowing all the books. By the end of the day experience of our lives is enrichened not by our shopping experineces, or moments of arogance or ruthlessness but by the number of moments of gratidue, happiness and humility.

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Watching – War on Democracy

It has been a year long in a course in study of public policy. Its been a busy year of working and studying and falling fatally ill. This trimester is a little easy and I am trying again to write and share my thoughts and experiences on issues of public concern.

As a part of the course one has to see, read and question the aspects of local and international politics and policy making. The dynamics involved in it.  For this purpose I am now seeing the documentary- War on Democracy. The movie is about what has United States of America done to its neighbors – Venezuela, Chile , Bolivia ,Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador from 1950s until early 2000s.

Had it been a year ago, I would have say crying wondering why would innocent people get killed in the larger politics of greed in this world. A question that begets answer of “collateral damage” from people who work at the upper echelons of any nation. I would have found it insensitivity and outrageous and disturbing. But having spent a whole year looking at issues after issues, I feel as much value emotions have in addressing a problem passionately, there is a place for strategic thinking which may or may not provide logically correct answers/solutions. So now I am looking at this documentary with these pair of dry eyes.

John Pilger interviews several ex-CIA agents who took part in secret campaigns against democratic countries in the region. He investigates the School of the Americas in the US state of Georgia, where Pinochet’s torture squads were trained along with tyrants and death squad leaders in Haiti, El Salvador, Brazil and Argentina.

The film unearths the real story behind the attempted overthrow of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez in 2002 and how the people of the barrios of Caracas rose up to force his return to power.

It also looks at the wider rise of populist governments across South America lead by indigenous leaders intent on loosening the shackles of Washington and a fairer redistribution of the continent’s natural wealth.

Source: http://johnpilger.com/videos/the-war-on-democracy

The documentary has a strong case to make. But the clips of the documentary seem to show clips that fit the narrative John Pilger wants to show us. I am not trying to make the point that the USA’s intervention here was in anyway benovalant. If anything it was clear display of vested interest. The installation of dictators , coup against  Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or the  killing of Salvador Allende of Chile have happened under their purview. The historical documents from CIA show the clear hand of Americans in it.

The point on Chicago boys, the loot of the Bolivians, the privatization of every service in Bolivia is all real, relevant and important. There are few points I would like to make about such documentaries. The ones that describe and delve into any problem in depth. They are good in bringing forth the issues none of the mainstream media ever cover. They give the perspective of the people who go through these policy interventions. Be it the effect of Washington Consensus   or the complete ostracization of Cuba or the experimentation of Chicago boys on real people of these countries. This perspective is very important, rather one of the most important perspectives in  understanding the cascading effect of any national or international policy or intervention. The documentary in the end shows how Venezuela and Bolivia now are doing well for themselves because of the people’s movement against the exploitative “empire”. Quite a relief.

But is the other side of the story of greed and a want of a new age empire ( like the imperial form). Is the narrative that simplistic?

Let us assume that is to be the case. In the world scenario where this empire seems to be so powerful does a country confront it with raw courage or it plays strategically so that it does good for its own people? Playing strategically is what is required. And thats politics right? It is not about confrontation of the wrongs in a simplistic manner, but to play the dirty game of politics and get what a nation wants. The virtues of equality, liberty and freedom etc  are  things a nation can bestow upon “its own people”.  It can not expect another nation to bestow it upon the world.

Nations, the minute nationality is ascribed to any individual, there comes into existence  “my people” and “others”. Nationstate is the status quo of the world order today. And wellbeing of economic kind is the only understood wellbeing in todays times. In the documentary the Bolivian hill people ask, if we were so rich with gold and silver, why are we beggars now. Why  are we so poor now. As much as one wants to glorify and romanticize simple living and living in sync with the nature, the times have forced people to seek economic wellbeing to meet their daily needs. Given these two basic premise, it will be foolish for any nation to believe or to think another nation will want to be benevolent towards them. Every nation state is always working for its own interest. May be its own rich people’s interest in some cases (That,the disparity within a nation is a topic of discussion for a later time).

The portrayal of one country as evil and another as a the victim seems to be inherently problematic. The victimized nation has to grow and to oust the evil in a strategic manner. It will be good to see documentaries and read books/ papers which show how did Venezuela come out of the coup and how are they now – as a nation and with respect to their economic status. What were the ways and means adopted? There is no doubt that, the background information on how a powerful nation interfered is as much necessary information. But a more nuanced narrative that covers aspects of more constructive aspects of such struggles ( like that of Venezuela and Chile)  especially emphasizing on  -how to come out of a bad situation may make a useful documentation for the world. The War and Democracy kind of documentaries are good for “awareness generation” ( like we call it in our development work lingo). But what we need more badly is documentation of lessons (training material 😉 ) on how to do it.

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on using Randomised Control Trials (RCT) to understand , evaluate and conclude how development program work

Its been many months I wrote any post here at TMN. Since the last post I have been busy traveling on personal and work trips. Many discussions, debates and conversations I thought were worth sharing here. But they failed to make it here sheerly because of my lack of discipline to write regularly. One particular subject which I wanted to write and still want to share remains to be the use of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) by development economist to understand development programs and schemes rolled out by governments.

The pioneers and starts who made RCTs the vogue are Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. I have read their book in parts, read criticism on their approach (RCT) to development economics and many other articles and interviews by them. To not be judgemental about the approach I wanted to understand it further. That took me to  ‘IGC-ISI India Development Policy Conference’ 2014 in July. But the cases, experiments and presentations made in the conference did not change but made my opinions and doubts on the approach stronger. A recent interview of Esther Duflo, made me revisit RCT and compelled me to write this post.

What is RCT?

A randomised controlled trial (or randomised control trial;RCT) is a type of scientific (often medical) experiment, where the people being studied are randomly allocated one or other of the different treatments under study. The RCT is the gold standard for aclinical trial. RCTs are often used to test the efficacy or effectiveness of various types of medical intervention and may provide information about adverse effects, such as drug reactions. Random assignment of intervention is done after subjects have been assessed for eligibility and recruited, but before the intervention to be studied begins.

Source: Chalmers TC, Smith H Jr, Blackburn B, Silverman B, Schroeder B, Reitman D, Ambroz A (1981). “A method for assessing the quality of a randomized control trial”. Controlled Clinical Trials 2 (1): 31–49. doi:10.1016/0197-2456(81)90056-8. PMID 7261638

How can RCTs help development or alleviate poverty ?

Here is an apt description of what RCT can do to development according to the authors of Poor Economics:

The authors propose that although we do not know  “what works,” careful observation  of the poor to help design interventions, cemented by randomised trials to assess  these interventions, can help us identify what does. Those who have the power to intervene (governments, international organisations, NGOs, philanthropists, and the  global middle and upper classes) are assumed to be well motivated, so that once  the deficit in their knowledge is overcome (in part through the good offices of the  authors), they will act.

Source: Randomise This! On Poor Economics Author: Sanjay G. Reddy*

Here is what I feel about RCTs used to implement  development projects and evaluation of development projects:

  1. The method as a tool to evaluate how development program have been delivered, seems to do a good job at it, as the sample size are vast enough and wide  spread and well ‘randomised’. But everything that makes a program click or fail is not measurable.
  2. There are ethical issues when RCT is used to implement a development program and see how the program  pans out. But I do not feel so strongly about it, because implementing a program that will fail to a large set of population is worse than trying it out on a small population and learn from it.
  3. The outcomes and conclusions made after RCTs (especially the ones I heard about during the IGC conference and read in Duflo’s interview) are very strong. Most times RCTs are only trying to test a particular aspect of a program. For examples : how does teacher’s attendance have impact on learning and therefore how to improve it. I find that approach quite narrow. It assumes many other factors that  play an important role in the success or failure of a program to be constant. It neglects the context of these programs. There is very little of context taken into consideration, eg: social structure and norms where the program is implemented,which the conclusions are made. I find this over simplifies complex problems and addresses the reasons for their failure only superficially. There is very little ethnographic outline to any program that is evaluated with this method.
  4. Most of the RCTs are designed with an inherent belief that human beings respond to carrots and sticks and THATS ALL! There is very little time spent on dwelling upon deeper reasons for dysfunctioning of institutions, programs and individuals of a particular society.
  5. Importantly there is too much arrogance when any economist concludes based on their RCT experiment. Which only makes one want to dismiss it immediately.

Abijit Banerjee , Esther Duflo and cohort who practice RCT seem to be  in fashion. As much as 100 RCT programs are on in India only from The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab alone.  Many state government agencies  here are already engaging with them quite a bit. And in all 500 odd such experiments across the world is happening .RCTs are very expensive. If only they could just make it more holistic, their work will have the impact they desire and more.

“Theorization vs Doing… which is your cup of tea?” , I ask myself

I have taken a 12 week policy course to understand policy and the craft of policy making and analysis in a structured manner. A secondary purpose of this course was also to understand if I can really engage with theory as I engage with practice.

Engaging with practice or doing things on work along with relevant reading and research comes more naturally to me than  first reading, understanding and then doing. I have been lucky at work with colleagues whose strengths lie with the later approach. Both methods have their own advantages and disadvantages. But one thing that I no more question is the relevance of theory to practice.

But what kind of theory is useful is something I always dwell upon. The process of engaging with theory is fascinating. Theories paint a neat and beautiful picture most of the times. They make you hopeful and optimistic about solving a problem. And the process of theorization most of the times assume many things and concentrate on few parameters or factors that affect the problem and try solving the problem with these factors in mind alone.

One of the books that lays down beautifully the approach to policy analysis is  Eugene Bardach ‘s A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving. 

It helps understand how to look at a problem and solve it methodically step by step. But every step I read, in my mind I have examples of following some of the steps ( myself or someone else) and failing at achieving expected outcomes. And in real world most of these structured approaches do not guarantee achievement of aspired outcome. And my questions in most classes are the sort that do not get answered satisfactorily. This  leads to a conclusion that, in spite of all these beautiful methods, every situation is unique and every outcome of a situation is as uncertain and unpredictable when prepared for or  unprepared for. Especially in the policy making/ analyis exercise. This is more so in the Indian context.

But to my relief reading the papers from 1959 and 1979 respectively  ; The Science of “muddling through” and Still muddling, Not yet done ;  by Charles E Lindblom seem to answer my angst. Lindblom’s incremental approach to  theorizing  policy and decision making more real.

The concept mostly used in policy analysis is a Rational- Comprehensive approach, What  Bardach suggests can be comfortably placed under this approach.

Characteristics of  Rational- Comprehensive approach are [1]:

  1. Clarification of values or objectives distinct from and usually prerequisite to empirical analysis of alternative policies.
  2. Policy-formulation is therefore approached through means-end analysis: First the ends are isolated, then the means to achieve them are sought.
  3. The test of a “good” policy is that it can be shown to be the most appropriate means to desired ends.
  4.  Analysis is comprehensive; every important relevant factor is taken into account.
  5. Theory is often heavily relied upon. 

Whereas what actually happens is intertwined evaluation and analysis. This can be better understood using the Successive Limited Comparisons approach as suggested in Lindblom’s paper.

Characteristics of Successive Limited Comparisons approach are [1]:

  1. Selection of value goals and empirical analysis of the needed action are not distinct from one an- other but are closely intertwined.
  2. Since means and ends are not distinct, means-end analysis is often inappropriate or limited.
  3. The test of a “good” policy is typically that vari- ous analysts find themselves directly agreeing on a policy (without their agreeing that it is the most appropriate means to an agreed objective).
  4. A succession of comparisons greatly reduces or eliminates reliance on theory. 
  5. Analysis is drastically limited:
      • Important possible outcomes are neglected.
      • Important alternative potential policies are neglected.
      • Important affected values are neglected

If theorization draws from reality like what Lindblom does it looks like my cup of tea, atleast for now! If not I will stick to doing rather than theorizing.

Signing off, as I muddle through my dilemma of “to theorize or not to”… 🙂


1. The Science of “Muddling Through” , Charles E. Lindblom, Public Administration Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Spring, 1959), pp. 79-88,Published by: Wiley