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Stanford students navigate the challenges of fieldwork

A man stands in the gap between two corrugated metal sheets holding a survey questionnaire.

A Stanford student surveys households in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as part of the SEDRI team.

Aug 20 2017

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Student Profiles

By Emily Miller

Stanford graduate students Eduardo Laguna and Christina Kent confronted the difficulties of fieldwork in a developing country: frequent power outages, unreliable internet access, and a broader context of rising ethnic tensions and anti-government protests.

They spent the summer in Ethiopia as part of the Stanford Economic Development Research Initiative (SEDRI) team, gaining crucial fieldwork experience following their second year of the Stanford economics PhD program. Understanding the complexities of conducting large-scale surveys will inform their research as their academic careers progress.

“Many projects in development economics are very country and context specific, so it is extremely important to spend time in a country before attempting a research project there,” Kent says.

Laguna’s research interests in energy access and the environment will likely take him back to the developing world. This was an opportunity to lay some groundwork.

“I wanted to have a hands-on experience to understand the feasibility of conducting my own projects in the future,” Laguna says.

SEDRI is a long-term data collection project on the social, economic, and political conditions in rapidly urbanizing African countries. Team members are examining the critical aspects and choices of daily life: what health care and schooling they get; what they do for a living and hope to do in the future; what services are available to them; and how local and national institutions affect them.

What distinguishes SEDRI is a focus on how individuals, businesses, and local government public service providers (health, education, water) each behave. Laguna and Kent had a hand in each of the three layers to better understand how their interplay shapes the lives of the poor in developing countries.

Laguna created ways to verify SEDRI’s preliminary results from the household surveys. Based on Laguna’s design, surveyors will revisit a select number of surveyed individuals and ask a subset of previously asked questions, checking for consistency in their answers.

“This is done to make sure that the enumerators are not tampering the responses to skip sections and finish faster,” Laguna explains.

Kent began work on the survey’s second stage and helped design the sampling strategy for firms. SEDRI data gives researchers the unique ability to look at the perspective of businesses as well as individuals.

The emphasis on firms echoes the Stanford Center on Global Poverty and Development's broader focus on how the private sector shapes economic growth. The Center's Firms and Global Productivity initiative studies management practices, trade policy, and global value chains to understand why productivity often lags in developing countries relative to more advanced economies — and, more importantly, how policies can help close that gap.

“Providing opportunities for students to gain field experience in developing countries is an important goal of SEDRI. It’s wonderful for students to be able to get their hands dirty and experience the complexities of fieldwork firsthand,” Center Director Grant Miller says. SEDRI is led by Stanford Center on Global Poverty and Development Faculty Affiliates Pascaline Dupas and Marcel Fafchamps along with Miller.

The wealth of SEDRI data will be available to all Stanford faculty and graduate students, and will support a wide range of development economics research on questions around governance, jobs, education, service delivery, and health in rapidly urbanizing developing countries.

This article was first published on December 13, 2016.