Monday, 8 July 2013

The African Farmer Game

This post was written in collaboration with Ankit Kumar, a PhD researcher at Durham University. You can follow him @ideatingenergy. It is based on our experiences and ideas, generated while playing the African Farmer Game during the STEPS Centre Summer School. Developed by the STEPS Centre and Future Agricultures Consortium, the game will be released soon as a free software.


The Mombonga household in Rural Africa consists of an adult man, two adult women, two young girls aged 12 and 13 and a young boy aged 13. In terms of assets they have 50 units of currency and two parcels of land. A modest household with many mouths to feed, the Mombongas await the beginning of the new plantation season. This is the beginning of another year for them. The Mombongas have a few options at hand. They could invest the money in crops and horticulture to feed their family or invest partly in commercial crops like cotton to earn some extra cash. They could also invest some money in long term planning by sending their children to school. However, with limited resources at hand, some tough choices must be made.

Participants of the summer school getting the hang of the 'game'
(Photo: Nathan Oxley, STEPS Centre)
Cut to reality. We are the heads of the Mombonga household. We are the decision makers. The description that we gave you is of our family which is a part of a computer simulation called the 'African Farmer Game'. We are supposed to put our feet in the Mombongas' shoes and run their lives. Surely being educated, urban elite who are doing PhDs in the area of development, we had a more 'informed' idea of the factors that would improve the Mombongas' lives. It is assumed that we could make better decisions and steer the household towards development. Does this notion sound familiar? Yes, this happens world over. Educated elites sitting in offices make decisions about policies to transform lives of the Mombongas. This based on the idea that these elites (like me) understand what must be prioritised to change the lives of households like the Mombongas. But whose priorities are these? Are these the Mombongas' priorities or are these our perceptions of their priorities? Let’s see.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

UEA/IDS Mixed Methods Workshop (July, 2013)

The University of East Anglia (UEA) and Institute of Development Studies (IDS) recently organised a two-day workshop on mixed methods research in poverty and vulnerability (1-2 July 2013). The event brought together 40 researchers, practitioners and students working in development-related issues to discuss different ways mixed research methods could be used to capture the dynamics of poverty and vulnerability. Over the course of two days, 22 speakers presented studies that use quantitative and qualitative methods creatively. A few highlights below:

Exploring public perceptions of the 'necessities of life' in the UK, Eldin Fahmy from the University of Bristol stressed the need to move away from using mixed methods for triangulation alone, i.e. combining methods to enhance validity of inferences from data. This combination of methods assumes that data can be 'integrated'  and tends to glaze over the contrasting strengths and weaknesses of both data types (which have different epistemologies). Instead, he said complementarity should drive the use different research methods, i.e combining approaches to add breadth and depth of analysis.

Edna Bautista and Maria Torres from the Universidad de los Andes presented an interesting study on measuring multidimensional poverty in Colombia. They used the multidimensional poverty index (MPI) followed by in-depth case studies to understand drivers of poverty at the household level. By using mixed methods, the study identified new dimensions of poverty and the qualitative data helped give insights into intra-household dynamics (e.g. teenage pregnancy was found to be a coping mechanism to get away from domestic violence. This was completely missed in the MPI). Personally, I was encouraged to see that the findings of the study were presented to the mayor of their municipality who appreciated the MPI because it was something familiar to him (Colombia uses it on a national level) and welcomed the qualitative case studies which presented detailed storylines to explore the hidden dimensions of poverty.

The second day was focussed on impact evaluation and poverty dynamics. Keetie Roelen from IDS discuss using mixed methods to evaluate social protection programmes. Taking case studies from Ethiopia and Burundi, she detailed moving away from using quantitative techniques and experimental methods alone to evaluate project impacts towards using participatory and qualitative methods to understand project dynamics and impacts. She highlighted how programme processes, social dynamics and feedback loops (from project evaluation back to project design) are essential to make evaluation frameworks more robust.

Anthropologist Janet Seeley from UEA, presented a poignant narrative of how the dynamics of poverty play out through a person's life. Looking at elderly AIDS positive patients in Uganda, she used longitudinal case histories to present storylines and I think her skilful storytelling brought to life the rich depth that qualitative research methods are capable of.

For me, the most interesting talk was by Lucrezia Tincani, who presented a study on rural household resilience from Burkina Faso. She explored household food security using the systems-based resilience theory, and highlighted how quantitative methods helped her see how much resilience varied between households and over time, while qualitative techniques helped her explore why these variations were occurring.

The workshop ended with a stimulating discussion on the continuing challenges of operating in the grey area between quantitative and qualitative research methods. No clear answers, but lots of food for thought!
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