Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Something all academics should do.

Macartan left earlier this morning. I won’t get started about what we did and what Simon and I will be up to in upcoming weeks. But, bottomline, it is a lot. A lot! But it is also really great stuff! I will write how and what in one of the next posts; I promise.

I do want to say this. Often it is difficult to relate work that involves a lot of math and econometrics (or academia in general for that matter) to 'the real world'. This was one of the reasons I switched away from economics to political science a few years ago. Also, if one works with data, the latter is often taken from such uneventful sources as the IMF, a central bank, etc. In upcoming weeks, one of the things Simon and I have to do is cleaning a dataset of 16,000 observations. Yep, this sounds very boring. Today we were – once again – reminded of how amazing this particular data set is that we will be working with, and how much the work we will be doing actually is related to 'the real world'. This was because of two things we did yesterday:

First, yesterday afternoon we read through the reports of the people that did the baseline survey. One simply can’t imagine the size of this evaluation we are doing here in the DR Congo! In 2007, 100+ people were send out to conduct surveys in 600 different villages that were randomly selected in an area that is the size of France. While use was made of cars, planes, motorbikes, etc., because of the complete lack of infrastructure many of the survey teams still had to walk for many days, sometimes weeks to arrive to the randomly chosen villages. The reports we read noted how the survey people were hospitalized, got typhoid, were kidnapped by Mai Mai rebels, got malaria, had to build their own bridges, etc. And when they arrived at the site where a village should be it once in a while happened that the village didn’t exist anymore or the village was empty (people fled for rebels). Absolutely incredible! To give an indication of the size of the area I have included at the bottom of this post a map of the DRC that also includes the Netherlands for comparison; remember, in contrast to the Netherlands, in the sampling areas there are no roads that are worth mentioning (and that is during the dry season!!).

Secondly, yesterday evening we went to "La base" to sit down and have a good look at the treasure: the hardcopies of all the 3,000 households (600 * 5 households in each village) and 600 chiefs. The by-hand-filled-out-surveys occupied several boxed; many of them over 15 kilograms. It is a strange feeling to know that for each piece of paper you hold in your hand, people have travelled for days in very difficult circumstances. Reading through them is amazing and makes one think. 1. There is a question in the survey that lists several types of livestock (chickens, goats, etc.) and asks the amount they had of each in 1996 (before the war) and in 2007 (the year the survey was taken). In all of the surveys I have read the amounts went down from 1996 to 2007! 2. People often have not more than 200 CFA for the whole household at home (that is around 2 US$. No, they don't have banks nearby). 3. People have to walk for hours to get to a primary school, and often as much to visit the neighboring village. 4. We read the names of the sons and daughters who joined the rebel groups, whether the family was displaced, injured, etc. Absolutely incredible! So many answers, on so many questions, about so many people, and in such an incredible area! For us this 16,000 observations-counting dataset is not just a dataset. And these people are not just another row in yet another Stata datasheet. This data is very much alive for us.

Map of the DR Congo. That green dot is the Netherlands.

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