debate in devanhalli (a note on research design)

we have had a mild but important victory.  there’s been some ongoing tension between us and our host institution, a policy research group, regarding how active a role they should play in sculpting our research methodology.  what felt in the first few days like too much  supervision has thankfully receded into more collaborative advisement.  on monday we had a rigorous debate – the team of four interns along with advisers prasad and lokesh – over the merits of including tenants (meaning those who rent rather than own) in our household survey study population.  while their input will be less relevant for that part of the survey that looks at the decision to actually construct the toilet, they will have much to contribute to questions of usage and behavior change.  with prasad and lokesh, the team hashed out the pros and cons and ultimately decided (as a team) to include tenants in the study population.

that’s how our interaction with the host institution should go, in my mind.  unicef has implied that we are here as consultants, saying that we have no ‘boss’ as such.  when questions arise, they should be discussed and debated with the host institute.  our advisers should do just that – provide advice – and decision-making should be collaborative.  unfortunately, this has not always been the case…

on thursday we went on our third field visit, to devanhalli taluk.  upon arrival at the taluk executive officer’s office, we learned that the gram panchayat we would be looking at was from phase one (2008-09) of the TSC campaign.  we had been under the impression that two of the four sites we would visit (those on thursday and saturday) would be to GPs that were from phase two (2009-10).  this was a key variable in our research design: we wanted to compare early successes to later ones in order to provide rigor to our conclusions.  phase one GPs have already received the president’s NGP award for success, while phase two GPs have only applied for it and are waiting for approval.  phase one GPs were chosen as easy targets, with the hopes that there would be a spillover effect into phase two GPs.  without analyzing both phases we cannot reflect on the spillover effect and we cannot aptly assess the elements leading the behavior change district-wide.  prasad had somehow overlooked this part of the research design and organized visits for us to four phase one GPs.  sitting in the executive officer’s office we calmly discussed our reasoning, debated both options (four phase ones versus two phase ones and two phase twos) and came to a consensus: we would stick with our two-by-two design.  again, an ultimately successful (if inappropriately timed and located) interaction with our advisers.

all well and good.  we stop first at the phase one GP, bettakote, since they are expecting us and we want to show support, then head to a phase two GP, nallur.  nallur is clearly not well-off.  they’re much more rural than bettakote and the GP office lacks the painted signs and decoration of bettakote’s office.  after interviewing the GP leaders (who are more than accommodating given the lack of notice of our visit), we walk around to visit some households.  the waste management system here is not yet in place (making us somewhat doubtful that it will receive the coveted NGP award upon inspection, as have all phase one GPs).  garbage is everywhere, filling drains and floating in puddles of black retched standing water (ripe for mosquito breeding).  the experience gives us a glimpse of what life may have been like before the TSC came to the district.  in our household interviews, people are not very receptive to our questions.  they don’t seem to care whether they have a toilet or not.  the GP leaders have forced them to build the toilet (in some cases just showing up with materials and building it for them in their front yard).  it doesn’t seem the campaign has been very ‘community-led’ or ‘demand-driven’ here.  all in all it’s a depressing visit.

‘they have done nothing here, these guys,’ prasad spits out, ‘how can we call this a success? how can we include this in a case study of a successful program?’  prasad has emphatically changed his mind on the morning’s discussion of research design, and now believes we should limit our study to only those GPs that have achieved the NGP award already, meaning only phase one GPs.

the team disagrees.  we argue.  we debate.  but prasad won’t budge on the matter.  we point out the benefits of having a comparison case.  we note that the phase one GPs were selected for the strength of their leadership and receptiveness of their community to change.  surely a study that only looks at these model cases, these low-hanging fruit, will be immediately discarded by policy-makers.  surely the challenges faced by this worse-off village are important for our conclusions.  he is not having any of it.  he puts his foot down.  he says he knows research methods better than we do so our opinions don’t matter.  he refuses to do any more interviews in this GP (he is our translator so this effectively ends our work for the afternoon).  i don’t respond well to ultimatums, and i don’t agree with him.  i go for a walk.  some friendly villagers show me their silk worm collection.

back at the office on friday morning we compose an email to prasad and lokesh defending our position (luckily the team itself is unified on the matter), and suggesting a compromise: we will look at four phase one GPs but also include two phase two GPs to provide some comparison.  all day long there is no response.  at 3:30pm we are to give a presentation to the entire foundation articulating our research design and data collection methods.  we decide to present the compromise option subtly in hopes that prasad will approve.  and.  he does.  the head of the foundation (a woman named sita who commands much respect) agrees as well.  i somehow guess she and prasad have discussed the issue prior to the presentation and that her opinion on the matter has been critical in winning our case.  for now anyway, reason and a cool head have prevailed over thursday’s hot tempers and we will proceed with the work as planned.

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~ by aliciawolcott on June 21, 2010.

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