The most interesting email I received today (and why I’m learning less than I used to)

From my email inbox this morning, one of my research assistants reports issues on a large field experiment and crime victimization survey I am running in Colombia:

In Santa Fe the prostitutes and transvestites haven’t let enumerators do the surveys. The survey firm is contacting two leaders of this transvestites community they have worked with before, but the leaders are currently outside Bogota, so the survey firm is waiting for their return on the next few days.

One of the things I enjoy about my work is collecting data on populations that few people have tried to survey. Often the problems are more harrowing, for the subjects and my staff. The emails from Colombia are considerably better than the ones I got accustomed to trying to track ex-combatants in Liberia (“The Land Cruiser fell through a bridge again, but fortunately no one was seriously hurt”), working with street youth (“some of the research subjects got so enthusiastic they decided to stop drugs, and so we’ve had to turn one of the vehicles into an ambulance”) or an African country not to be named (“Yesterday one of the field mangers was arrested by the secret police”).

One of the underappreciated aspects of running large surveys, and especially field experiments, is having to deal with entirely unexpected logistical and political and economic problems. I now miss the pre-teaching, pre-toddler days when I got to do most of this myself, rather than pay assistants to do the really hard work.

In retrospect, these everyday problems of running a project were the most educational part of my research. Everything I know about weak states, crime, and violence came not from surveying bureaucrats or criminals or victims, but navigating problems with them in an attempt to get the study done.

I’ve said this before: field experiments will have a huge effect on international development not because they will give us clean treatment effects, but because the act of doing difficult things in the real world will change the way academics think the world works, and what the real problems are.