Going Deep for Data in Africa: Professor David Sahn and Colleagues Use In-Depth Surveys to Delve into the Economics and Environments That Perpetuate Poverty in Developing Nations

By Sahn, David | Human Ecology, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Going Deep for Data in Africa: Professor David Sahn and Colleagues Use In-Depth Surveys to Delve into the Economics and Environments That Perpetuate Poverty in Developing Nations


Sahn, David, Human Ecology


When Professor David Sahn designs a household survey to examine the causes of poverty in Africa, he collects more information from the participating families than most Americans share with their family members and closest friends.

Sahn enlists the expertise of developmental psychologists, education specialists, health professionals, sociologists, and African academics to create in-depth questionnaires that enable him to formulate complex economic models of behavior crucial to understanding the impact of policy and programs on the well-being of the poor.

Many of the surveys that Sahn designs and conducts involve African information collectors, or enumerators, who spend many hours, often over two to three days, with the households randomly selected to be included in the study.

"The families are incredibly cooperative," Sahn said. "Can you imagine someone coming to your house to spend three days and ask you all of these personal questions? The result is that we are able to collect a lot of in-depth, high-quality data, which at least relative to survey research in the U.S., is done at a very low cost. So we can take a look at complex behaviors and decision-making patterns in these families that would be prohibitively expensive in developed countries."

The technique illustrates Sahn's sweeping approach to poverty research. For more than 20 years, he has investigated the causes of poverty, hunger, and deprivation in developing countries along with the impact of policies and programs designed to improve living standards.

An economist in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, his work focuses on malnutrition and disease, but also extends to broader issues including education and economic well-being. Sahn is the director of the Cornell Food and Nutrition Policy Program (CFNPP), which seeks to determine how policy changes impact welfare and living standards in developing countries.

For a typical household survey, Sahn will send two or more enumerators to each household, generally making sure that males and females are interviewed by someone of the same gender. They make observations and ask questions in the local languages, many times asking questions in several ways or to several household members over the course of the survey to make sure the information is accurate.

Along with their efforts to gather accurate information on outcomes such as schooling and cognition, health and nutritional status, incomes and labor market outcomes, the enumerators collect community-level data on the local schools, health centers, and economy activity. That information enables Sahn to understand the impact of policy and intervention programs on behaviors and a range of living standards.

"We are working in complex environments where there are many factors that go into people's behaviors and decisions," he said. "When you start intervening in people's lives, the assessment of what is a good program or policy changes dramatically when yon broaden the lens you're using to examine it. There is no such thing as a simple solution, especially in environments where unintended consequences and what economists refer to as externalities often play a significant role."

From children to young adults

Assessing whether programs designed to alleviate poverty and improve health and nutrition actually work is a central focus of Sahn's work. A concrete example is his research in Madagascar and Senegal. It is the final stage of a longitudinal study that examines the impact of family background, as well as a range of policies and programs on health, education, fertility, and labor market outcomes.

The young adults in the study were first surveyed in the early 1990s, when they were beginning primary school. Sahn returned to survey the same children when they were between 13 and 15 years old. (By then, one-third had dropped out of school and more than half had repeated a grade. …

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