Poll - what research questions do you want me to investigate while I'm in Africa?

by Kat Woods3 min read7th Feb 202018 comments

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I am about to travel to Rwanda and other African countries to do some on the ground research and would love feedback on what potential topics would be most useful for the community. Below are more details about the project. The poll is on my website here or you can vote in the comments. I'll add each option as a comment that you can upvote. Please just use a single point instead of using any extra weighting you might have.

I'll be traveling for an indefinite period of time (probably on the scale of a few months) and I'm going to be trying to get a better sense of on the ground, qualitative information. The science, quantitative, and big picture/low resolution stuff I can and will be getting on the internet via reading and Skyping with people, but I want to have a qualitative, higher resolution understanding from being on the ground. I think that this will help flesh out my understanding of the problems and might unearth things that would be hard to discover from afar. 

My strategy at the moment is to focus more on explore vs exploit and while I have some questions going in, I'm trying to keep it largely exploratory so that I can jump on unexpected opportunities for learning.

I have very little money as this will be self-financed, so don't suggest anything that costs a lot. Unless you or anyone you know is keen on funding me of course! If I had more funds I'd be able to: hire local/professional translators to understand people better who I otherwise wouldn't be able to talk to; go to more remote areas that might have a completely different way of life and set of problems than those in more accessible ones; go to a wider range of countries; spend less time and cognitive energy arranging couch surfing or losing sleep in hostel dorms; and generally be able to jump on more opportunities as they come up. I think even just $2,000 US would make a huge difference to the endeavor. If you're keen, just reach out to me over Facebook or at katherinexsavoie@gmail.com 

I'll be writing up a lot but not all of the results of these questions on my blog and the EA Forum to share it with relevant parties. 

Ideas I could investigate

Factory farming - go to a factory farm and see what the conditions are like there compared to developed countries.

Ask locals what they'd want from us - ask Rwandans and charity workers what they think the charity sector is missing or what problems they want help solving.

Wild animal suffering - follow around certain animals and bugs in the wild to make notes of what an average day in their life looks like.

Ask locals what EA is missing - tell Rwandans and charity workers about EA and ask them what they think that we are missing / what our blind spots are.

Mental health professionals in the developing world - talk to a few mental health professionals about how mental health works in a developing world context and particular problems they're facing.

Family planning - ask people from a diversity of places (urban, rural, middle class, poor, etc) about their preferred family size and how they think about it and contraceptives. Apparently there is some data that many Africans have smaller families than they'd like. Some people think the high fertility rate of Africa is a large contributor to its economic issues, so it could be a fruitful line of inquiry.

Experience sampling for happiness - do experience sampling (a much better way of assessing happiness than the usual "how satisfied are you with your life?" question) of people to get a better sense of how happy they are on a day-to-day basis.

Rural animal welfare - go to villages (ideally ones visited by GiveDirectly or other GiveWell top charities) and see what the quality of life of the animals there are.

Mental illness in developing world - talk to those who are dealing with mental illnesses (such as depression or anxiety) and learn more about how that might be similar or different in a developing world context.

Loss of child flow-through effects - ask those who have lost a child years in the past about their experience of it. I would research and talk to people about the best way to do this so as to cause as little distress as is possible given the topic. This would be to investigate the flow through effects of infant mortality on the family.

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Have you read through GiveWell's site visit reports to get a sense for how they've done similar work before?

Also, interviewing people about difficult parts of their lives seems like it could be a negative experience for both parties without some amount of training; do you have experience in a relevant role (therapy, social work, etc.)?

Hi Katherine, I lived and worked in Rwanda for my previous job, so please feel free to message me if you think I can be helpful. It's a wonderful country. A few thoughts:

I would be careful not to generalize too much from Rwanda --> Africa, as Rwanda's culture, history, geography, and economy are unique.

I would also just stay away from questions about the genocide or violence - these are super sensitive and there are v complex social and political norms around them.

Outside of the city, few people speak English, and in the city English-speakers are much more likely to be wealthier and better-educated. That will bias the sample of who you get to speak with and maybe pushes in favour of looking into animal stuff (do you speak French? Older people are more likely to speak French).

Is this a personal trip during which you're hoping to do some interesting research, or are you going primarily for research purposes?

Edit: One other thing is that, depending on which question you investigate, the Rwandan government might not like this if they hear about it. I knew a team of volunteers who came to Rwanda to perform free vasectomies who got deported after they sent an unauthorized tweet. You'll very likely be fine, but the govt's wariness of outsiders poking around is something to be aware of.

I'm sure there already plenty of highly qualified, highly educated Rwandan and African researchers who are already doing the work, and already have done the work.

So why not check that no other African has already doing the work you're intending to do already, and collaborate with them instead?

There are also plenty of highly qualified, highly educated, highly skilled African students/young people who could be interested in researching EA topics, and are far more knowledgeable about the "on the ground" context you want to write about. So why not invite them to lead the research and just supplement them?

Really don't see the added value / additionality of some random (Western) person doing some random research in Africa when there is already so much being done / so many other qualified people who are doing it / could be doing it?

I don't think this response makes much sense. Many of the questions listed are of very niche EA interest. For example, the number of researchers in the whole world looking at Wild Animal Suffering (through an EA lens) is surely in the 10s. The number of these who are specifically on the ground in Rwanda making notes on the experiences of wildlife, it should go without saying, close to zero. Of course, there are many zoologists in the world, but as EA WAW researchers often find, it is hard to apply much of this to research that is interested in welfare specifically.

The same goes for site visits to factory farms. First hand information about actual conditions on factory farms is notoriously hard to come by and many EA discussions have noted that we lack information about conditions as they may vary across other parts of the world. It would be very surprising if there were a plethora of animal welfare first hand case studies of conditions in farms across different parts of Africa that we haven't noticed before.

Most of the rest of the questions just seem to involve speaking to locals about their perspectives while in different parts of Africa. While I agree that there is, of course, already qualitative research somewhat related to many of these questions, it's hard to see the rationale for not speaking to Africans about their perspectives and only reading qualitative reports second hand from the developed world.

Hi Katherine - could I ask why you deleted my comment about the fact that there are probably African researchers who are already doing this / could be doing it better?

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Vote here on topics

Ask locals what they'd want from us - ask Rwandans and charity workers what they think the charity sector is missing or what problems they want help solving.

Ask locals what EA is missing - tell Rwandans and charity workers about EA and ask them what they think that we are missing / what our blind spots are.

Factory farming - go to a factory farm and see what the conditions are like there compared to developed countries.

Experience sampling for happiness - do experience sampling (a much better way of assessing happiness than the usual "how satisfied are you with your life?" question) of people to get a better sense of how happy they are on a day-to-day basis.

Family planning - ask people from a diversity of places (urban, rural, middle class, poor, etc) about their preferred family size and how they think about it and contraceptives. Apparently there is some data that many Africans have smaller families than they'd like.Some people think the high fertility rate of Africa is a large contributor to its economic issues, so it could be a fruitful line of inquiry.

Mental illness in developing world - talk to those who are dealing with mental illnesses (such as depression or anxiety) and learn more about how that might be similar or different in a developing world context.

Mental health professionals in the developing world - talk to a few mental health professionals about how mental health works in a developing world context and particular problems they're facing.

Rural animal welfare - go to villages (ideally ones visited by GiveDirectly or other GiveWell top charities) and see what the quality of life of the animals there are.

Wild animal suffering - follow around certain animals and bugs in the wild to make notes of what an average day in their life looks like.

Loss of child flow-through effects - ask those who have lost a child years in the past about their experience of it. I would research and talk to people about the best way to do this so as to cause as little distress as is possible given the topic. This would be to investigate the flow through effects of infant mortality on the family.

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