Asking the right questions in household surveys

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/Photo: banana fibres used to make baskets, taken in Naziwanga, Nkokonjeru. /

In the past three weeks I have been surveying members of the SACCO on their use of financial services and advice on our medical loan product (which is still in the pipeline). Luckily, most of my respondents were cooperative and tried to provide as much information as they could. In retrospect, however, some questions turned out to be time-consuming and useless. One example is my question about the estimated resale value of food produced and consumed within the household. This question is often difficult to answer for two reasons. First, a family may consume a variety of self-grown crops, some of which are hard to measure in volume (like sweet potatoes). Second, estimating the value of food from one’s own gardens is hard, as he deal with these not in monetary terms but purely by need. Translating volume into market price can be challenging especially for people who grow crops only for subsistence.

Some questions tend to generate inaccurate answers or even spur resistance from the respondent. One respondent doubted the purpose of our survey because she didn’t understand why we needed detailed information of every family member. We spent 20 minutes explaining the anonymity and research nature of this survey, but an air of distrust penetrated throughout our discussion. It is probably better to state at the outset the purpose and the potential sensitive information we will touch upon. This way the respondent can adjust his expectations accordingly.

For an interviewer, there is a delicate balance between what she wants to achieve (the ideal) and what the respondent can provide her with (the reality). Surveys are snapshots of the lives of a selected population. They will not capture the full picture, but if designed skillfully, they can give you a nice bird eye’s view of the world you want to know.

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