More tips on focus group discussions

My friend Aine McCarthy, a PhD student at University of Minnesota who is doing field research in Tanzania, offered me some advice on focus group sampling methods and arrangements. I also blogged about focus groups (here and here).

/picture: me in focus group discussion with farmers in Katente village./

The bottom line is that focus group discussions should be informative on the topic you are going to investigate in your subsequent field work (surveys, individual interview, etc). I did three focus group discussions before conducting my survey. Two of them consisted of farmers, and one of boda boda drivers. Only the boda boda driver group can be considered successful. For the first farmer’s group, I did not specify my requirements (only members of the SACCO are eligible). So the village chairperson gathered twelve farmers, among whom only four were members. The focus group discussion turned into a mobilization trip. At last, I had to separate the group into members and non members and let out boda boda driver to explain products at the SACCO (he’s an old member here). The second time for farmer’s group, I did not communicate with the villager leader well and I went to the discussion site empty-handed. This greatly limited my ability to probe meaningful questions.

Based on my experience and Aine’s advice, here are a few more tips:
1. Seek help from village leaders and local organizations which know the population well. They will save you a lot of time finding participants. Remember that focus group participants need not be randomly selected.
2. The criteria to group people should be relevant to your topic of interest. Aine’s research is about family planning, so grouping participants by gender can make the conversation more natural.
3. Choose a suitable group size which allows you to generate enough useful information. On the one hand, a group of only 3 or 4 people (my first farmer’s group) is unlikely to yield rich information. On the other hand, if a group is too large (the definition of “large” depends on the number of investigators and assistants), you will fail to capture all the information. It will also make the discussion longer, which might make participants impatient for the last few questions.
4. Make a list of questions, but be flexible. It doesn’t harm to try a few questions in your first focus group if you are not sure whether they will yield meaningful information.
5. Notify the participants the length of the focus group discussions beforehand. I think it’s basic respect for others’ time.
6. Compensate participants appropriately depending on their contributions and the cultural setting. Sometimes cash works better, but a soda can be enough.

Field research is a process of trial and error. And this process may be particularly lengthy and unpredictable in an unfamiliar environment. Learning by doing is the correct attitude.


Save as you drink: local brew saving groups, Part 2

This is a continuation of my previous post on local brew saving groups. Last night I went with a British friend to the place. He enjoyed the millet-fermented local alcohol.

I was sitting beside the secretary of a saving group which was established two years ago. Some 20 young men sit in a circle and shared a bucket of malwa. When the brew lady comes with hot water, everyone tightens their straw and sips with some strength — they don’t want to miss the golden opportunity of letting alcohol go straight into their nerves.

After some drinking, the secretary started explaining how the group works. You pay 5000UGX to become a member. Then you fix your group and come sit with the same people every time. Every member is required to save at least 500 every day. You are free to skip days, but you need to make up for what you miss when you come here the next time. Group members can borrow as well. The amount you can borrow depends on how much you have saved. To take a loan, you need to find at least two witnesses who are members of the group. But no witness is needed for loans below 100,000UGX (40 USD). Loan interest is 1% per month, and repayment period is negotiable. If someone fails to repay, money will be deducted from the guarantors’ accounts. Therefore the group does not lose.

Savings from each member are returned at the end of the year. They also hold a meeting at the end of the year to discuss how to spend the profits they get from loans. usually they buy goats and alcohol to celebrate Christmas together. The secretary keeps a record meticulously, with the amount written down beside each member’s name on each day. At the end of a month, he calculates the balance and let members they what they have.

Where formal financial institutions fail to do their job of managing people’s money and providing affordable credit, people come up with innovative informal groups to solve the problem.

Can service trips foster development?

During my stay in Nkokonjeru, I have made friends with people from Peace Corps, NGOs and university students and get to know various projects they are working on. I wonder how much the projects initiated by the developed world can help development in poor countries.


The picture above was taken when I followed a group of American students on their trip to a nearby village to build latrines. These latrines, unlike the common latrines made from soil and straws, are built from brick and cement. It conserves urine without attracting too many flies. We went to the household and saw a pile of bricks lying 10 meters away from the building site. Then the ten of us lined up and moved the bricks from there to the latrine site. That’s basically all we did for the whole morning. The builders were the ones to prepare the cement, lay the bricks, check the set up, and so on. My friends and I sat there and watch. Some of us even brought novels to read.

A latrine like this costs no more than 280,000 UGX, equivalent to 112 USD. But it takes ten students to supervise the process of building it. I asked the local NGO contact person:”What if we give the money to the family directly and ask them to build a latrine?” “Well, they might not spend it this way. People might spend on emergent medical bills. Women can even spend it on hair treatment or buying a new dress. A clean latrine doesn’t seem to be that important.”

Some engineer friends of mine are building bio-sand water filters at the NGO I’m working with. The technology is simple: local sand and gravels are mixed to create a biological film which kills the bacteria in the water. Households are supposed to pour enough water into the tank every morning and can enjoy safe water at minimal cost. The NGO distributes these filters for free or at a reduced price. While the idea seems great, the process of building it costs a lot of labor and time. First, you need to find and gather a large amount of sand and gravels of appropriate size. Then you wash and dry them. But you have to make sure they are not too clean — or you have to add silts. Finally, you place the sand and the gravels into the filter (in a pre-specified pattern) and test the speed of water flow. You adjust the setup until the flow rate reaches its optimal level.
The biggest chunk of costs here is labor. And this cost extends well beyond the completion of water filters. People are needed to educate families, do follow-ups, and perform regular checks. The effectiveness of these filters relies greatly on the funding for labor.

The biggest problems many developing countries face can never be tackled by enthusiastic donors in the developed world. In a country where power and water can be cut off at any minute, communication networks can fail because of a heavy rain, and public transport is extremely unorganized and slow, any well-intended plan can fall into pieces. Such service trips, however, does a good job educating students and young researchers about the true causes of underdevelopment and awakens them from naive dreams of eliminating poverty through foreign aid.

Microfinance through rational eyes: reflections on David Roodman’s Due Diligence

/picture: Caritas SACCO, Nkokonjeru, Uganda/

Microfinance has been under the spotlight ever since it gained currency in the 1990s. David Roodman, senior associate at Center of Global Development, evaluates the impact of microfinance in his 2011 book Due Diligence: An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance.

Roodman builds his argument incrementally throughout his book. In the first two chapters, he points out important differences between how the poor and the rich use financial services. While the rich can navigate their way through complicated banking products and increase wealth, the poor, with low financial literacy, often view the bank merely as a safe place (relative to their mattresses) to store their money. Moreover, there are explicit and implicit barriers preventing the poor from fully utilizing financial services. Managing a fixed savings account requires a steady income to put aside, which is challenging for agricultural households with fluctuating seasonal incomes; getting a loan requires collaterals, guarantors and a lengthy process which many feel reluctant to go through.

Recent years have seen a growing literature on evaluating microfinance, but Due Diligence stands out by evaluating microfinance according to three definitions of development. This treatment reconciles conflicting evidence of microfinance’s ability to foster development.

The first definition, development as escape from poverty, is widely adopted in academic evaluations. Roodman points out problems with most microfinance evaluation studies ranging from naive econometric regressions, implausible instruments and assumptions, to the lack of wide applicability of Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs). After reviewing several classic economic studies about microfinance, Roodman concludes:

First, poor people are diverse, and so are the impacts of microcredit upon them.
Second, there is no convincing evidence that microcredit raises incomes on average.
The ambiguity about average impact arises from four intertwining factors:
– Different people use microfinance in different ways.
– Even people who use it in the same way can experience different outcomes.
– Families, villages, and neighborhoods are complex webs of causal relationships, which are hard to disentangle.
– Average effects depend as much on the ability of microfinance institutions to select those most likely to use finance well as it does on the potential effects on each user.

I echo the first reason in particular. Savvy businessmen are more likely to get loans of appropriate amount and make wise investments than illiterate, uninformed farmers. Self control also determines how much one gains from microfinance, as many poor people borrow not to invest in productive activities but to consume.

The second definition, development as freedom, is more subtle. High repayment rates are usually built upon tight repayment schedules and credible threats against default. Yes, the poor might be getting the loan they want. But they have to pay a significant portion of their incomes back to the lender every week. This is not only a burden but also limits them from reinvesting business incomes into other productive use. Upon sickness of a household member, weekly repayments can force a household into a debt cycle which is hard to get rid of.

The third definition, development as industry building, places development into a macro picture instead of micro-level households. Challenges exist on the way to “creative destruction”.

Roodman writes with rigor and maintains a logical flow of his arguments. An outstanding feature is the wide citation of research from other disciplines, especially anthropology. I have found the quotes from Helen Todd intriguing and thought provoking.

Microfinance, like all other initiatives to reduce poverty, will not reach its goal unless it is combined with government efforts to improve people’s ability to use it. Economists and policy makers are often tempted to design one-time interventions and expect these to change lives, but often ignores the complex social mechanism operating in the background. Affordable quality education, reliable energy supply, water and sanitation, transportation networks, healthcare facilities, and many others remain to be established before we can trully talk about development.

Save as you drink: local brew saving clubs in Uganda, Part 1

Ugandans love drinking. This is verified by my late-night trip to the town centre yesterday. After having a bottle of beer (I had “Club” and loved it), I followed my Ugandan friends to a local brew place. It was a spacious open area with a television playing Uganda popular music. People were sitting in groups and drinking brown colored “beer” using plant straws from a shared bucket. The local beer is called malwa and is made from fermented millet. As a foreigner and non alcohol lover, I had only one sip of malwa and nearly vomited. But the locals seemed to be having a good time.

It turns out that people don’t only drink and chat together: they save money and invest together. Each malwa drinking group is a saving club and has an account at the SACCO. Each saving club has a chairman, a secretary, and a treasurer. According to the brewer, the ten people in a group each pays 2000 for one night of drinking. Eight of them pay directly to the brewer, and the remaining two pay to the treasurer of their group. Members can also put any spare money they have into the pot (i.e.the joint account). If you want to join a group, you just find a seat there and ask for permission from group members. If all of them agree, you pay a fee of 10,000 UGX (around 4 USD) and becomes a member.

Don’t let the name “saving clubs” deceive you. These groups offer loans as well. To acquire a loan, a member needs to find three guarantors among group members. Guarantors are responsible to urge the borrower repay the money on time. The brewer told me there is no upper limit for the loan, but I think there might be informal rules as to how much you can borrow (e.g. a certain percentage of the total deposit). All loans should be paid back in one month with 10% interest, which is quite steep compared with loans from banks. But no collateral is required and it takes little time to get a loan. If someone fails to pay the full amount in a month, he can pay the 10% interest first, and will be granted another month to repay the principal plus 10% interest. Interest incomes are deposited in the joint account and will be shared among members equally at year-end.

The operation mechanism of these saving clubs reminds me of the Grameen Bank and ROSCAs where social capital plays a crucial role in reducing default. Since people usually sit beside their friends upon their first visit, they are more likely to form groups with acquaintances. However, whether this level of familiarity will bind people to their promises is not clear.

In developing countries, getting a loan from formal financial institutions can be difficult (because of collateral and guarantor requirements) and time-consuming. Borrowing from informal sources are usually easier but charges higher interests. These local brew saving clubs cleverly combine the best of the two worlds. Security of the money in their pot is guaranteed by the bank. At the same time, loan application is simplified through informal arrangements within the group.

You can expect follow-up posts in the next few weeks on this topic.

Asking the right questions in household surveys

/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.

Practical notes about conducting one-on-one interview

After spending two weeks chatting with villagers and testing tentative questions, I have finalized my questionnaire and interviewed 13 members of the SACCO. Here are my reflections on field testing and surveying:

Field testing helps a surveyor weed out useless and ambiguous questions. A question that yields homogenous answers across the survey population is redundant and should be omitted. For example, a question about the source of drinking water will fail to convey any useful information because almost all households in this town get water from nearby wells. If many respondents have trouble understanding the same question, you should check if this question conveys what you intend to ask in an appropriate vocabulary.

Before conducting your survey, you should gather enough information about your intended interviewees. The more detailed contacts the better. Call the respondent before you visit his/her home, and set up an appointment when necessary.

If your translator asks the questions, you need to make sure he/she interprets the questions correctly and can convey the meaning in the local language. Ask your translator to translate every sentence the respondent says. A translator, especially one that is not trained in surveying, tends to omit a lot of information and keeps what he/she thinks is useful. Detailed translation will help you avoid missing information and allow you to ask clarification or follow-up questions in time.

A side note:
I interviewed a 28-year-old woman with 7 children. She started having children when she was 18 and had one child approximately every 1.5 years. This reminds me of what my colleague at the bank told me: as a Ugandan, if you have too few children, you are not blessed. I am sure this family is filled with blessings. Unfortunately, several of their children have displayed signs of malnutrition. The good news is the children seem to be independent and taking care of each other, especially the older ones.