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Household data may be leading development astray
  • Household data may be leading development astray

Copyright: Robin Hammond/Panos

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  • Rigid definitions of households can result in misleading data from surveys

  • Surveys must be adapted to conditions on the ground to really understand poverty

  • Anthropologists and sociologists can help tailor household surveys

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Development studies that rely on household survey data may be reaching the wrong conclusions because such data often fail to reflect realities on the ground, heard attendees at a meeting in London, United Kingdom.

To tackle the issue, social scientists such as anthropologists must play a much greater role in collecting development data and conducting surveys, Carlos Oya, a development economist at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, told the meeting last week (13-17 October) during the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation’s London Evidence Week.

Government statistics offices and international aid agencies must also involve social scientists in the design of household surveys, widely used to assess socioeconomic development, to make the questions relevant to developing world communities, he said.

“There is a lot more mixed-methods research going on. The international community is waking up to this issue.”

Jessica Hagen-Zanker, Overseas Development Institute


Oya tells SciDev.Net that international conventions that define what constitutes a household — which aim to make data comparable across regions — are “excessively rigid”.

These definitions are based on concepts of stable, sedentary families, which are far from the norm in many parts of the developing world, he says.

“If you want to really understand wellbeing and poverty in specific countries, you need to adapt definitions and survey design to the conditions you find on the ground,” he said.

Anthropological and sociological research are key to this understanding as they can describe important characteristics of a given population, including migrant numbers, nomadic patterns, familial roles and housing use.

Only with this initial “scoping” can you design a survey that captures such a complex environment, Oya says. Without it, household data can lead policies astray, he adds.

For example, different household sampling techniques can reveal significantly different relationships between family size and poverty, which has a knock-on effect on family planning policies, he says.

Although resources are often a limiting factor for many cash-strapped national statistics offices in the developing world, the creation of interdisciplinary teams that include social scientists alongside statisticians must be a top priority, says Oya.

Jessica Hagen-Zanker, a research fellow at UK think-tank the Overseas Development Institute, agrees that only interdisciplinary research can provide a full picture of development impacts, such as the causes of changes.

But current quantitative and standardised household surveys are invaluable for monitoring the “big picture” of development on a scale that would be impossible with more case-specific techniques, she tells SciDev.Net.

When this wide-angle research uncovers potentially interesting trends, social sciences can then be used to dig deeper, Hagen-Zanker adds.

In addition, more and more actors in international development are beginning to use social sciences in household research, with investigations into migrant patterns and vulnerable groups commonplace, she says.

“There is a lot more mixed-methods research going on than there was five years ago,” she says. “The international community is waking up to this issue.”

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