Notes From the Field: Challenges in data collection in insecure areas

July 7, 2017

woman presenting to people in a room

In March 2017, two days before I was supposed to leave for Northern Nigeria to set up a final round of survey data collection for the AgResults evaluation, two German expats were kidnapped from a village in the area and held for ransom. My role as an analyst on the project was to supervise the enumerator training and the beginning of field work with the local survey firm we hired to ensure we received clean, usable data. We met with our security team several times, and they gave us satellite phones and guidance on geographic areas to avoid, including instructions to stay in the city. Though I was assured the city itself was quite safe and peaceful, this trip would clearly be quite different than my previous survey launches. Conducting field work in an insecure and high-threat climate produces unique challenges that require adaptation and contingency plans, some of which are only realized through experience.

While “security threat in Nigeria” might elicit thoughts of Boko Haram, in some areas of the North the largest threats actually stem from disputes over land between local tribes. Climate change is pushing a group of northern nomadic herders, the Fulani, south in search of land for their cattle (and livelihood) to graze. However, this land is owned by farmers whose crops are ruined when cattle graze. Though complicated by external political factors, much violence has arisen from these basic livelihood conflicts.

We made several contingency plans to account for possible obstacles, all of which we ended up using. One plan included giving the survey firm a list of villages to survey with more villages than we needed, because we anticipated some would not be reachable. But as field work continued, the number of unreachable villages grew: some were abandoned, or villagers had relocated to neighboring villages. We ended up having to ask the survey firm to contact local farmers’ associations to find other villages with eligible farmers to interview to supplement our sample.

Normally when researchers are conducting a survey, as part of training the survey firm, the home office manager travels to the field with the survey firm to pilot the survey. The enumerators practice administering the survey to villagers that are similar to those involved in the study. The manager from the home office team observes and gives feedback on what the enumerators did or didn’t do correctly. This important training exercise mimics actual field work as closely as possible. However, with the risk of kidnapping much higher in surrounding villages than in the city, we were not able to travel to the villages and had to invite farmers to the hotel in the city to observe interviews with them. Luckily, we found some farmers who were amenable to this arrangement.

My inability to travel freely meant I spent three weeks within the confines of hotels. Every time we traveled between hotels, we were required to take a car. A simple walk down the street during a rare free hour was not allowed. This reduced mobility meant that my management capacity was also limited. Over the course of fieldwork, I had to rely heavily on our survey manager to assess threat levels and to travel and manage where I could not. An American consultant who has lived and worked in Nigeria for several years, she was much more comfortable and in tune with cultural norms, threat levels and work ethics within the country and was an invaluable asset to our team.

While staying in town helped keep us out of harm’s way, our team still did face security issues. The piloting villages they chose had to be changed at the last minute because kidnappings were happening in those areas. In fact, during field work, one of our survey teams was actually kidnapped for a short period of time. They were unharmed, but certainly shaken.

Finally, though we had a tight timeline to beat the rainy season, we factored extra buffer days into the schedule. We ended up using them and more as unexpected issues continued to arise.

Despite all of these challenges, we successfully completed our field work in May. Nigeria is an interesting albeit difficult place to work and provided no shortage of learning experiences.   The people are warm and welcoming, eager to talk about their country and learn about yours.  Spending time with them, you can easily forget the violence that plagues areas of the country. For those with plans to conduct a household survey in a similarly insecure climate, I urge advance consideration of contingency plans and buffer time, along with a healthy dose of flexibility and patience. 

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