While in Ethiopia, my bosses came to see the project I was working on, and to meet for a conference discussing our program with the implementing organization, USAID, the World Bank, and some other organizations. Part of the conference included a “site visit”. This is where a team of conference participants went and met certain households in the program, and asked them questions. How much money do you get when you sell your oxen? What did the staff teach you? Well, how does one fatten an ox before selling it, and so on.
The idea is to give some sort of snapshot about how the program. Our organization in general tries to avoid making conclusions based on talking to a few individuals. For any program, there might be some people for whom it works, some for whom it doesn’t, and therefore, the people you talk to might falsely shape one’s perception. It’s for this reason that my survey team talked to 915 households, so we can get a fuller idea of how the program works, on average. However, there is some research to support the idea of a field visit.
One experiment looks at how students learn, based on hearing the results of psychological studies. First, in a separate study examining collective action, experimenters observed how five people responded when a sixth person had an apparent stroke. They participated in a group activity over the phone, and one person, (an actor) appeared to start choking and say he was in pain while on the phone. Somewhat surprisingly, only 27% helped, because everyone else presumably thought someone else would deal with the problem.
The study of interest though came when students were taught about this study. Did it affect their perception? After being told this statistic, students in a study then watched interviews with two supposed participants. They were then supposed to guess if the participants had helped the victim. The interviewers talked about their educations and career interests, with the goal of the interview to be as uninformative as possible—it was meant to provide no new information.
When the students guessed whether or not these people had helped, it was though they had learned nothing. When they heard only 27% had helped, and the interview provided no new information, their best guess should have been that each person did not help. However, nearly everyone assumed that both people had helped. When the experiment was done in reverse though, the results were quite different. When people saw the two interviews, and then were told that neither had helped, people were very accurate at guessing the percentage of people that actually had helped. It is apparently much easier for us to infer the general from the specific than it is for us to infer the specific from the general.
Perhaps then, field visits are of some use beyond simply providing a face to the narrative. While hearing “on average, monthly incomes doubled” provides information, it doesn’t allow someone necessarily to understand how that program would affect an individual life. However, when hearing about Hagos in the village of Abreha Atsbeha, and how he used to let his oxen wander to find feed but now they are fed a particular feed, so he sells oxen every three months at a big profit, psychology might suggest that it will allow us to understand in general how the program might work.