Saturday, June 6

Certain Threats to Validity

There are certain issues that every researcher confronts sooner or later. What do you do if you discover that your research threatens the health or well being of subjects? How do you deal with a breakdown in random selection? What happens if your data is corrupted?

Thankfully, most basic statistics and econometrics classes provide at least a cursory overview of how to address these questions. I do not recall, however, any instruction on how to deal with interview subjects who are drunk. It must have been in Chapter 23 of Introduction to Econometrics; the bootleg Chinese edition, which I purchased new for 90% off, only had the first 22 chapters. Really.

The issue of drunken subjects raises other questions. Does it makes a difference whether the subject got drunk on beer or, for example, hooch made from sugar cane and bananas and consumed out of gourd through a long straw? In a study of banking habits, such as the one I am conducting, is it relevant whether the subject does his banking while intoxicated?

Circumstance forced me to address these issues only two days into my stint as a researcher in the rural Ugandan town of Nkokonjeru. While this may appear to be an awfully short time into a field research stint to run into an obstacle, it was not even the first challenge I had encountered. The first, and more urgent problem, was my discovery that field research is deathly boring. When I say “deathly,” I do not mean “very.” I mean that it causes symptoms that are indistinguishable from those of African sleeping sickness: fatigue, lethargy, coma.

For each interview, statistical rigor demands that I ask each question the exact same, boring way.

What is your20highest level of education?

How much do you save each month?

How many boats or canoes do you own?

The last one always draws big laughs, at least. Nkokonjeru is 10 km from Lake Victoria, making it inconceivable to residents that anyone would squander money on seafaring.

After the third or fourth interview, even the charming response to that absurd question (convulsive laughter at disbelief that even a mzungu could ask something so stupid) had lost its entertainment value to me, and while I had not yet contemplated the ethics of interviewing drunk research subjects, the ethics of conducting interviews while drunk had become a legitimate query. It would help pass the time, and what threats to validity or biases could it possibly introduce?

After an extensive review of the threats to internal, external and construct validity posed by researcher intoxication, I rejected the idea as unprofessional, dangerous and, worst of all, not something I could write about in a publi shed essay. Thus, I resolved to go into the field clean and sober, save for any intoxicating effects generated by the classic cocktail of malarone and immodium.

Paul, one of the nine interview subjects on my second day in the field, however, had a different approach. His approach to research seemed to be that getting drunk and answering questions from any strange white man who might happen by was an outstanding idea. Ignatius, one of the founders of the credit union with which I work, my interpreter for the day and a leader in the town was initially reticent about going ahead with the interview.

“This guy is drunk,” he pointed out with a toothy grin on his face. Just days before Ignatius, a teetotaler, had explained to me that there was no drinking problem in Nkokonjeru.

“Let’s give it a try anyway,” I said going with my gut. My hope was that Paul’s drunkenness would work in our favor. In my experience people who have been drinking are more likely to tell the truth, are friendlier to strangers, and speak second languages more fluently. Besides, with Paul the standard five-minute Luganda introducti on had already stretched beyond 10 minutes as he repeatedly forgot that he had already greeted me, so I figured we might as well proceed.

I was not disappointed. In his boozy breath Paul confessed to things that none of the 54 other subjects we have interviewed thus far admitted. He doesn’t save money anymore, his wife doesn’t have shoes, and he staged the lunar landing. In vino veritas, I suppose.

Yet, it leaves me with questions. I am not inclined to discard Paul’s interview. His intoxication aside, there was no evidence that he was lying, and discarding subjects is a poor way to maintain a random sample. But it did make me wonder about all of the other people I’ve interviewed, the ones who assure me that they save every month and have all of their children in school. Are they telling me the actual truth or is the truth like light, refracted by the confounding mists of sobriety until it appears as what the mzungu wants to see?

A colleague of mine in another African country, a doctor, once told me that if he believed what his patients told him, not a single person in the country had ever sex without a 0Acondom. This left the 18% HIV prevalence to be explained by heroin and blood transfusions. What could explain the stunning fertility rate? Well, maybe it is just a nation of Jesuses, or, far more likely, his data, and mine, would have been better if every interview came after a few shots of the truth serum called moonshine.

I don’t think I’m going to get that proposal by the Internal Review Board though—something about ethics and harm to subjects. That is, of course, unless they’ve been drinking.

Tuesday, June 2

Being Obama

“Obama!” yells one man.

“Obama!” chimes in another

“Obama, Obama, Obama!!!” echoes a sympathetic third.

They are referring to me. As a 32-year-old white guy, this is a novelty. I am rarely mistaken for this particular president at home. I am much more accustomed to being hailed by people yelling “Arthur, Chester A. Arthur!” Hey, it happened once. I was wearing muttonchops.

I learn quickly enough that I have not been mistaken for our new president, but that “Obama” has become the catcall of choice for Ugandan vendors attempting to flag down Americans in Kampala.

This is a distinct improvement over the old catcall of choice “mzungu.” While, being called “mzungu,” which translates roughly as “white man” is technically more accurate than being called “Obama” it is distinctly less pleasant, at least if one is a Democrat.

Obama has replaced more than just epithets in Kampala. Teens who once wore shirts bearing the graven image of Tupac Shakur or David Beckham now sport Obamawear. Little shack restaurants now bear his name and visage. One restaurant, at the impossible tangle of microbuses that passes for Kampala’s main bus terminal, has chosen the name “Obama Take Away.” The eatery’s marquee shows the President looking confidently into the future, a future that, I presume from the sign, includes a plate of matoke, Uganda’s ubiquitous mashed plantains, and beans.

I am not sure what to make of it all. I am an Obama supporter. I voted for him in part because I believed that his election would change how the world sees America, but now I am face-to-face with the reality of that change. I can’t speak for the rest of the world but to Africans, at least, we are Obama and Obama is us.

On the face of it, this is a good thing. It is proof to the world that in the U.S. everyone not only has a place at the table but even has a shot at sitting at the head. It is proof that American exceptionalism means more than exceptionally powerful or exceptionally rich. Long oppressed and despised minorities do not get voted into power in other countries. Either they seize power, as did the Sunni in Iraq, or the Alewites in Syria, or they remain forever oppressed. We have proved we are different. Yes, we are exceptional.

Since November, I’ve had a wonderful time asking my French friends, who were rightly haughty not so long ago, if they remember that time when France elected a Muslim of Algerian descent President. It never happened? Huh. How about that?

Yet I worry about the Obamamania in Africa; I fear that he is being set up to fail.

The American relationship with Africa is not in a particular state of disrepair. In Christian Africa, the Bush years were not the diplomatic catastrophe they were in the rest of the world. While Africans are generally ecstatic over the election of Obama, many have kind words for Bush as well. Bush’s PEPFAR initiative has provided massive assistance to African nations in their efforts to halt the spread of HIV and provide drugs to those afflicted. Whereas Bill Clinton sided with drug companies at every turn, Bush actually put U.S. resources and prestige into fighting HIV in Africa. The program is not perfect, some of the prohibitions on family planning border on madness, but thousands of Africans received anti-retroviral medicines thank to George W. Bush and are alive as a result. I give the former president credit for almost nothing. He was incompetent, and I find most of his ideology revolting, but if asked to say two nice things about Bush, I would commend him first on PEPFAR and then on his ability to duck shoes. His reflexes are admirable.

Following a more or less successful Africa policy leaves Obama with less room to meet the lofty expectations. In military affairs, not starting a calamitous war will be a huge improvement. In economic affairs, reducing unemployment to 7 percent will be a success. But in Africa, he might actually have to accomplish something to claim victory.

I also worry that Africans, themselves might expect too much. One of the 16 people crammed into a microbus with me on a recent trip to Jinja, where the Nile begins its flow toward Egypt, became the first African I have met with harsh words for Obama.

The criticism came from Ken, a chatty, a very chatty fellow, who as is the Uganda custom, was practically sitting on my lap.

After showing me some videos of other times he has been in a minibus and attempting to persuade me to give him my $20 Casio digital watch, Ken, my seatmate offered a revelation.

“I don’t like Obama,” said Ken. “He’s selfish. Can I have your phone number?” Ken may not have liked Obama, but his distaste was not intense enough to hold his focus for more than 30 seconds.

This is why I worry. Obama can do a lot for Africa. He can support democracy, increase aid, facilitate trade and treat Africa nations with respect. What he cannot do, however, is make Africa as rich as America. And I worry that that is what people like Ken are hoping for.

Fortunately, I don’t think we actually have to make Africa as rich as the U.S. to win over guys like Ken because most Africans have no idea how rich America is. They know we are rich, but the level of difference is unimaginable. If we help them to get a little richer, if we can increase access to medicine, clean water and decent governments, if we take their concerns seriously, that will be enough, it will be more than anyone has done since Europe eviscerated the continent. But risks remain. If Obama does not give Africa some speck of his attention, if he does not improve on the humane HIV policies of the Bush Administration, then Ken will be right. Obama will have been selfish, and because, to the people here, Obama is us, we will have been selfish too.