During this summer I had the opportunity to participate on a field-experiment on migration and development economics as a research assistant. The internship took place in The Gambia, also known to be “The smiling coast of Africa”. In total, I spent 62 days working on a research on illegal migration. However, this experience started some days before departing and I believe its impacts will persist for a long time in my personal life. This brief text tries to describe this story of intensive learning, challenges and many smiles, of course.
The adventure started in a Doctor room, specialized in tropical medicine. The medical consultation was very important before travelling in order to check if I had taken all the required vaccines and to understand the necessary prophylaxis to avoid any kind of disease during my staying. Following all medical recommendations made me feel safer and comfortable to concentrate on the tasks of the internship.
The first days were very enriching. Firstly, I tried to understand better the social norms and cultural habits of the country. Also, learning some key words in the local language was very important for me to create some empathy with the Gambian people. During my whole stay, the people there were very open to know more about me. Once they knew I was coming from Brazil, the next topic was always football. Everybody in the country follow the main leagues in Europe and many of them liked the Brazilian players and told me during the World Cup they always support Brazil. Those little talks showed me how important it is to find some aspect in common between you and the local community in order to create empathy, trust and making the relationship opener to topics that could be interesting for the research we were doing.
About the research, our main goal is to understand what kind of policy could be implemented in order to reduce the number of people taking the risk of an illegal journey to Europe. In order to answer the question, a randomized controlled trial is being implemented in many different rural areas of the country. Thus, the villages were randomly selected to receive different kind of treatments (or policies) that could potentially have an effect on the behavior of the Gambian citizens. One policy is to the nudge people the alternative of migrating to Senegal, a neighbor country that has a higher per capita income and more jobs opportunities compared to Gambia. This intervention includes, firstly a video, shown to the individuals participating on our research, that had as content the life conditions of Gambian migrants living in Senegal, secondly, some individuals were given a voucher to have a free one-way trip to Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The idea is to alleviate the liquidity constraints that some people may face when deciding to move to a neighbor country. Another example of treatment that is being implemented is to offer vocational training to some villages in different areas of expertise. The training program can provide people better job opportunities in Gambia, increasing the opportunity cost of an illegal attempt to reach Europe. As the research is still going on, we may have the first results in September of 2020, when we will have all interventions finished and the data collected.
Particularly, my experience exemplified many challenges of doing field research in a developing country. For instance, many people participating on the project were supposed to be contacted by phone calls. However, the network signal was not good in most parts of the rural areas we were working on, making it important to understand during which periods of the day people reach places in their village where the signal is better. Moreover, I realized how important it is to make clear every detail of any policy intervention the research is doing. Many people showed interest in participating in some aspect of the project, however when it came to actual participation they were asking for things we were not able and was not agreed for us to provide, causing some frustration to both sides.
The internship also taught me the importance of communication between the group of people working on the project. There were economists located in Lisbon, Washington and Paris in charge of the research. They needed to know every detail of how things were being developed in the field in order to make decisions, suggestions and adjustments. Providing them little daily reports were key to improve some aspects of our field work. Working in group proved to be a necessary condition to reach the objectives of the research, the communication always generated good advices for us working on the field.
Besides working, I had the opportunity to meet very nice people. The co-workers of the project in the field, the landlord, the people working on the supermarket I was doing grocery shopping, the driver that was helping me to move around and some other friends I made during my stay were super important for me to have moments of joy, smiles and sharing knowledge.
All that mentioned, doing field experiments in development economics it is not easy, it is needed to follow medical instructions, to overcome cultural differences, to face many challenge on the execution of the plans we have in mind and to be resilient in finding solutions to make everything work well. However, it is worth. I am sure the research that I could contribute for will show interesting results that can help the debate and the policy making of the country. Moreover, the friendships I made will last forever and the moments I lived there will be missed and always present in my mind and heart.
Written by Vítor Cavalcante, student of the Master in Economics at Nova SBE and member of the NOVAFRICA Student Group.