This series tracks the progress and priorities of our full-time PhD fellows. Some are new recruits living in Maastricht, others are working abroad while waiting to defend. This time we caught up with Mariajose Silva Vargas, a PhD fellow from Bolivia who recently won two grants to fund her fieldwork in East Africa.
You’ve won two grants to carry out your fieldwork. Who are they from and what are you doing with them?
Yes! We are really happy about it. My co-author Francesco Loiacono and I won an exploratory grant from Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) last year, and a small grant from the International Growth Centre (IGC) this year. The first allowed us to travel to Uganda and organise focus group discussions with refugees, firms and other stakeholders. This initial qualitative work helped us in developing and refining our idea. Then the IGC grant will fund our baseline data collection with a sample of urban and rural refugees, as well as some behavioural games with the respondents.
You’ve worked in Africa before, though. How has that influenced your approach to research?
Working in East Africa before my PhD was the best decision I ever made! I actually like to tell this story to students facing similar dilemmas. While deciding what and where to focus on for my Master’s research, my mentor advised me to investigate a country outside Latin America in order to broaden my perspectives. Thus I went to Côte d’Ivoire for some months. I found a culture and context quite different from what I knew, but also some similarities with my own country, Bolivia! So after graduation I applied to (about 100) research jobs on the African continent.
I ended up in Uganda and Tanzania, where I was extremely lucky to obtain a position as a Research Assistant at Innovations for Poverty Action and a research lab at the World Bank. Both organisations specialise in Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) for impact evaluations of different research projects. As a field Research Assistant I obtained first-hand experience in running experiments and field projects, which includes so many different things! From training teams, writing and programming surveys, collecting data with smartphones, programming do-files and analysing data, etc. It also includes all the project management side, such as budgeting, travelling to villages, etc. It has some creative aspects as well: in one project we had to check livestock health, so we ended up tape-measuring 1,000 cows’ waists and even counting their teeth!
After three years, though, it was time to run my ‘own research’ so I decided to apply for the PhD. I feel quite lucky that I learned all these tools in advance, as nowadays I feel a little bit more confident when planning a data collection. Also, living in such unique countries allowed me to learn completely new contexts and cultures. I definitely encourage prospective development economists to spend some time in the country they want to focus on. I strongly believe that personally knowing the environment, the people and their norms is key for planning a proper intervention, understanding the data you want to collect and, as a consequence, the results you are obtaining. Of course not everyone can spend a significant amount of time abroad, but then I think one should consider working with local researchers, which is a practice that I hope will increase in the coming years.
You’ve also been a visiting researcher at other universities. Have these visits helped you develop your research topic?
I’m currently at the International Institute for Economic Studies (IIES) at Stockholm University, Sweden, to take a course on behavioural economics and to work with two of my co-authors before traveling to Uganda. The course was essential for me to learn more about the theoretical background of the behavioural games I intend to run. Further, I’m able to share my ideas with top researchers who are always willing to give feedback.
In the fall semester 2019, I will visit the Global Poverty Research Lab (GPRL) at the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University, USA. The GPRL is a research centre that uses empirical evidence to study drivers and solutions to poverty-related issues in developing countries. It is an ‘academic hub’ for empirical development economists, so I intend to use the time there to share my ideas and hopefully, to further develop my research with inputs from different scholars.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Mariajose Silva Vargas