I decided to do a PhD in public policy for multiple reasons. The primary reason is that it's a personality thing. Throughout my childhood I had this naive belief that I could hide my true personality from the cool lacrosse-playing skirt-wearing popular kids and become immediately assimilated into society. As a more grounded and realistic adult, I gave up on my futile attempt to cover my true identity and showed the world that I am simply a nice, sensitive, neurotic, shy, and somewhat passive person - all the personality traits of your friendly neighborhood hedge fund manager. Naturally, due to my super-aggressive and innate ability to laugh at All the Jokes, I gave up my truly promising career to be the next great JP Morgan executive. It was a tough decision but you only have one life to live.
It's not easy being a non-aggressive and unfathomably ambitious Asian woman in this world. (Insert glass-bamboo ceiling metaphor and/or Peanuts strip). I want to help people, change something, do something meaningful, and not to mention learn how to be more concrete with my goals. The PhD was simply a tool to do bigger and greater things as an expert of my field. Instead of working my way up the corporate ladder, I chose a route that signals to everyone in this world that I threw away a substantial chunk of my potentially robust youth filled with EDM and financial stability in order to be good at a field that systematically and methodically understands how society works and ways in which it can improve.
My perspective on the potential of academia to help change society may be again, a bit naive. During my time here at Duke, I came across quite a few individuals who believe that academia is useless. Their statements did not offend me insomuch as they puzzled me. Why the bad rep? The main arguments are that firstly, academics are stuck in their Ivory towers disconnected from real-world practitioners; and secondly, policy recommendations that come from numbers that academics crunch do not show the whole story and are often manipulated to game the journal publication system. The power of "statistically significant impact" and singular "experts" to influence policy is viewed as dangerous and almost deceiving.
I am a guppy (or for my fellow millenials, that fish pokemon that turns into that bigger fish pokemon) in the ocean of academia, so I can't even speak from the perspective of a "real" academic. But if it is the case that academics do not positively impact society, my intuition tells me that there are two broad solutions that might push academia towards the right direction. The first is more practical, and I believe is gaining more traction among academics. One of our professors at the Sanford School, Dr. Liz Ananat, made everyone in our Causal Inference class swear by oath that while quantitative methods are important, all social science researchers should also conduct qualitative methods. Every statistical outcome in a journal article should be backed up with a qualitative understanding of what is actually happening on the ground. Numbers are nothing without a comprehensive and compelling story. And the only way to understand how an event impacts a group of human beings is to actually talk to them.
The second solution involves a switch in attitude. I do not believe that people who hold PhDs are substantially smarter than the rest of the population*. Academics do not have all the answers and clearly do not have a monopoly on creativity. But they do hold some positive traits: grit (which is so hot right now), dedication, good intentions, and the patience to approach a problem thoughtfully and with precision. There must be a way to put academics to good use for society. I think it starts with collaborating on an equal platform with all interested parties, from grass-roots activists to policymakers, and most importantly, a touch of humility. Academics that stray away from the "I am an expert, you should listen to me because of my robust evidence" attitude towards a more "Hi I'm John, I'm here to help and just want to learn more about you" attitude may be more effective at identifying the right problems to work on. More policymakers and organization leaders may be willing to work with these individuals. With more collaboration and better problems to work on, academics can more effectively leverage their tools and knowledge to contribute to social change.
These potential solutions are easily said than done and most definitely not comprehensive. They might also not be the right solutions. They are just the most obvious points of improvement to me at this point of my PhD. I am also only really speaking about academics who are social scientists. As a naive idealist who just wants people to like each other and work together, I continue to wonder what kind of practical changes could happen to make academics more humble (in reality and to the public eye) and just a tiny bit more useful to the real world. Again, to all my fellow academic and non-academic millenials who only understand pop references to Disney Original Movies: We're all in this together…(dreams, stars, etc. etc.)
*Disclaimer: This statement was not backed up by any study, quantitative or qualitative.
Warning: being smart may not be an objective personality trait.
FYI: substantially is not a precise term.
(Thank you to my MPP friends and DChan for providing me with the material for this blog entry.)
Thursday will be the start of my fourth week in Dar. I've become really used to our daily, consistent routine - much less hectic than how I usually keep my schedule. For people who know me, they know that I am always running around, whether it is on campus or flying back and forth along the East Coast. A necessary but rather excessive lifestyle for a somewhat underfed grad student.
I love not staying put - staying in one place for even a month makes me uneasy. It sounds a bit exhausting, but I love having the ability to maintain relationships in various locations at once. Facebook and gchat is nothing compared to shared experiences, and phone conversations can get…pretty awkward, to put it lightly (I'm convinced people born after 1985 do not know how to end a phone conversation, myself included). And really, I've had wanderlust all my life. In first grade, I wrote a terrible 50 page unfinished story about a girl going on a never-ending adventure that was a mixture of Super Mario on the original Nintendo and Benjamin Franklin: each new land was a higher level, and the method of travel was by kite. That story may or may not be an exact portrait of my life right now.
Anyway, I am technically still on travel right now, but I realize fieldwork gets to be pretty routine in the end - we wake up early, take the dog on a short walk (during which she strategically chooses to relieve herself on patches of grass right in front of our neighbors' gates - will most likely end up in an awkward confrontation), eat a fried egg and toast, and head to the interview site. We make some calls in the morning to book interviews, talk about how scared we are that we might not get 300 interviews by the time we leave, and then maybe do an interview before lunch. Lunch is always at Tang Ren, a neighboring Chinese restaurant that serves Northern Chinese food. I don't think I've had this much Northern Chinese food in my life. I like it a lot, but am sort of craving the light, sweet savory tastes of Shanghainese food, something I try to replicate at home that ends up in not complete failure but not great. The girl at Tang Ren who serves us wears dresses that are way way beyond what is acceptable to wear around here. I don't even go outside with long shorts much less dresses above the knees - when this girl leans over there is definitely some panty action going on. The three of us chuckle and gossip and eat peanuts.
We can usually fit two interviews in the afternoon. What really scares me is that because we are using this fancy referral method called network sampling with memory (NSM), the referral process might not happen quickly enough for us to have an acceptable number of interviews per day. To put it simply, we figure out who we want to interview next based on the people that each interviewee reports during the survey (we randomly choose three people to contact out of the ten they report). Since the people they report are their friends, they might be a bit more reserved about giving out contact information (which we promise to destroy after fieldwork is done) and letting us reach out to them. I totally understand this feeling. I won't even refer three friends when I could potentially get a free Groupon.
So far, I'm having a lot of fun practicing Chinese, meeting all these interesting and strange people, gossiping with our hired interviewer (who I will call M from now on), and spending my free time working on stuff I've been putting off during school (mostly reading and writing). More later on my interactions with the Chinese here; probably more to tell especially since tomorrow is 端午节 (Duanwu Festival), a really important traditional Chinese holiday.
Currently we are in the process of getting ready for the actual fieldwork portion of the trip. We chose an interview office site behind a well-known chinese grocery store in Mikocheni, which we pay monthly rent for (including electricity for the air conditioner, etc.). We asked them if we could pay the monthly rent via direct deposit into their banking accounts. The owner refused, telling us that no one here trusts the banks - they only use cash. I found it very interesting that even an owner of a small business refuses to deposit money into the bank. Given that robbery is a relatively non-trivial threat (not only in Tanzania but anywhere), I wonder why people think that cash is the more secure form of transaction and savings.
Another option to pay for stuff here is via cell phones, which is really popular. People can open an "m-pesa" account with each cell phone sim card they purchase, and can use this account to pay for pretty much everything - utility, groceries, paying back friends, etc. We asked a chinese girl who lives here whether or not she uses m-pesa, and she has never even heard of it - from what she knows about her network, people only use cash. Of the Chinese people who own businesses, they apparently send the money in cash form directly back to China. I have no idea how they think this is less risky than saving money in a bank.
This led me to wonder if the fear of banking institutions and other forms of electronic payment is warranted or overinflated. There are certainly presumably legitimate international banks that operate in Tanzania, such as Standard Chartered. The downside to international banks such as Standard Chartered and HSBC are the monthly fees - Standard Chartered charges $10 per month. This does seem a bit prohibitively expensive for personal accounts, but probably not terribly so for business owners.
From a quick Google search, I couldn't really find any article about perspectives of migrants in Africa towards banking institutions here. I did come across an Economist article (link) that gives a brief overview about banking in the developing world. Not surprisingly, the overall percentage of people with banking accounts in Sub-Saharan Africa is very low: about 27% of men and 22% of women have banking accounts. It also seems like banking levels are drastically different between people with a college education and those with only a primary education or lower. The common sense conclusion from these statistics is that more informed people are more likely to have bank accounts (other factors must be taken into account, of course, such as amount of income).
While migrant deposits probably make a very minuscule portion of the financial industry, it did make me wonder more about the nature of trusting banks in developing nations, which is a huge topic. Chinese small business owners who choose to come to Tanzania are strange: not in the need-to-stay-ten-feet-away-probably-will-drink-your-leftover-beer strange, but strange in their risk preferences. They are abnormal in the way they seek business opportunities; by the fact that they choose to live longterm in Tanzania to make money, they are likely to be more risk-loving than the median small business owner in China. Yet, their perceived risk of saving money in a bank account is higher than the risk they are willing to take, which is already likely to be higher than average. This makes me want to learn a bit more about banking regulations in Tanzania and how to use policy to increase trust in financial institutions in developing nations. More later as I learn more about this topic.
Thanks for visiting my blog. This summer, my blog will discuss my experiences doing fieldwork in Dar es Salaam. I will also include experiences outside of fieldwork, including trips I might take around the country, and some scattered thoughts about Tanzania, migration, and China-Africa relations. Disclaimer: since I'm only a first-year Phd, I'm still getting my feet wet about the topics of migration and China-Africa relations, but find them very fascinating overall.
Some initial thoughts: Dar es Salaam is usually ignored by tourists to Tanzania, since there is so much to see in Tanzania outside of Dar (Zanzibar, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti safari, and much more). While Dar is certainly very gritty in many areas, its surrounding beaches are very beautiful, and is generally a laid-back and comfortable place to live. This is not to say you can completely let your guard down - petty crime is really common, and I would never walk outside alone at night (which is also true of Durham, NC). Expats seems to enjoy it here, since there are specialty grocery stores, shopping centers, and restaurants that cater towards the foreign population. While you can find pretty much everything here that you would need, it seems our host family brings back M&Ms every time they come back from the US!
I was a bit surprised that many of the roads in the expat area are unpaved: I guess I expected the area to look more like expat areas in the cities of China, India, or Southeast Asia. Most expats live in apartment buildings, compounds, or larger villas that have armed guards and electric fences. I wonder if this need to be fenced inside with armed guards is a self-fulfilling prophecy, enhancing a lack of trust towards the locals, and reinforcing crime. It is a bit of a vicious cycle.
Anyway, we are starting fieldwork on Monday, June 1st - should be an interesting experience. I am currently brushing up on my Chinese, gaining more fluency in the survey questions, and reading a book called The Dragon's Gift, which is teaching me a lot about China's history with Africa (and Tanzania as well).