Systems thinking for rabies control: What does it mean for rabies research

A government office in Tamil Nadu

A government office in Tamil Nadu

An atypical zoonosis

Rabies, in many ways, is an atypical zoonosis. It continues to feature as a priority disease by multiple national as well as international agencies. There is substantial research evidence regarding its burden, transmission dynamics as well as intervention efficacy.

In addition, rabies is one of the few diseases for which well-structured and scientifically sound templates for developing national control programmes have been created. However, despite all this effort the disconnect between rabies research and policy remains real.

Syed Abbas

Continued neglect

Rabies continues to be classified as a neglected disease by the WHO. The global estimates of rabies incidence have remained constant in the last ten years hovering around 50,000 human cases. Why is it that despite the availability of highly efficacious intervention strategies and sustained research and advocacy, decision makers in Africa and Asia continue to be hesitant of mounting national rabies control programmes?

Rabies research output, categorized by type of research

Rabies research output, categorized by type of research

Research-Policy disconnect

Given the lack of movement in policy discussions despite the sheer amount of rabies research (relative to other ‘neglected’ diseases),  I suggest that those of us working on rabies research and advocacy use the occasion of the World Rabies Day to sit back and reflect upon the reasons we have not been able to convey our insights to decision makers in large parts of the world.

How is it that the researchers and decision makers appear to be talking across each other? Might this be because we are asking the wrong questions? Key messages around rabies control in the recent past have pushed for setting rabies elimination as a goal that is best achieved through canine vaccination. The popular scientific consensus, best encapsulated by WHO is that national mass dog vaccination campaigns are the most cost-effective strategy for preventing rabies.

Statements such as these make several generalisations and, if we are to make any headway, these need to be critically examined.

Framing the problem: Need for a rethink

Rabies elimination is a worthy goal indeed. But given its limited traction, it is worth asking if this target reflects the priorities only of the rabies community or is shared by national governments and affected population groups as well.

While rabies remains a sensitive disease to report, public health officers are often more exercised by dog bite numbers than rabies incidence alone. It is therefore quite likely that interventions advocating for dog bite reduction will find more policy traction than those focussing on rabies elimination alone.

Obviously, if the attention moves from prevention of rabies alone to dog bites control as well, then we will have to start talking about Animal Birth Control programmes that are even more expensive than the canine vaccination programmes (both of which have to be funded in addition to the human vaccination programmes).

Choosing interventions: Making decisions

Another example of the research policy disconnect plaguing rabies discussions relates to the economic evaluations conducted around the disease. Resource allocation is often a zero-sum game for policy makers. Asking them to fund resource-intensive canine vaccination for rabies control might mean taking away funds from a competing social (and political) priority.

Therefore, in order to convince decision makers to go for a particular intervention it will be important to go beyond examining allocative efficiencies using incremental cost effectiveness analysis. We will instead need to develop standards for choosing comparator strategies and study time horizon so that the Incremental Cost Effectiveness Ratio (ICER) values can start to be compared across studies.

Developing standardised composition of intervention packages and incorporating insights from decision analysis will all be required to develop more policy-responsive research around rabies control. Given the recent calls to use rabies as a test case for one health approach, even more important perhaps, is to develop analytic techniques that facilitate analysis and presentation of the costs and benefits of rabies control strategies across multiple sectors and species.

The big picture: Putting values, functions and sectors together

Based upon the above ideas, a group of us thought to ourselves, what would happen when we put together costs and benefits of rabies interventions across human, canine and livestock populations in one matrix? Will such an analysis aid decision making if researchers and decision makers from all these sectors sit together in one room? We got a preview of the exciting possibilities of an integrative approach to research and policy at a recently-concluded meeting in Delhi.

Supported by a Grand Challenge award for bringing animal and human health sectors together, and working with partners across RCZI, PHFI, LSHTM & Yale, we have tried to combine disease transmission and economic evaluation models with decision analytic techniques to present a series of cost and impact results from the perspectives of different sectors drawn from a single integrative database.

We started out our exercise by mapping existing information needs of key rabies stakeholders in India in early 2015. We presented our approach and preliminary findings of a generalized cost effectiveness of rabies control in Tamil Nadu at a stakeholder meeting organized on 7-8 September 2015 in Delhi. The meeting participants consisted of researchers as well as policy makers from animal and human health sectors. Participants included officers from WHO, AWBI, GALVmed, NIVEDI, FIAPO as well as the Departments of Public Health and Animal Husbandry from Government of Tamil Nadu.

We analysed the costs and impacts of different combinations of rabies interventions across human, canine and livestock sectors across a 20-year time horizon. From our analysis, it seems that rabies transmission can be controlled relatively quickly with moderate coverage of canine vaccination. A modified ABC-AR strategy consisting of female-only sterilisation also yielded promising results.

Political economy of rabies

While the precise findings from our study will make for a separate post, even the approach of conducting and presenting our findings received interesting reactions from the group. The complexity of political economy of rabies was highlighted when we polled for the preferred outcome indicators among different sector-specific groups. Dog bite emerged as an equally significant indicator of interest as rabies transmission across most sectors. As mentioned above, this has important implications for rethinking existing rabies control strategies.

Another key finding was that the participants valued different time horizons for the study. The program managers, in particular, were interested in shorter time horizons that could demonstrate quick returns for their investments. The state program officers, in particular, were excited by the possibility of demonstrating benefits of interventions across multiple sectors as it would be helpful to them in making a case for increased budgetary allocation.

While there was some scepticism from the group with regards to sourcing the data from different contexts and for the reductionist nature of mathematical models, there was widespread interest in the utility of such an approach for decision-making in rabies.


It is heartening that the tagline for World Rabies Day emphasises on doing so ‘together’. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the rabies community needs to recognize the complexity of rabies landscape where stakeholders might have different expectations from a rabies control strategy. Instead of chasing silver bullet solutions emerging out of simplistic assumptions of rabies control, we need to engage with the diverse constituency of rabies more closely and co-develop solutions with broader appeal.

Syed Abbas is a PhD candidate at IDS, working within the Health and Nutrition research cluster at IDS. Crossposted from his blog

What can we learn from the Greek crisis?


by Matteo Caravani

While Professor Ian Scoones rightly pointed out in his article that there are many lessons that Europe could learn from African countries, the argument of this article is that we should learn something from the Greek financial crisis as well. This crisis has to be an opportunity to move the process of European political and economic integration – that came to halt in 2006 with France’s referendum on the European constitution – forward. We have to decide what we want to do with this Union and this decision can no longer be delayed: we either take a step forward or a step back! If the current state of affairs stays as it is, sooner or later other European countries, especially from the Mediterranean, could suffer a similar fate to Greece’s.

Since May 2010 when the Troika (EC, ECB and IMF) took over the Greek political economy, making the debt and fiscal reforms sustainable for the resources of the country should have been the most sensible goal not only for Greece but also for the collective interest of the European Union.  Instead, over the past five years the recipe for Greece has always been spending cuts and tax rises, rather than finding a long term solution. This is  made clear by looking at the fact that – despite Greece following the Troika’s recipes for the past five years and cutting its Government spending more than any other country in Europe – GDP has reduced and unemployment rate has increased. In sum, five years of neoliberal ideology caused a fall in GDP of 20.7%, between 2010 and 2014, with an estimated loss of 62 billion euros, and an  increase of the unemployment rate from 12.5% in 2010 to 27.3% in 2014 (WB, 2015).

These results have not been caused by austerity measures only – a term that everyone hates nowadays –  but are also the outcome of structural adjustments inspired by neoliberal ideology, as was found in many African countries during the 80s and 90s. In 2012, for example, the Troika imposed on Greece as a condition to receive loans, economic structural reforms, such as the reduction by 22% of the minimum wages for those aged 25 years and 32% for youth under the age of 25, a policy aimed at making Greece’s products more competitive. As should have been foreseeable by then, the result of this policy has been a reduction in aggregate demand, significant disemployment effects (Yannelis, 2014) and an overall worse economic recession.

Who is going to pay for the “horrors” of the economic policies imposed by Troika to Greece from 2010 to 2015 today? That is, besides the Greeks citizens? Theoretically, the Troika should have taken decisions in the interest of the Eurozone, by making the debt and fiscal reforms more sustainable for Greece. The actual result, willing or unwilling, has been that European private banks – especially German and French banks – have much less credit exposure over Greece compared to the situation before the first bail out of 2010. In other words, the Greeks junk bonds were passed from the private banks to the central banks and other institutions in a sort of socialization of losses as also Jeffrey Sachs recently pointed out: “the focus was on bailing out German and French banks.” Overall, the private banking system was saved while Greece in 2015 is in a worse economic condition than five years ago.

The point here is not to try and establish what would have or could have happened if the loan conditions and reforms set by the Troika had been different. The point is that since the first bail out in 2010, Greece lost its economic sovereignty, becoming a sort of “protectorate” remotely micromanaged from Brussels and Washington. In fact, the height of Greece’s economic decline (2010-2015) happened at a time when the country was, in fact, not fully in control of its political economy: this pushes the question of accountability beyond the historical demerits and negligence of Greece because of the direct political and economic involvement of other actors (i.e. Troika etc…) who cannot eschew the question of responsibility.

The “responsibility” argument that has been voiced repeatedly in the course of the Greek crisis as if to remind the world that the economic recession in the country has been completely self-inflicted because of poor political leadership. The truth is that the “responsibility” for the present Greek disaster is shared among the Eurozone countries represented by the Troika and the damaging economic policies it imposed on Greece over the past five years. In reflection of this state of affairs, the Greek debt relief should be reduced to what it was the day before the first bail out in 2010 – that is, 307 billion euros (IMF, 2010) against the current 314 billion euros (EUROSTAT, 2015)  – with the addition of the GDP loss of 56 billion euros (WB, 2015). In other words, a total of 63 billion euros – that is, the difference between 2015 and 2010 debt and GDP – should be used as proxy for the economic damages that resulted from the Troika policies for Greece. In fact, 63 billion euros should be returned to Greece! All the Eurozone countries should take their own responsibilities in the name of the socialization of losses – a dictate that has been adopted by the Troika in previous occasions, as for the saving of the private bank system with public money. Creditors have been saved from bankruptcy, let’s save debtors too!

This is more than an economic proposal: it is a call for accountability  measures that fairly redistribute responsibilities for the Greek crisis across the different stakeholders. This proposal would eventually just reduce the debt of 20% without solving the more structural problems of the Europe and Greek economy in particular, but it would be a fresh start for the Eurozone that will improve the relationship among the member states; a base for a more solid political union and a recognition that there is need for change in the institutional architecture of the Eurozone.

Once this is done we can sit and discuss whether the current mechanisms are able to help countries that are facing economic recessions. In 2008, for instance, the United States lifted its economy after a terrible recession through policies of deficit spending, of typically neo-Keynesian inspiration. On the contrary, in the Eurozone the current economic ideas and roles – basically a cocktail of Friedman and Maastricht parameters – do not allow countries to realize neo-Keynesian economic policies. As Alan Blinder wrote on The Wall Street Journal last week, countries have three fundamental weapons to fight economic recessions: stimulation of the fiscal system, stimulation of the monetary system and depreciation of their currencies. Being in the Eurozone means losing the last two instruments, while brutally limiting the first one. As a result, the Greek problem may never be solved given the actual roles of the Eurozone. Is this the overarching problem? Are we transforming the European dream into a nightmare due to the monetary roles made by a group of “Chicago boys” nostalgics? If the current system does not allow countries experiencing financial crisis to overcome their situation, why are we judging and inflicting so much pain on Greece?

The Greek crisis proved once again the extent to which Europe is still divided, with many countries protecting their own interests, and without a collective vision and overarching goal for the future. Currently, the European Union is a political hybrid but if we want to overcome the Greek crisis – which could just be the first of many – we need to move forwards the process of European political and economic integration, ultimately towards a federal Europe with fiscal transfers between country members, as in the United States.

Any crisis should be an opportunity to change the institutions and its roles, especially when these no longer serve the best interests of European citizens. As we all know, economics is not a science in the same way that geometry and mathematics are. Once again we need to repeat this to a particular group of economists more notable for mathematical skills than for local knowledge who believe in deregulation, privatization and balanced budgets as the standard solution to economic recessions. Over the past five years, the implementation of packages of neoliberal economic policies in Greece caused more harm than good. It’s time to change ideas and roles. Let’s all learn from Greece!

Matteo Caravani is a PhD researcher at IDS, within the Resource Politics cluster. He is a development economist graduated at the faculty of economics of Rome la Sapienza with a thesis on “Sub-Saharan African Oil Exporting Countries: Uganda’s Case Study.” Then he worked for the World Food Programme in Uganda as Programme Officer in charge of all safety nets and resilience programmes in Karamoja. This experience inspired his PhD research question: “What are causes and drivers of socioeconomic differentiation in the village of Lojom (in Karamoja north-eastern region of Uganda)?”. Overall, his research interests include livelihoods, food security, agrarian change, migration, resilience and social protection mechanisms in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Spain votes ‘indignados’ – what messages for popular politics?

Maria Cascant-Sempere

Last Sunday, Spain’s voted for its regional and municipal representatives. The results have been decisive – Spain has swung to mariacsthe Left. Is this a prelude to the national elections in November?

Taken on 15 May, 2012-Barcelona, Spain. An 'Indignado holding a placard that reads -stop evictions- in front of a bank. Several groups of 'Indignados' perform actions against banks in Barcelona due to evictions because of crisis. Credit: Jordi Boixareu. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

An ‘Indignado holding a placard that reads -stop evictions- in front of a bank (May 2012). Several groups of ‘Indignados’ perform actions against banks in Barcelona due to evictions because of crisis. Credit. Jordi Boixareu – Flickr

The long-established two party system between conservatives and socialists has been broken

Although the current conservative government remains the largest party overall, it has lost a large number of votes. The socialists are showing signs of recovery, but more significantly, new parties, issued from the Indignados (Occupy) citizen movements and from previous minority formations, have swiftly gained important positions.

With the current government lacking absolute majorities, central/left-wing coalitions between the socialists and the new emergent parties are likely to take over most governmental posts.

Symbolically, Barcelona and Madrid will probably be governed by two women born out of movements – Ada Colau, former coordinator of the PAH (the Mortgage-Affected Citizens Platform) and Manuela Carmena, a retired judge and longstanding pro-democracy activist.

Popular, protest politics influencing formal politics – new leaders, ideas and party models

The nod to Spain’s popular/street politics lies not so much in the transition of popular movement leaders to the political party system but also in the transition of popular movement discourses to formal political debate. Ideas such as “social audits” and “retroactive dation in payment” (a form of debt discharge), unknown outside these movements for some time, have now been incorporated in most progressive parties.

Additionally, Podemos (We Can), which has grown out of the Indignados movement, presents an interesting alternative to how political parties can be run and financed, regardless of the level of sympathy that one may have with its ideology.

For instance, it rejects, by statutes, to finance its electoral campaigns through bank loans and rather turns to donations, crowdfunding and microcredits. The party also rejects the idea of traditional fee-paying affiliates but rather opts for allowing anyone to get subscribed online and contribute to the party financially or by vote.

A more contested aspect is Podemos’ internal organisation. At the municipal level, the party has coalesced with indignados-related local parties such as Colau’s En Comú(Barcelona in Common) and Carmena’s Ahora Madrid (Now Madrid). This seems to have worked. Yet, the internal processes of constructing Podemos’ own candidacies regionally have been questioned by some as being too directed from the top– thus putting in question the bottom-up decision-making ideal represented by Podemos’circles or base groups. Time will say whether its party format will end up offering new participatory democratic elements to party politics or just be old wine in new bottles.

Persistent and high levels of voting abstention highlight ongoing limitations of representative party political democracy

A final area regarding popular politics are the levels of abstention. Abstentions on Sunday have represented 12,240,792 people (35.06%). These levels look quite similar to previous 2007 and 2011 election levels – 36.73% and 33.77% respectively.

With the entry of new movement parties, new voters, especially the youth, were expected to join the elections for the first time. This may have happened. Yet with abstention rate remaining stagnant, this would mean that others have stopped voting. Another explanation is a simpler transfer of votes amongst parties.

All in all, stagnant abstention gives food for thought on the limits of representative democracy and the party politics system to absorb the current situation of crisis, indignation and revolt – at least in voting. Even with, and despite of, the existence of movement-to-party transitions.

For academics, these elements bring back the question of whether we have a fair enough range of analytical tools to understand the current politics as led popularly in the streets of Spain, Egypt, UK and many other protest contexts  – with and without the party system involved.

Maria-Josep Cascant Sempere is a PhD candidate with the IDS Power and Popular Politics cluster researching protest and mobilisation processes in development non-governmental organisations (NGO) bureaucratic structures. With thanks to Sergio Belda, Clara Cascant, Marc Cascant and Ana María Claver for comments.

This post was originally published on the IDS website Opinion section on May 27th 2015.

Farming may be cool, but who will farm in Rwanda?

SungKyu KimSungKyu_Kim200

Last January I attended the 4th annual research conference of the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR) in Kigali, Rwanda. The terms ‘economic transformation’ and ‘inclusive economic growth’ figured prominently in the presentations and discussions. At one level this is not surprising given that they appear in almost every development policy document and poverty reduction strategy papers since the country’s Vision 2020 (a statement of the government’s development goals and aspirations) was first introduced in 2000.

According to the dominant narrative, the ‘new vision’ of Rwanda – i.e. becoming a mid-level income country with vibrant, diversified, and innovative economic sectors – necessitates first a transformation of the agriculture sector in which a majority of rural poor are employed.

The speakers did an excellent job in presenting the past trends of agriculture sector development and offered some insights to future trends. However, they seemed to avoid the important gap between the current and the envisioned (transformed) agricultural sector, and said little about how this gap could be bridged. I develop this argument by looking at two particular sectors: agriculture and education.


Over 80% of Rwandan households are engaged in agriculture production to some degree, and for 56% of them agriculture is

Rural children in Rwanda. Credit: SK Kim (2010)

Rural children in Rwanda. Credit: SK Kim (2010)

their sole economic activity. What will agriculture transformation and inclusive economic growth mean for them? From the perspective of policy makers, it primarily means increased productivity through science, innovation and technology (i.e. modernisation) and commercialisation. Ideally, professionalised, tech- and market-savvy farmers will lead the current subsistence farming sector into a promised land of efficiency and profitability. In order for this to happen, policy makers believe farmers will need to be linked, engaged, skillful, well connected and informed about resources, markets and support services.

If this is the goal, let’s look at the baseline profile of an average Rwandan farmer today. According to the National Agriculture Survey (pdf), which was the last comprehensive agriculture survey conducted, the agricultural population represented 84% of the total population (among which 52% were women). Forty-five percent of the rural head of households (of which 73% were male and 27% were female head of household) were illiterate. Thus, the current agriculture population would appear to be a long way from the ideal, and will require a substantial amount of effort and resources (and time) to learn, acquire and most importantly, adopt the modern agricultural methods, knowledge, skills and practices. More likely it will take a generation of (new) farmers to achieve these goals. But is that new generation of farmers already in the making?

Education: jobs and youth aspirations

One of the presentations at the conference highlighted the school-to-work transitions of young people in Rwanda. The study revealed a number of important facts and trends in relation to youth aspirations and job expectations. For instance, the two most popular fields of studies among Rwandan youth are commerce/business (27%) and engineering (24%). Agriculture (4%) was the least popular. Shouldn’t this be a concern to policy makers and planners who envision a transformation of the agriculture sector? If young people in Rwanda are not interested in agriculture, how will the planned transformation come about? Will large commercial farms replace family farms? Perhaps this is one way to transform subsistence agriculture, but would this approach also be pro-poor?

Bridging the gap: young people, agribusiness and farming?

The Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources announced in February a new private-public initiative called “Farming is Cool Rwanda.” As the name suggests, it aims to change young people’s attitudes toward agriculture by promoting modern technology and gearing financing services towards young people. True, agriculture in Rwanda may be in need of new branding, but promoting agribusiness as the key to agricultural transformation seems to address the issue only partially. Farming may be cool, but who will (actually) farm in Rwanda?

Moreover, the government’s current approach to economic growth and transformation (through agriculture and young people) will likely miss the point if market- and technology-driven solutions alone are expected to make agriculture sector ‘sustainable.’ Agriculture is much more than optimising productivity and maximising profit. It is deeply social, cultural, historical and personal for many smallholder farmers in Rwanda, for whom farming is their main livelihood, means of survival and a way-of-life. I argue that while the market- and technology-based approach is indeed important and has a role to play, it should not be the sole (or simply assumed to be the best) policy solution.

In the current debates on sustainable agriculture in Rwanda too much emphasis is being put on economic growth and environmental productivity (e.g. land carrying capacity) and too little on social dimension of agriculture. Whist listening to different presenters’ views on ‘economic transformation’ and ‘inclusive economic growth’ I was left wondering how different the transformation process might be if it truly embraced the three dimensions of sustainability (economic, environmental and social).

SungKyu Kim is a PhD candidate within the Rural Futures Cluster at IDS.

How a week in Western Cape helped change my life, and other related stories

Syed AbbasSyed Abbas

Two weeks afterwards, I am still excited about the week I spent in Cape Town in the beginning of this month at a workshop of health social science researchers. But before I talk about the workshop and why it had such an influence over me, I guess I should tell you where I am coming from.


I started my PhD at IDS in January last year after working for more than six years as a researcher at the Public Health Foundation of India. While I had been doing policy research around health policy for several years, this was the first time in a social science environment.


Chapel window at Goedgadacht, the venue for the workshop

It took a while getting used to newer ways of reading and writing. I got exposed to words I had never considered before: Reflexivity; Participatory; Narratives; Ideational; Governmentality; Deconstruct; Problematize; Critical approaches; Realist approaches, and so on…

Instead of the tightly structured journal articles and technical reports I had been used to reading for my research, I had to now familiarise myself with navigating shelfloads of books as primary references for my literature review.

However, gradually, despite the newness of IDS, I have started thinking of it as an intellectual home for me. Here, I have the opportunity to engage in research topics that have real-life implications. At the same time, I have the freedom to take critical or alternative stances to these issues.

Experiences at Western Cape

However, coming back to the workshop, this was a week-long gathering of researchers co-organized by Chris Colvin at the Division of Social & Behavioural Sciences at the University of Cape Town and Hayley MacGregor from IDS and supported by the British Council and the South African Social Science and HIV (SASH) Programme. It was organized between 9-13 March at the rural retreat of Goedgedacht in Western Cape.

The workshop aimed to bring together a gathering of young researchers using social sciences approaches in the topical area of health from UK and African institutions and discuss the importance of taking a critical stance to our work.

I met researchers from different continents and topical areas. I shared a room with a historian from Tanzania researching STDs and held interesting conversations with a budding social science theorist working on clinical trials! I met humanities scholars working in schools of public health and several doctors transitioning into medical anthropology.

I managed to meet doctors engaging in political mobilization in the UK. I also met anthropologists working on health issues who were willing to discuss my research interests without presupposing a comprehensive understanding of literature and with whom I could have a comfortable discussion around my understanding of the literature without feeling vulnerable.

Maybe because this seemed like a safe place and because any of us had followed similarly meandering career pathways, I had a chance to hold engaging discussions with many participants. I felt that I could relate with many of these experiences of ‘researching at the interface’ even if I hadn’t experienced them myself.

I could understand when someone recounted her experiences of working as a social scientists in a public health settings where many discussions seldom went beyond the justification and relevance of her work. I could also understand what it could feel like for a doctor to feel singled out in an anthropological discussion about health and illness.

Besides the discussions on the sidelines, we also had interactions with established researchers on writing, publishing, building a career in research, combining research with activism. Some of the other speakers included Judith Green, Christina Zarowsky and Steven Robbins.

Life changing?

So how was this a life changing experience for me? IDS as well as the University of Sussex have provided a comfortable and an intellectually stimulating a space for me to explore developing newer ideas about my research interests.

However, I guess you need a critical mass of people to drive certain conversations. The opportunity to interact with so many people working on health research from social sciences perspective proved to be a really useful experience for me in many ways.

It helped me realise, that I am not alone in my experiences. There are others who are facing similar dilemmas as me and many others from similar background who have successfully went on to develop their careers. Also, importantly, there is a value of my individual experiences and perspectives and not to discount their importance.

While these might seem intuitive at one plane, it doesn’t hurt for to get a little reinforcement now and then!

Syed Abbas is a PhD candidate at IDS, working within the Health and Nutrition research cluster at IDS.

Whose Code counts? The Future Implications of Technological Abundance

Hani Morsi

Futurist Roy Amara once observed that “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate t370070a7323903499461b911e9b98647he effect in the long run”. This quotation, which came to be known as “Amara’s Law”, seems to hold true as one ponders the implications of the increasing technological profusion of our world, where connectivity and accessibility continuously proliferate. The Internet was (and still is) heralded as the great flattener, and yet systemic inequality still seems to be the defining characteristic of our world. To understand why Amara’s Law can be a useful future heuristic for thinking about the relationship between technological change and international development, consider the following two examples:

Example 1: Access to academic knowledge

The Internet provides the perfect knowledge sharing and distribution platform, yet the true potential for a revolution in academic openaccessknowledge production and sharing (despite the growing popularity of the Open Access movement) continues to be hamstrung by the regulatory hegemony of aging knowledge distribution business models conceived – and were valuable and important – in a world that pre-dates the Internet. Herein lies the rift between what could be and what is, as evident in the first half of Amara’s observation. We have the technological tools, platforms and infrastructure necessary to revolutionise how knowledge is created, shared and accessed, yet our business models and intellectual property legislation are lagging. Technology’s fullest potential is not being realised. The promise of an egalitarian ethos of knowledge starkly contrasts with the current reality.  Stanford scholar Lawrence Lessig’s observations on the legislative properties of code (software), especially with respect to copyright law, ring true.

Example 2: 3D Printing


Low cost prosthetics made possible by 3D printing. Image credits:

There is a quiet revolution happening in how we design and create things, and it is called 3D printing, which is the process of creating a physical model from a digital file. The technology itself is not very new, but the cost of making and buying 3D printers has massively gone down in recent years. The implications of this for democratising innovation are enormous. There is already talk of 3D printed housing for rapid-response to disaster stricken areas, and the technology is already helping people in developing countries create innovative solutions to meet their local needs at very low costs. For Sci-Fi fans, we are one step closer to Star Trek’s famous replicator. The barriers of prohibitive cost and access to tools for creativity and innovation are collapsing rapidly. In a way, we are indeed living in the future and we’re not even noticing. When it comes to 3D printing, the second half of Amara’s Law holds true.

Critically investigating the promise of Digital Abundance

The above two examples in relation to Amara’s Law bring us to the following question: How can we conceive of the social, economic and political implications of an exponentially accelerating pace of technological change in a hyper-connected world? Our laws and regulations as well as values and ethical considerations evolve much slower than technology, and thus gaps emerge between technology’s potential and the extent to which this potential is realised in ways that provide tangible and measurable benefits to people around the world, especially the most marginalised. We could pose this question differently: What are the parameters necessary for understanding our future of computational and technological abundance? As digital networking and ubiquitous computing permeate politics, economics and culture, new forms of power are normalised. The late programmer and hacktivist Aaron Swartz cogently noted that “On the Internet everybody is entitled to speak, the question is: Who gets Heard?” In a world where (immaterial) software has significant (material) consequences, which define who gets heard, who produces knowledge and under what assumptions, not only do we have to engage in critical examinations of the realities that shape processes of development, but we also need to ask: Whose Code Counts? Hani Morsi is a PhD candidate based within the Power and Popular Politics and Digital research clusters at IDS.

Using Open-Source Tools for Data Collection: Experience from Research in a Refugee Camp

As part of the research for my PhD thesis, I collected a household survey of 600 Palestinian refugee households from Nahr el Alia_Aghajanian200Bared camp in Lebanon in 2012. My thesis looks at the consequences of returning home, and my case study is Nahr el Bared camp, a Palestinian refugee camp that witnessed a destructive war in 2007. All residents of the camp were evacuated and displaced to a nearby camp as the Lebanese military fought with Fatah el Islam. The camp was almost completely destroyed and required a large reconstruction effort, leaving around 80% of households to still be displaced 5 years after the war, at the time of my field work.

I have written a previous blog about how this data was collected, but I thought it might be useful to share my experience of using Open Data Kit (a set of tools used for mobile data collection) on tablet PCs in the field.

Data entry

The main advantage of using tablet PCs was the fact that data was entered once only, as opposed to the case of using paper and pencil interviewing (PAPI), where responses are first recorded on paper and then entered in digital format into a computer. In the case of PAPI, entering the data twice increases the likelihood of data entry error, especially when written responses can be illegible or misinterpreted – even more so if the data is not entered by the same person who wrote the responses, as is usually the case. This also sped up the data collection process, skipping the data entry stage, which in the case of a 600 household survey was estimated to have taken up to two weeks.

Data Validation

Another benefit of data entered immediately onto the tablet was that we were only a simple step away from observing the data. At the end of a day of interviewing, the data was transferred from the tablet PCs to my laptop (through a USB cable) and then compiled into an excel sheet through ODK briefcase (this could have been done through a server if internet was available, but that would have been too expensive in Lebanon).

Once I had the excel file I could look for outliers among the variables. I also looked out for any logical inconsistencies, such as those concerning education levels and age, or employment status and age. At the end of each day I prepared a report of these inconsistencies and met with the teams early the next morning before setting out for the next day of data collection.

Skipping patterns

The questionnaire used for this household survey was quite complicated as the sequence and inclusion of questions depend on the response to a previous question. In this case the skip codes can be automatically included into the ODK form. Data collectors saved time as they did not have to carefully think about which question to answer next. In addition, mistakes where data collectors miss a question or answer the wrong question were avoided.

Battery life

The tablets that we used had a short battery life and need to be recharged after three to four hours of interviewing. While we alia_bloghad set up two offices in Nahr el Bared camp and Beddawi camp for data collectors to recharge their tablets, they found that if electricity was available, respondents allowed them to charge their tablets while conducting the interview. In some settings where electricity is not readily available (or respondents are not as hospitable and cooperative), battery life can be problematic, and investing in long lasting batteries or extra batteries might be necessary. As I was taking the tablets back with me each day, I ended up charging all the tablets overnight as well. Lots of electricity sockets are a must if this is how you do it!

Back up

Data collectors were also worried that there was no back up to their interview other than the digital files on the tablets. A slip of the hand might delete a questionnaire, or the loss or theft of a tablet might mean the completed questionnaire would be lost forever. To avoid losing data like this, we had to transfer data to my laptop as soon as possible, and then back it up on Dropbox or a hard drive. Luckily no questionnaires were lost this time, but it might be worth having an internet connection so that forms can be sent to the server as soon as the interview is over.


A justifiable concern prior to fieldwork was that respondents, or potential respondents, might be intimidated by the electronic devices. While several respondents initially asked if they were being recorded, data collectors did not feel that respondents were intimidated. Interestingly, respondents were quite curious to know more about the devices and how they would be used in the interview. This curiosity served as an icebreaker in many interviews, and in others a starting point to explain the research project.


Unfortunately, being on a tight budget as a PhD student meant that I could not afford very good quality tablets, and I relied on 2nd hand tablets that had been used for data collection by my PhD supervisors in Maharashtra, India. After shipping the tablets from Mumbai to Beirut and uploading my form, I realised that the tablets did not display Arabic font! After a couple of days of worrying about this, I decided that we could use Latin characters transliterated from Arabic. This was not too much of a problem as most of the enumerators were used to using these characters on their mobiles or computers for sending messages, emails or chatting. In fact, one enumerator said she found it much easier.

The use of this open source technology was a huge (if not necessary) bonus on many levels, specifically in relieving the data collectors of the responsibility of following complicated skip codes and in aiding data validation. It was also interesting that the tablet PCs served as an icebreaker in this context, and I would love to know if this has been a similar experience for others.


Alia Aghajanian is a PhD student based within the Conflict and Violence research cluster at IDS.

A version of this post was first published on the Open Data Kit blog on January 6th 2015.