October 10, 2014
During the past summer, Dr. Jessica Gottlieb and three student interns from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University traveled to the West African country of Senegal to conduct two months of intensive field work and research. Based out of a local research institute in Dakar, the nation’s capital, the team sought to understand how local elites—religious, traditional, or political leaders—can wield their influence to guide voters’ decisions, even when it goes against the voters’ best interests.
“Many citizens in new democracies are subject to the influence of powerful local elites when they go to cast their vote,” Gottlieb said. “This is not necessarily a bad thing, but these local elites can also abuse their status and influence in ways that are more beneficial to themselves than the voters,” she added.
The field work involved a household survey, leader survey, and a series of behavioral games conducted in sixty-four rural Senegalese villages. With the assistance of three Bush School students and several members of the local Senegal community, the research project was divided into three stages: training and preparation, field work, and data entry.
“Getting the first phase of the project underway was a herculean task,” said Bush School student Susana Svojsik. “Given the size of our sample and complexity of the experiments, the number of individual pieces of material we had to prepare exceeded 10,000.”
During the first stage, Gottlieb and the interns trained sixteen enumerators to conduct the surveys and simulations and prepare survey and simulation materials for all 1,024 participants in the survey. Since municipal elections were slated for the end of June, all of the training and fieldwork had to be completed in less than five weeks after the team arrived in the country. Following a pilot test of the surveys and simulation, the sixteen enumerators were dispatched into the field. To cover all sixty-four villages, each intern and the local supervisor managed a team of four enumerators.
“While in the field, I met with village chiefs and elders to stress the objective of our presence and seek their permission to conduct our experiment,” said Bush School student Kwamae Twumasi-Ankrah. “It was a good way to practice my French while building relationships with my teammates.”
In addition to navigating the vagaries of life in a foreign country, the team was struck by the stark differences between the political campaigning process in Senegal and the United States.
“While campaign visits in America are fairly serious events, with speech giving and hand-shaking, the campaigns I witnessed in Senegal were more like community parties,” said Bush School student Kelsey Barrera. “Further study of the democratic process in Senegal should help give us insight into possible solutions for strengthening democracy in these fragile or conflict-affected countries.”
After the surveys and simulation games were completed, the third and final stage of the project began—data entry. Because transporting physical copies of thousands of pages of research data back to the United States was out of the question, the research team had to digitize all of the materials.
“Our office turned into organized chaos,” Svojsik said. “We had thousands of documents to process and scan and a very tight schedule to get it all done. I am still not sure exactly how, but we did it.”
In spite of multiple setbacks during this stage of the project—from broken scanners to power fluctuations—Gottlieb spoke highly of her team of Bush School students and the work they accomplished.
“I am grateful for the dedication and hard work of these students as well as their humor in confronting difficult situations and their creativity in the face of challenges,” Gottlieb said. “I am also grateful for the funding we received for the project from the Conflict and Development Centers, the Scowcroft Institute, a PESCA grant, and the Bush School.”