Periodically we’ll be interviewing Senior CEME Fellows to check in on their latest research, big questions they’ve been pondering and everything they’re keeping an eye on in the world. Today we spoke with Fletcher School lecturer Kim Wilson.
Interviewer: What are the questions that keep you up at night around your current research/focus of interest?
KW: Right now the question I (and other) researchers are grappling with is the extractive measures we use to gather information in the field from human subjects, who are often poor and do feel powerful enough to reject participating in a study. While there are ethical standards for academic researchers, many these standards are easily circumvented by working under an NGO contract, or the like. My research focuses on the livelihoods of the poor. And so spend a great deal of time reading about the research of colleagues, as well as doing my own. What I have observed is that subjects feel that obligated to answer endless study questions. Worse, researchers give false expectations of how the subject may benefit from the study. While precautions exist such as informed consent procedures, they are often done in ways that are confusing. While it might be easy for your or me to tell the someone conducting a survey in Harvard Square that we do not want to participate, it is not so easy for a poor person in rural Peru or Kenya to turn away a researcher. To improve how both academics and practitioners conduct research I am working with the MIT D-Lab on a project called Lean Research. Our goal is to minimize data collected from human subjects, make the research experience as pleasant as possible for the subject, and to maximize the use of data gathered.
Interviewer: What do you see in the developments and events around the world today that make your work relevant and timely?
KW: There is an ever increasing emphasis on “evidence-driven” aid programs that require more invasive and complex monitoring and evaluation systems, often at the expense the aid recipients. This growth in a quest for evidence pleases donors but may come at extreme cost to the poor.
Interviewer: Where do you see the greatest opportunities for impact for students who affiliate or work with IBGC?
KW: Recently we created a research internship with MasterCard to study various aspects of inclusive growth. Fletcher sends teams of students to the field where at least one student knows the language and culture well. The teams spend three months in the field after receiving training in how to conduct ethical research. Another excellent opportunity for students is the Blakeley Fellowship which sponsors ten students a summer to work in areas that touch on inclusive growth. Many end up in private sector social enterprises, giving them the time and the material to pursue a research interest.
Interviewer: What is the most interesting book you have read recently?
KW: The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality by Agnes Deaton. There is a great chapter that diagnoses the futility of the aid industry as it is now constructed.