Opinion: The hustle for data: Side gigs that change science, policies, and lives

Data collectors Farah and Amina, with the help of a community health worker Axmed, transfer results of a participatory mapping exercise onto paper. Photo by: Awli Mohammad

The health of people around the world depends on the knowledge and data that researchers gather about diseases, economies, living conditions, and the quality and availability of medical care. Yet in many of the world’s least-developed countries, the expertise and hard work of local staffers — the people tasked with collecting and reporting these data — remain invisible and undercompensated.

As the World Health Organization celebrates the Sixth Annual World Health Worker Week this month, we must also advocate for improvements to the working conditions, legal protections, and compensation packages for the legions of informal and temporary workers that make research and data collection possible for global organizations, including the WHO.

Around the world, opportunities to help with data collection offer a relatively lucrative side gig for many people, especially in communities with high unemployment. International aid agencies and global research firms hustle to hire logistics coordinators, drivers, language translators, survey enumerators, and key informants.

Local staffers — who are often themselves aid beneficiaries and residents of impoverished and crisis-affected communities — are vital to the implementation of health and humanitarian aid programs and policies, as well as to the needs assessments, demographic, and health surveys, food security studies, clinical research, randomized control trials, famine early warning systems, disease surveillance systems, donor appeals, and monitoring and evaluation protocols that inform these programs and policies.

I have worked in the Somali Region of Ethiopia for more than 10 years, as health and humanitarian relief organizations have come and gone. My latest article in Medical Anthropology Quarterly shows how data collection funded by international aid agencies presents intermittent — but critically important — employment and research opportunities and at the same time, offers local residents and beneficiaries the opportunity to contribute to the policies and programs that can potentially have lasting effects on their own communities.

Rising demands within the international aid and global health industries for accountability and localization have further increased the need for participatory and intensive research methodologies. Aid workers and policymakers in eastern Ethiopia are inundated with data — of highly variable quality and usefulness — and the vast majority of the people I know in the Somali Region have in some way been part of generating these datasets. Indeed, while many people I have spoken to report that they cannot count on adequate amounts of food in the ration — or on the tanker truck to deliver potable water on time, or on cholera vaccines to be distributed, or on enough amoxicillin to treat local outbreaks of infectious diseases — they can count on regular data collection in their communities.

Residents are usually hired for a few days or weeks as drivers for researchers and aid workers traveling for site visits, needs assessments, and project evaluations. Local families rent their SUVs to the national and expatriate staff of NGOs, private research contractors, and even university researchers. Folks who can speak a combination of Somali, English, French, and Amharic are frequently recruited as language interpreters by international organizations and companies headquartered in Addis Ababa, Djibouti City, or Nairobi. These language interpreters also serve as more general translators of and experts in local cultures, local political circumstances, and the procedures and expectations for obtaining permission and support from local leaders.

For example, many of these local staffers are like my friend Mussa (his name has been changed to ensure his anonymity), a Somali resident of Ethiopia in his mid-30s and a respected mullah in a rural town close to the Djibouti and Somaliland borders. In his latest data collection gig in 2016, he was paid 700 birr per day (at the time worth $35) for five days translating research instruments and administering a survey for a major international NGO that contracted with a private research firm headquartered in the capital city of Addis Ababa.

Reflecting on his employment, Mussa said, “You cannot just have people from Addis [Ababa] fly in and do the research. They do not know us, and the people here will not like that. They will not answer your questions, or they will just answer however they feel and not truthfully. No, that was my job. They trusted me. They know me. And I convinced them that this was okay; the project was okay. They could tell me things, and I could come inside their house.”

Local hires like Mussa never sign legal contracts for their employment; many lack negotiating power over the terms of their compensation; many work in dangerous field situations without adequate security or safety resources. Most people I know fail to parlay their temporary gigs into long-term careers in the aid or research industries.

Furthermore, the gig economy that results from international aid and research is not equitable. Data collection side gigs disproportionately employ young men who are both literate and fluent in multiple languages. Persons with disabilities and caregivers to dependent children and parents — mostly women — cannot easily travel or work far from their homes and families, and are much less likely to fill these posts.

Part-time employees like Mussa are the backbone of nearly every international aid and research initiative. Their knowledge and expertise make these projects happen. It is time that they were recognized, compensated adequately, and fully integrated into professional aid and research industries.

About the author

  • Lauren Carruth

    Lauren Carruth is a medical anthropologist specializing in humanitarian assistance, global health, food security, refugees, and the Horn of Africa. Most of her continuing ethnographic work focuses on the lasting social and health system effects of episodic humanitarian interventions in the Somali Region of Ethiopia.