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Strategies for Success in Surveying Rural Communities

Surveying rural communities can be costly, difficult and, at worst, unsafe. It can mean traveling on treacherous roads to destinations that are not well mapped or defined. It can be costly and time consuming, chipping away at survey budgets. It can be frustrating, in particular when you arrive at someone’s home only to learn they walked to a relative’s house 10 kilometers up the road, and are not expected back until nightfall.


The first thing to consider when surveying rural communities is that you will fail often, and must budget in extra time. But there are ways to increase your success:

Here are some tips we provide to our surveyors:

Scheduling is essential: Many rural communities are now equipped with cell phones. If you have access to a number, use it. Call in advance of your visit and try calling at different times of day. Farmers may be out in the field without cell phone coverage at different times. Call again the morning before you go, and when you are on your way. Sometimes, you won’t have the phone option, and finding people is your only choice.

Finding people: Rural surveying is a logistical art, particularly because transportation might be limited or if you have vehicles, the cost of fuel can be prohibitive. Have surveyors spend a day or two mapping a route in advance. In the Philippines, we went to a local Barangay captain before the survey visits and shared the names of people we were visiting, asking permission to be in the community, but also verifying locations. Visiting busier locations during surveys is helpful. You might run into kind community members willing to share information “he’s not there now, I just saw him at the market”, or to offer directions. But be discrete about what you are doing and why the respondent was selected for a visit. For example, if they are a borrower with a microfinance institution, don't mention that but rather say that someone in the community mentioned they have a good business or farm.

Staying: Reading cues is critical. Some families may be excited for a visit and offer refreshments or food. Leaving too soon may seem rude. Others may be in a rush to get back to their fields. Either way, you should not be too ambitious about how quickly an interview might go. Being respectful (See our post on lean research) means reading their cues and staying just long enough. It also means not forging too intimate a relationship in a short time, as it is bound to mislead the respondent into thinking you can offer more than a pleasant conversation. It is tempting to tell people that you will visit again. But don't, because you most likely won’t.

Safety first: One thing we emphasize is that surveyors use the buddy system when visiting rural homes. This is an important safety measure to ensure that someone is always aware of a surveyor’s location and can locate them. They either travel to an interview together, or select locations close by and split up briefly. Surveyors cannot veer from their planned route. It isn’t safe! Using safe vehicles when possible is important. Sometimes, a safe driver is one who knows the roads well rather than the one with the nicer vehicle.

Incentives: A gift is always appreciated, and in some cultures, expected. Don’t overdo it and be practical. A rural family may not need a cute wallet, but rather a new machete. If you are bringing a gift, mention it if you phone ahead, but be polite. Say you will come with a “token” or “package” for their time so as not to make them uncomfortable.

You can watch a video that shows some of the challenges of fieldwork, particularly related to our Client Math work with the Microinsurance Centre on insurance, on youtube at this link.

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