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Promoting Inclusive Markets and Financial Systems

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Data without Damage: Researching the Financial Lives of the Poor

Research on any human subject carries the potential to be intrusive, research on the economically disadvantaged more so, and research on financial matters of the economically disadvantaged even more so. If someone lacks money, in other words is poor, it is likely that he or she lacks power, and cannot wield enough influence to fend off unwanted studies. Probing poor people on matters of money can leave them exposed, confused, and made to lie.

Although research efforts are initiated to address the needs of the poor, the manner and method that guides a study is often ignorant of the essential dignity of the subject. Long-drawn interviews, tedious surveys, and experiments that do not have any concrete plans for sustainable follow-up, even if the research shows promising results for a permanent service, create credibility for your research. But what does it do for them—the subjects?

Rigorous research has its place in understanding the financial lives of the poor and in designing better services to suit their needs. It also has its place in evaluating the success of a given experiment, development project or financial service. However, often NGOs receiving millions of dollars in aid, are pressured to conduct such research in order to prove their theories of change. Academics conduct similar research in order to hunt down evidence for their own hypotheses. But does much of the surveillance used by researchers warrant the place it has been given? Is it worth the financial cost and the cost of a subject’s time or peer-standing? Are there less extractive, less time-intensive ways to gather critical information? Can we move from rigorous research to vigorous research; research that is helpful to the subject and good enough for the researcher?

The following are some major concerns that both academic and organizational researchers need to be aware of while gathering data so that the dignity and respect of the subject is not compromised:

  • Subjects can be exploited in interviews.
  • The nature of financial questions also poses problems.
  • Deciding how to answer can be stressful.
  • Non-payment or payment both present problems.
  • Refusing to participate may produce negative consequences.
  • The translator has the power to influence the outcomes of the research.
  • It is unclear whether experiments bring about sustainable, dependable services.

  • Questions for Consideration
    1. Can we imagine data gathering methodologies that do not undermine the dignity and privacy of our subjects?
    2. What are effective ways of sharing research findings with subject communities?
    3. Are there better ways to share data already gathered and to insist that researchers go to those places first, before beginning their own study?
    4. Are there better ways to enforce non-extractive, responsible data collection?

    Read the full article here >>

    Kim Wilson is a Lecturer in Human Security and International Business at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, where she teaches courses in Financial Inclusion, Market Approaches to Human Development, and Transnational Human Security. She is also a practitioner in several development sectors including microfinance and financial inclusion, and a member of SEEP’s Board of Directors.

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