Myanmar Days [Part 3]

I’m back in Myanmar putting the final touches on a household survey on the economics of hope (and this is this blog’s third installment of “Myanmar Days” – parts 1 and 2 here and here).

These days my work is filled with pre-testing and revising, and repeating. Every day. It is challenging and tedious but also entertaining and fun.

One of the key tasks is correctly translating the survey from English into Burmese (technically it’s ‘Myanmar language’, but that’s hard to say). This process, as you many imagine, is quite involved. We spent quite a bit of time the other day thinking about the difference between these two statements: “I am energetically pursuing my goals” and “I am meeting the goals I have set for myself”. After carefully translating the English survey into Burmese the survey is then translated back into English. This allows us to identify instances where the translation is not quite right.

Following this, we go out to local villages and pre-test the survey. This allows us to identify where questions and statements in the survey need to be worded better so that respondents can best understand what our enumerators are asking.

We have received many very interesting reactions to our questions as this survey is a bit unorthodox (as household surveys in developing countries go).

One question in our survey asks how much land does [the respondent] want to own. One older man did not want to answer this question because, as he said, such things are only for children to think about. At risk of reading too far into this statement, I am going to read into this statement.

Perhaps he is saying, as an adult we have to be realistic about our dreams. It is nearly impossible for me to achieve much more land than I currently own (he currently only owned the land on which his house sits). Part of the literature on aspirations in developing countries supports the idea that the experience of living in poverty squelches and prohibits the formation of aspirations (goals and dreams). Perhaps, this is what this man is saying: When I was a child I had dreams of owning lots of land, but now that I’m an adult (who is living amidst life-stealing poverty) I know what is actually possible for people like me and owning more land is simply not achievable. The hope of owning more land is child’s-play.  I’m not certain I have it 100% correct but somewhere in his short answer there is a profound lesson about the reality (and tragedy) of living a life in poverty.

Another man launched into a story: “My life is like that of a gardener”, he said. “I plant many fruits and vegetables but reap almost nothing because pests have destroyed my crop.” (He later made clear, pests were the government.) Another part of hope theory, as developed by social psychologists, is that hope includes a certain amount of personal agency – the belief in ones ability to succeed and accomplish the goals one has set for him or herself. Again, I’ll risk reading too far into this statement: It sounds like this man is stating that no matter how hard he works, his future outcomes are ultimately determined by the “pests” in his life.

Social psychology has developed an idea of “locus of control”. People can be characterized as having either an internal or external locus of control. Meaning, control over the future is within oneself or outside oneself. An external locus of control is thought to be correlated with feelings of hopelessness and leads to low levels of effort in investments or other (so-called) “rational behaviors”. Our survey is focusing on the three ingredients of hope: aspirations, agency, and avenues with validation checks by also asking about the closely related topics of self-efficacy and locus of control. It’s exciting, sobering, sweaty, dusty, challenging, and fun work. Stay tuned for more on this topic.

The pre-test team was invited for a snack at the town-level government office in Paung.
The pre-test team was invited for a snack at the town-level government office in Paung. (Yeah, I’m eating ice cream.)

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