PEN: The Long Walk to Impact
Forty five PEN partners and resource persons descended upon Barcelona – the beautiful capital of Catalonia, in north east Spain – from 8-12 January to launch the second phase of the Poverty Environment Network (PEN) project.
PEN is an ambitious, tropics-wide collection of uniform socio-economic and environmental data at household and village levels. The project was launched by CIFOR in 2004. While data collection is still ongoing in many sites across the tropics, the second phase of PEN is about how to make sense of the 300 000-odd questionnaire pages collected from 9 000 households in 26 countries.
The workshop provided the first opportunity for all PEN partners and resource persons to get together, review their experiences, and make plans for the future.
“This was one of the most useful workshops I have ever attended” said Angelica Almeyda, who carried out fieldwork in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. “I was delighted to meet fellow Penners. The workshop brought us all up to speed on the current state of PEN, and allowed us to discuss methodological issues faced during fieldwork.”
In his opening presentation, PEN Coordinator Arild Angelsen said that every family has its family stories. As a family, PEN has four fundamental stories:
Forests are important to the poor;
The links between forests and poverty have not been well articulated in policy papers;
There exists a huge gap in quantitative studies on environmental income;
The best empirical work is carried out by lonely PhD students.
Angelsen underscored the fact that PEN aims to bring PhD students and other researchers together to fill this information gap, and to have an impact on policies that affect forests and the poor.
The first part of the workshop was spent reviewing the fieldwork and current methodologies. The general consensus among participants was that fieldwork is hard work, but also can be a lot of fun and very rewarding.
In addition, several participants stressed the challenges of data entry, particularly checking and cleaning, and many field researchers underestimate the time this takes. “If data entry is not planned well it can create a huge headache,” said Ronnie Babigumira, PEN’s newly appointed Research Fellow, who will be responsible for the project’s global data set.
The second part of the workshop saw a shift in gear, with focus now moving to the tasks ahead, specifically the creation of the global data set, thematic studies and the global analysis.
Several leading international researchers gave pointed presentations on some key questions relating to PEN.
Viki Reyes Garcia, for example, in her presentation on “The Economics of Smiling”, demonstrated that smiling research is a serious topic. “Those that smile frequently receive a 10% higher salary” she said, while also pointing out that smiling is used as an indicator of psychological well-being. As it were, the respondents’ frequency of smiling and laughing is included in the PEN questionnaire, and the discussion on people’s experience with this was very lively. “Those who don’t smile are hiding something” remarked one participant.
With the plenary sessions completed, participants acquired hands-on experience with PEN data analysis. This took place as a two day crash course on statistical analysis, hosted by Stata Wizard, Ronnie Babigumira.
The workshop in Barcelona included a lot of smiling and laughing (code 4 in the questionnaire!), and certainly succeeded in building team spirit.
“PEN allows me to be part of a process that is bigger than me, and that is a very nice feeling when you are a PhD student,” said Angelica Almeyda, a sentiment that was echoed by her fellow PEN partner Shiba Prasad Kar. “Now I feel that I’m not alone in my PhD research endeavour, and that there are some other PEN friends who I can consult with to remain on the right track,” said Kar.
PEN Coordinator Arild Angelsen concluded the workshop by commending the “blood, sweat and tears” that researchers have put into the data collection, describing it as both “impressive” and “humbling”.
Angelica Almeyda took it a step further. “During the workshop someone asked me if I felt the workshop had changed my life, and at first I was hesitant to say ‘yes’,” she said.
“I still don’t know the answer, but if I had to make an educated guess I would say ‘yes’. Spending five days sharing and discussing with your PEN folks, including some of your favourite ‘Livelihood’ heroes, has to change your life.”