FEATURE26 October 2010

Dispatches from the frontline

The industry likes to talk about how much market research matters. When you’re testing opinions in countries like Iraq or Somalia, it can be a matter of life and death. Richard Young reports.

There’s something about people who face danger in their work. It’s not that they don’t care about life or take precautions – they certainly do. It’s the fact that, quite often, they become almost matter-of-fact about the risks when weighed against the work they need to do.

That’s as true in market research as it is in bomb disposal or mining. Working in countries like Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan tests the professionalism and dedication of researchers every day. “We never put people deliberately into harm’s way,” says Sundip Chahal, chief operating officer at YouGov in Dubai. “No commission is worth doing that. But our people are in constant danger.”

“Some of the work we’ve done – on what drives conflict, or how to manage its resolution – is crucial”

Stefan Kaszubowski, YouGov

Countering the threats – which range from being targeted for kidnapping to being caught in a suicide bombing – is the fact that if someone thinks it’s worth conducting research in a location most of us would think of as “hostile”, it’s a safe bet that the findings are going to be important. For the people organising MR in these dangerous locations, that’s part of the appeal.

“Some of the work we’ve done – on what drives conflict, or how to manage its resolution – is crucial,” explains Stefan Kaszubowski, who runs YouGov’s business in Iraq. “And I feel really good about that.”

So how do you go about delivering critical insights into opinions in some of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones?

Boots on the ground
The first step is getting “in theatre”, as the army might put it. That usually starts with a client. For i to i research, which conducts studies in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was the military that came calling.

“We devised an evaluation framework to analyse the success of communications, and that’s been applied in a number of conflict countries since 1999,” says chief executive Claire Spencer. “We did work for NATO in Bosnia and evaluated what’s known as psychological operations. That involved specific communications that had been done around the clearing of landmines, for example.”

That work led on to engagements in Kosovo, where the agency’s techniques were refined and it developed a strong reputation for being able to canvass across ethnic and cultural boundaries – a huge advantage for a firm specialising in conflict countries.

YouGov’s introduction to Iraq was slightly different. In the immediate aftermath of the US/UK “arrival” (finding the neutral terminology is crucial in this kind of work), The Spectator magazine and Channel 4 asked the agency whether it could conduct a survey of Iraqis.

“Nadhim Zahawi [YouGov’s co-founder] is an Iraqi Kurd, so he was able to draw on his family connections,” says Kaszubowski. “We worked with universities and health centres initially – they were great places to find people who could act as field operatives. Using their knowledge and fieldwork, we interviewed about 1,000 people. It might not have been conducted using the most robust methodology, but it was a lot more than anyone else had done or was able to do at the time.”

That burst of activity meant the team gained a crucial foothold – although it was little more than that at first. “Even though there was really no money in that initial work, we did it because it was interesting – and because we thought no one else could do it,” explains Kaszubowski. “But we maintained that very small infrastructure we’d created, the people we’d trained in research in a very short time. We thought there might be more work down the line, perhaps some more media interest. But we never dreamed it would become the size it is today.”

Training camps
Building up from that small start is the next step. In many conflict countries, it’s either impractical, dangerous or methodologically unsound to ship in foreign researchers, so agencies and their subcontractors make arrangement for training field staff in the region.

UK research agency ORB conducts opinion polls in Somalia (as well as other locations including Iraq and Afghanistan). Managing director Johnny Heald explains: “We take people out of Mogadishu up to Djibouti and spend weeks training them on sampling and other research techniques. That’s an ongoing process.”

Many UK agencies will employ local subcontractors, partly because in some places only local operators get the necessary permissions to conduct fieldwork. In Iraq a well-established intellectual class makes it easier to find people capable of administering complex questionnaires and processing their findings – YouGov has several doctors in its team. And Chahal and Kaszubowski are clear that finding their own employees in-country makes a difference in a number of ways.

“If a client wants to work directly with our Iraqi team, it’s fine,” says Kaszubowski. “And because it’s all our people, there’s no disconnect between the client, the field force and the people who live and work in the communities we’re researching.”

So when YouGov started to see more commissions coming through, he took up residence in Iraq and started to ramp up the infrastructure. “We rented a compound, then we started to teach English up in Kurdistan as well as running training courses for both quant and qual research,” he explains.

Getting on with it
It’s worth operating in hostile locations for two main reasons. First, it’s important and fulfilling work. Second, it’s relatively well paid. But while the clients – typically NGOs, government agencies, the military and media – are prepared to reward companies with the brains and courage to operate in these regions, money is perhaps an even more important driver for the local operatives.

“Remember, this is a country where people dream about getting a government job, with good pay, a pension, security and benefits – things the private sector isn’t seen as offering,” says Kaszubowski. “We realised early on that keeping them on a full-time basis was a great way to enthuse talented Iraqis and get them committed to a private-sector job that they otherwise might be a bit negative about. They could see that we had a very clear long-term view of this business and that we could offer them stable jobs and incomes,” he adds. “That’s really paid huge dividends. I work with Iraqis who are really motivated by the work and by the opportunities we are giving them. We’d created prospects for them with our training and built up really strong relationships that bound us all together. I trust our staff much more than I would any security firm.”

Some of YouGov’s Iraqi moderators have overseen more than 300 focus groups now – the firm’s project director there has been with them since 2005 and has overseen more than 100 nationwide polls. Their loyalty is further cemented by support for their families if they’re injured or sick, full-time contracts and even flexible working arrangements – in part so the doctors working for the firm can continue to practise medicine.

No wonder Kaszubowski is at pains to point out there’s no difference between his agency and one anywhere else in the world. “One of the most helpful experiences for me in Iraq was being part of the start-up at YouGov in the UK,” he says. “Learning how to build a company, keeping knowledge within the organisation, looking after your people – those same lessons applied to Iraq.”

Crossing the wire
Heald, Chahal and Kaszubowski are relatively phlegmatic about the dangers they and their people face in the line of duty. But that doesn’t mean they’re complacent. “There are terrible moments,” says Heald. “You do everything you can to minimise the risk – so interviewers have to phone in with their supervisor at the end of every day, for example. But by the very nature of a random sample, you don’t know who’s behind the door you’re knocking on.”

The key is to be well informed. “If in our people’s judgement there’s any kind of security issue, we just wait it out,” says Kaszubowski. To do what we do professionally, we have to be part of broader networks, too. To get all the permissions for our work, we need contacts in the ISF [Iraqi security forces], in the government – we’re well connected. We don’t take unnecessary risks.”

That includes ensuring that clients are properly briefed and surveys well designed. YouGov’s Iraqi surveys are stripped right back to ensure its people aren’t wasting any time in the field. “It’s particularly important to make sure clients are focused on their objectives and getting to them quickly in a survey,” says Kaszubowski.

And if the worst happens, they’re all completely clear: they have a responsibility to their staff no matter how serious the incident. “We had some interviewers captured in Afghanistan earlier in the year – that’s the reality of what you’re dealing with,” says Heald. “And the solution there was very tribal – slaying of a goat to start negotiations, making the right representations to the tribal leaders and showing videos and documents to prove the research firm is an Afghan-owned business.”

But equally, the fieldworkers for these projects are usually locals who face many of the same dangers whether or not they’re carrying a clipboard or tape recorder. And given that most of them take their work very seriously, their supervisors are careful not to patronise them.

“Remember, they’re getting paid well,” says Heald. “When interviewers in Iraq were being kidnapped, we had no idea whether they were being targeted for the intelligence they were gathering or if it was just random. Either way, you stop work. But it was the interviewers who were putting on the pressure to start the survey again. They need the money, they’re the breadwinner. If you’re deprived of your income because someone in London is having an attack of conscience… well, it’s a tough call.”

Accentuate the positives
In other words, the risks are worth the result – for local people conducting research, for the agencies building up business in regions desperate for better policy solutions and for the clients using the insights to improve their response to conflict countries.

More importantly, as areas hit by conflict become stabilised – in part, hopefully, thanks to the insights delivered by MR – they start to need the skills and experience of researchers to bed in their development.

“In Iraq, you have over 20 million consumers, so it’s also natural that commercial organisations will want to conduct research,” Heald points out. “It was the same in the Soviet Union after it started to open up – the first companies in were tobacco firms and FMCG businesses. It’s a huge new market.”

That’s why YouGov’s biggest project in Iraq is a comprehensive retail census creating a wealth of information about every outlet in the country. “A lot of goods are coming across the borders without formal distribution arrangements,” explains Kaszubowski. “We want to help companies see not only where their goods are being sold, but how. What branding is there at point of sale? How much shelf space do they get? What’s the pricing policy?”

YouGov is looking for more companies to join this syndicated project right now – the fieldwork starts in October. “We’ll be walking every street in every city and conducting a 30-minute interview with the manager of every store – about their stock, their supply chain, their shop,” Kaszubowski adds. “We’ll have contact details for every mobile phone store, fashion outlet, supermarket, wholesaler, tobacconist… That’s very exciting.”

And it’s precisely the kind of work a research firm anywhere would be doing – which is just how Kaszubowski, and the Iraqis, like it.

‘In Somalia, there’s no rule of law’

?”In Somalia, there’s been no government for 20 years, and that means there’s no rule of law,” says ORB’s Johnny Heald. “So you can be shot dead and the perpetrator won’t be arrested because there’s no police.

“The reality of Mogadishu at the moment, where we poll 15 of the 16 districts, is that Al Shabab [a militant Islamic group that enforces Sharia law] is in control in most areas. So straight away, you have the issue of whether they’ll allow people in – and then you might have to cut deals and even pay bribes. “Around 50 to 60 per cent of the population are internally displaced, so you’re not just knocking on doors – you’re in tented encampments, people are living under sheets. To manage that, we set up 1,000 sampling points around the city so we can randomly select a household then someone within it.

“We do all our stuff in Mogadishu in a safe location, a hotel. A purist might quibble with the methodology. But there’s no other safe way to
do it”

Johnny Heald, ORB

“Mogadishu is actually quite a small city – around 600,000 strong – but a lot of people leave. They have a corridor out to the north-west, a road with a series of camps on it. When a new camp gets to a certain size, you can no longer afford to ignore it. If they start to side with Al Shabab, for example, or turn against the TFG [Transitional Federal Government], suddenly people sit up and take notice.

“But we found that people were frightened to give their opinions, particularly in a camp where there’s no privacy – you can’t close a door and know your conversation won’t be overheard. If we’re asking some pretty direct questions about Al Shabab, the TFG, Sheikh Sharif [its president] – are you going to be open when you have no idea who’s in the tent next door?

“So in the first survey we ever did, we asked respondents whether they wanted to be interviewed in a safe location. Over 80 per cent did. Now we do all our stuff in Mogadishu in a safe location, a hotel. A purist might quibble with the methodology. But there’s no other safe way to do it.”

Methodological challenges, creative solutions

?Normative data
One of the main problems in countries without a stable infrastructure is lack of normative data – even in a formerly highly organised state like Iraq.

“There was a census in 1997, and the annual updates have just been extrapolations,” says YouGov’s Stefan Kaszubowski. “And there’s been a war since then. The best thing we can do for our clients is to be transparent about it.

“But we look for creative ways to work around it,” he adds. “We use the distribution of food stamps, for example. Although the data isn’t perfect, you can get quite a lot of information from it.”

The value of qual
Arming an Afghan interviewer with questions about the Taliban’s policies might put them in jeopardy, and in some countries, research questionnaires are vetted by the authorities.

“That’s where qual comes in,” says ORB’s Johnny Heald. “In a focus group, people will eventually open up and start talking about things more freely. In Iraq, for example, most polls will show around 75 per cent confidence in the police service. No one can quite believe that – and sure enough, in a focus group, people will volunteer words like ‘corrupt’, ‘poorly trained’, ‘bribeable’. It’s a totally different picture.”

Sample bias
Security in these countries is the obvious challenge, but cultural norms can thwart MR methodology too. In many regions the status of women makes sampling their opinions incredibly difficult.

“It’s not so bad in Baghdad and the other cosmopolitan cities,” says Kaszubowski. “But it’s very difficult to recruit female interviewers from Anbar province. It’s just impossible for a male interviewer to knock on the door and survey a female respondent. So when we do manage to recruit women interviewers we really work hard to hang on to them.”