Ratnayake, Aneeka

School of Arts & Sciences - Public Health Studies

BA

Guinea

Guinea (Conakry)-Prospecting For Nutrition? How Natural Resource Extraction Impacts Food Choices in Marginalized Communities

While resource riches line the African continent, this has done little to prevent childhood malnutrition. Indeed, child nutrition indicators may be worse in mining-dependent communities. This project will investigate the food choices driving this disjoint in gold-mining areas in northern Guinea. After engaging a set of local stakeholders to finalize the research strategy and ensure relevance, we will use a mixed-methods approach to study the diverse drivers of food choice for women miners and their partners (particularly mothers of young children), food vendors, and market sellers in mining-dependent communities. We will do so via a cross-sectional household survey, a vendor survey, market surveys, semi-structured interviews including observation periods, a Q methodology study, and a telephone survey of relatives in miners' villages of origin. Through all methods, we will consider economic, social, geographic, cultural, and gender-related factors. We will then use the results to develop an SBCC strategy and recommend policy options for improving nutrition in similar marginal communities. The research will shed light on how food choices change amid the transition from agricultural to resource-extraction livelihoods. About 100 million people worldwide depend on artisanal mining for their livelihoods, thus our results will be of considerable policy and programmatic relevance.

PI Mentor: Peter Winch

My time in Guinea has given me the opportunity to experience diverse areas associated with conducting research abroad. The project I was a part of was put in place as a collaboration between Helen Keller International (HKI), JHU, and Université Julius Nyerere, which is a Guinean university located in Kankan. Through this collaboration, I was able to learn about how NGOs function in country, capacity building among students in a project’s host country, and data collection in rural communities. In this reflection, I will think critically about the three aforementioned components, and how they are linked to broader global health concepts, as well as my own personal goals.

HKI’s office in Kankan, a large city in northern Guinea, is extremely small. It consists of an administrator, a doctor, an office assistant, and a driver. It was interesting to see the advantages and disadvantages of a small staff when conducting multiple large scale projects. From a budgetary perspective, this may initially seem advantageous, as few permanent salaries have to be paid; however, this then requires hiring and training external coordinators, supervisors, and data collectors. Moreover, because for this study they chose to partner with the local university, and hire supervisors and data collectors from their pool of sociology students, they run the risk of not having the same students available for future projects, meaning they would need time and resources to train a different cohort. This ties into larger management questions, notably how best to run an NGO’s in country offices. As someone very interested in public health budgetary management, it was informative to see the drawbacks to a strategy that may seem fiscally responsible on paper. 

Additionally, this experience gave me insights into training and capacity building amongst students not previously exposed to data collection in the realm of nutrition. It was interesting to see cultural norms around gender play out in the classroom, as the women were far less vocal, despite being just as successful in their post-assessment. From a global health perspective this is an important consideration, as in projects with female respondents, it is often easier to have a female interviewer, especially if sensitive topics will be discussed. Hence, encouraging the women to speak and participate was crucial during training, in order to ensure our project’s success. On a personal level, it was important to me to see them succeed, as in speaking to them separately, it was clear that education was extremely important to them and they were extremely ambitious.

Finally, once training was completed and we began data collection, I was really able to see the many moving parts of the project come together. Being in the field was a very different experience to anything in-office. This experience especially made me think about designing methods for global health data collection, as it was clear that many of our assumptions prior to collection did not hold true in the field. For example, while our methods assumed the area could be divided into even quadrants, we sometimes had to readjust in order to make the same random sampling true in the space we were in. On a personal level, while I had always considered myself both flexible and a problem solver, the conditions of the field really tested this. This was especially true due to the fact that the field supervisor was not agreeable to suggested changes, and did not like deviating from what we had conceived in the office. However after extensive communication, we were able to resolve this, and achieve a successful data collection. 

Overall, working in Guinea has taught me a lot about how global health projects evolve from their conception to their execution. I have seen how the size and organization of NGOs affect their projects’ outcomes, the challenges in capacity building, and the unpredictability of field research. However, though this experience threw many challenges my way, I now feel better equipped to handle the uncertainties associated with global health research. 

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October 2021

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