Somalia, one of the poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, has been racked by decades of civil war and political upheaval. In addition, four consecutive seasons of low rainfall between April 2016 and December 2017 caused severe droughts across the country, exacerbating food insecurity for 6.2 million Somalis, more than a third of the population. More than one million have left their homes fleeing ongoing conflict and violence from armed non-state actors.
But while international aid groups and humanitarian workers knew the scale of need in Somalia was huge, just how huge remained unknown. Since no national census has been undertaken in the country since 1987, data were almost nonexistent on everything from where poverty was worst, to how it manifested, to what Somalis could do to survive unrelenting shocks to their livelihoods, their ability to feed their children, and their personal safety.
To make matters more challenging, the Somali government is carrying massive debt. But in order to seek debt relief through international financing mechanisms, it needed poverty statistics based on reliable data.
“There had been no poverty estimate or population census in Somalia since the 1991 government overthrow,” said Utz Pape, a senior economist in the World Bank’s Poverty and Equity Global Practice and team leader of the Somali High Frequency Survey project.
“There was a situation of total data deprivation since the 1980s. And to even seek debt relief, they had to produce a poverty reduction strategy paper. That’s why we went to work there and why we really pushed for it.”
Household surveys, in which researchers ask a detailed series of questions and make observations on a representative sample of all households in a population, are an essential tool for developing strategies to reduce poverty. But in Somalia, World Bank economists had to come up with an entirely new way of implementing such a survey to reap meaningful results.
To overcome the lack of census data, normally used to devise a statistically random survey sampling, World Bank researchers leveraged satellite imagery to partition the entire country into relatively equal population sectors.
To account for large populations of nomads who had never been included in household surveys before, and to include the voices of displaced peoples, surveyors fanned out over areas of the country that had been thought inaccessible.
To address security concerns that made it difficult for surveyors to question families for long periods of time, the team had to find a way to get in and out of each household fast. Typically, surveyors go through a comprehensive list of as many as 600 items in households, collecting information on how much families spend and consume of everything from rice to flour to soap. Completing the painstaking questionnaires can take hours.
In Somalia the team developed a new methodology that allowed them to ask fewer questions of each family but still compile statistically legitimate data in 45 to 60 minutes.
Finally, to bring the voices and faces of the Somali people to life for the government, humanitarian and development partners, media and academics, the World Bank team collected short video testimonials from a broad range of Somalis and published them with the report.
Surveyors started with a pilot project in Mogadishu, the Somalia capital, testing the new methodology and ensuring it would reap credible data. Then they slowly expanded geographic coverage, first in the spring of 2016, and in a second phase from November 2017 to January 2018. The efforts were dubbed the Somali High Frequency Survey (SFHS) and were implemented in close collaboration with the Somali statistical authorities.
“What you realize is that it was a quite risky undertaking and we couldn’t solve it using traditional methods,” Pape said. “Working for the World Bank, we were allowed to innovate, to come up with new methodologies, a new approach.”
“One of the critical things we need to be able to do is to monitor poverty on a much more frequent basis in Somalia and elsewhere,” said Pape. At the heart of the effort, he continued, was the ability to innovate.