I appreciate David Mould’s understanding of what he doesn’t know and of how complex Madagascar’s social and cultural landscape is, but his article just highlights everything that is wrong with the way development works (“Social science research in Madagascar: it’s a jungle”, Features, 30 June).
It isn’t his fault, but why was a research team with zero previous experience in Madagascar selected to design and implement a sociocultural determinants study there? As he says, reliable data collection is built on trust. To do that in Madagascar, you have to speak the language and stick around long enough to show people you have their best interests at heart. People still have very present emotional responses to foreigners, based on the history of colonialism, that prevent them from being open about all kinds of things, but especially about their traditional practices and allegiances – they don’t want to be judged or misunderstood and they’ve probably experienced both, from foreigners or from the Malagasy elite.
Of course Gasys aren’t going to discuss sensitive and complex topics such as foko (tribal/ethnic group affiliation) and razana (ancestors) with a bunch of random Vazaha using clumsily worded interview questions. It is very easy in Madagascar to hit sensitive topics the wrong way. For example, the question “Where are the tombs of your ancestors?” was probably taken out to try to avoid unintentionally giving offence to interviewees. There’s just no way to sensitively and accurately get that information, within the constraints of the study.