Beyond the Numbers: Why Qualitative Research Matters

Researching how cash transfers impact communities in Sindh, Pakistan
Photo: Zubaida Metlo

Editor’s Note: REFANI’s Zvia Shwirtz recently sat down with Zubaida Metlo, our Pakistan-based qualitative researcher for the ongoing REFANI project. REFANI (Research on Food Assistance for Nutritional Impact) is a three-year research project aiming to strengthen the evidence base on the nutritional impact and cost-effectiveness of cash- and voucher-based food assistance programs. In this interview, Zvia and Zubaida discuss the importance of complementing quantitative research with qualitative research. The interview below is an adapted excerpt intended for a broad audience. If you are interested in reading the original interview in full, you may do so here.

Zvia Shwirtz (ZS): You work in Pakistan conducting research for the REFANI study. What is your role and experience working in the country?

Zubaida Metlo (ZM): Currently, I am the qualitative researcher for the REFANI-Pakistan study, working in collaboration between Action Against Hunger and ENN. Previously I worked for the Institute of Water Resources Engineering and Management Science of Mehran University in Pakistan, supporting young scholars and researchers in their field work. I have also worked with the World Bank in Pakistan, as well as conducted my own research on female farmers and access to water in Sindh.

ZS: What is the value of collecting qualitative data, as opposed to quantitative data?

ZM: Qualitative data is broad, non-statistical, exploratory, and descriptive. So while quantitative data is crucial for recording facts about a group of people such as ethnicity, occupation, or level of poverty, collecting qualitative data reveals insights about their opinions, hopes, and motivations. Combining these two kinds of data helps researchers untangle people’s complicated living circumstances and daily realities, as well as explore their ability to cope with challenging household dynamics – especially when economic and social conditions are bad.   

ZS: Why are you collecting qualitative data for the REFANI-Pakistan study?

ZM: Since 2013, Action Against Hunger and its partners have been implementing a program aimed at improving the nutritional status of women in Sindh. This program, known as the Women and Children/Infants Improved Nutrition in Sindh (WINS) program, is well-aligned with the REFANI-Pakistan study. REFANI research is looking at the nutritional status of women and children who only receive WINS educational programming, compared to those who receive cash or vouchers in addition to the education.

The qualitative study has two objectives. The first is to help interpret the quantitative findings on the impact of the different interventions on childhood nutrition status. I really focused on what the recipients chose to spend their cash or voucher on, and why.

The second objective is to investigate the existing social and economic structures in which the subjects of the study live – both in broader communities and in individual households. I tried to find out: who provides care for the family during difficult periods? Who makes decisions on child health and nutrition? Do they receive help from relatives? How do they generate an income? Since poverty is just one factor affecting child nutrition, I also dove deeper to find out the details about nutritional status, food security, health care, women’s empowerment, and household dynamics.

ZS: What kind of qualitative data are you collecting, and what valuable information will it reveal?

ZM: The qualitative data collected covers two separate time periods—during the cash distribution, and post-distribution. The data was collected from two groups—poor and very poor households, and mothers with and without malnourished children.

We collected all of the data through focus group discussions and interviews. We also gathered 114 village profiles which helped establish the social, cultural, and economic context in which the study was set. In addition to the local population and cash/voucher recipients, we spoke with Action Against Hunger staff, WINS staff, REFANI field officers, NGO staff based in the community, and a wide range of people who work in health, education, and public administration in Pakistan. Talking to so many people allowed us to get a wider, deeper picture of how the community as a whole feels about the intervention.

Since we had multiple rounds of data collection for each type of interview, at different time periods, we were able to take note of changes in the lives of the recipients as the intervention continued, and after it ended. This month we’re collecting the last round of qualitative data which will show us how households have managed in the six months since the intervention has ended.

ZS: How may the qualitative data fill some of the evidence gaps that exist on the nutritional impact of cash-and-voucher based food assistance?

ZM: There is great value in collecting qualitative data for the REFANI-Pakistan study. It will bolster the quantitative data by filling in some of the evidence gaps identified in the REFANI Literature Review. Specifically, I believe we can begin to answer some questions we have about the community and make informed inferences on the current nutritional situation. If we know how they view child health, what they spend their money on, and what motivates them to act, then we might be able to help them better in the future.

ZS: Do you think that qualitative data and analysis on cash interventions could inform future policies or programs?

ZM: Yes! That is the overall aim of the REFANI project, to produce robust evidence which can advise and influence key decision makers in policy and practice.

ZS: Can you share any interesting results from the preliminary analysis of the data?

ZM: I am currently in the process of analyzing the data, and I still have one more round of data collection. However, I can say that the results will be very interesting. Stay tuned!

This material has been funded by UK aid from the UK government, and co-financed through humanitarian aid from the European Commission; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies, or the official opinion of the European Union.

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About Zvia Shwirtz

Action Against Hunger logo

Zvia manages communications and research uptake for REFANI, a three-year research project focused on the nutritional impact and cost-effectiveness of cash- and voucher-based food assistance programs.