What do people care about?

I love knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but as I embark on this five-year journey otherwise known as grad school, one thing I don’t want to do is get stuck inside, both literally and figuratively. Literally, I don’t want to see the sky for only 20 minutes a day on the walk to and from the car, and figuratively (and more importantly), I don’t want to get stuck in a world where only other academics or econ-y types find my work interesting/palatable/intelligible. This has been on my mind a lot recently as I have been trying to home in on a specific research question for my first major research project/paper (which I will hereafter refer to as a field paper). I can think of lots of research questions, but certainly not all of equal pertinence to the lives of ordinary people. Which got me thinking, what would be of most pertinence? I am not a doctor, I am not a teacher (yet, anyway), I am not a civil engineer…there are many things I can’t do to improve people’s lives. So what can I do? Well, hopefully (and this is the goal anyway, I think), I will be able to provide some small insight or suggestion to help solve problems people care about.  So what do people care about?

Since Uganda is mostly on my mind, I remembered a recent Afrobarometer survey asked exactly this question. Ok, not exactly. The exact question was, “What are the most important problems facing this country that the government should address?” The answers? (according to % of people who listed this concern first)

Poverty/Destitution: 43%

Unemployment: 28%

Health: 27%

Food shortage: 20%

Infrastructure/Roads: 20%

Seems pretty obvious in retrospect. But what wasn’t in the top 5? Democracy/Political Rights (3%), Orphans (2%), Political Instability/Ethnic Tensions (2%), International War (0%), AIDS (5%), and Inequality (2%), among others. Less obvious now, right? This is not to say that no one cares about these things, just that they are not the most important things for most people. Of course these things are also related to the above “most important problems”, and it could be that democracy (or something else) will solve all of these problems (I am skeptical though). Still, I think it’s always good to keep in mind what people are struggling with on a daily basis even while trying to figure out what’s up with democratic peace (for example).

Now, back to that field paper…

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