Portrait of Pakistan

A survey of Pakistan, conducted in the face of serious obstacles, puts numbers to rural realities.

An enumerator and respondent discuss a survey question.

An enumerator and respondent discuss a survey question.

See sidebar featuring interviews with survey enumerators.

Social and economic data are notoriously sparse in developing countries, and the process of conducting the new Pakistan Rural Household Panel Survey illustrates one of the reasons why. The survey enumerators faced not only monsoons, mountainous terrain, and temperatures exceeding 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), but also security risks and the challenge of accurately completing a long and at times complex questionnaire.

The survey also shows, though, why such a vigorous effort, involving multiple partners and painstakingly carried out, is worthwhile: it can produce a gold mine of data for policymakers.

The survey was carried out by the Pakistan Strategy Support Program (PSSP), a policy analysis and capacity-strengthening program, in which IFPRI is a partner, that provides support to Pakistan’s government as a way to contribute to pro-poor economic growth and improved food security.

Conducted in three rounds between 2012 and 2014, the survey focused on a sample of rural households from three provinces: Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). Two other rounds surveyed a subsample of farm households. Enumerators collected massive amounts of detailed data on everything from sources of income, assets and savings, loans and credit, to consumption and nutrition, education levels, migration, aspirations, participation in social safety nets, school facilities, and local prices. The data are now available online for use by other researchers.

“The information collected through these surveys is crucial for researchers to investigate the economic problems of the country,” says Hina Nazli, a research fellow in the PSSP.

Some Troubling Findings

Many of the findings, described in two working papers, highlight the deprivation that defines life for people in rural Pakistan. The data show that Pakistan’s population is relatively young, more than half of the population is illiterate, school enrollment is extremely low in some regions, households spend three-quarters of their budget on food and housing, access to sanitation facilities is low, and most households have no means of coping with negative shocks such as natural disasters. (See infographic "Pakistan: The Young and the Restless".)

The findings are concerning, says Sohail Malik, chairman of the firm Innovative Development Strategies (IDS), which managed many aspects of the survey. “It’s a very volatile situation,” he says. “The need to have appropriately targeted social protection interventions in place is huge for this country.”

Team Effort

Besides producing high-quality data, the surveys helped train dozens of recent university graduates, giving them valuable grass-roots experience. Each round of data collection relied on the efforts of 150 enumerators. A team of one male and one female enumerator would visit each household, with the male enumerator interviewing the men in the household and the female speaking to the women (see interviews with two enumerators below).

Arshad Khurshid of IDS, who was heavily involved in managing the data, also led the rigorous training of enumerators. Part of the challenge, he says, was teaching them how to build trust with respondents and keep them interested in the long questionnaire. “We talked about each question and how to ask it, as well as how to handle it if a respondent refuses answer the question,” says Khurshid.

By giving an accurate picture of conditions in rural Pakistan, says Malik, the survey should help clarify priorities as Pakistan’s policymakers carry out development plans in the coming years: “I believe that there is no other way than through the generation of this kind of information to highlight to the world what’s happening so that something can be done in terms of policy change and international attention.”

Photo credit: A. Khurshid

For more information about this topic:

  • Explore the data set for the Pakistan Rural Household Panel Survey.



"An Urge to Continue This Work": Perspectives from Two Enumerators

Dozens of enumerators traversed rural Pakistan to gather data from households for the Pakistan Rural Household Panel Survey. The enumerators worked in teams of one male and one female, with the male enumerator interviewing the men in the household and the female speaking to the women. Here two enumerators describe their experiences.

Mohammad Hafeez started working with Innovative Development Strategies (IDS) as a field enumerator in the Sargodha and Faisalabad districts and eventually became a team supervisor.

Why did you sign up for this work?

In 2011, after obtaining a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the Agriculture University Faisalabad, I was looking for a job. Through a friend, I found out that IDS was hiring fresh graduates for their upcoming wheat farmers’ survey in Punjab. So far I have worked on about 10 surveys with IDS. Though it is tough, I enjoy this work a lot. It gives me opportunity to learn about real-life issues by interacting with people from different social classes, backgrounds, and cultures.

What were some of the challenges you faced in the field?

Security was the real challenge. Although my team did not have any bad experiences related to security, other teams working in sensitive areas were confined in their hotel for a few days and questioned by the intelligence agencies.

Weather conditions were also a big challenge. Three rounds of the survey were conducted in May and June when temperatures reached as high as 50 degrees Celsius and rural households faced 18 hours per day of power outages. In such a situation, it was difficult for us to charge our cell phones and keep in touch with our supervisors, monitors, and the team in Islamabad. In some areas heavy rains restricted our mobility and it was difficult to reach the households. Poor road conditions, lack of transport, and long distances to walk also restricted our mobility, and the pace of the survey got slow.

The influence of powerful people prevails in rural areas. In some areas landlords and local influential people tried to force the survey teams to interview their relatives or friends, and in some areas influential people did not allow the households in their village to be interviewed.

The length of the questionnaire was a big challenge. Although we provided Rs. 500 as compensation to the respondents, it was very difficult for them to spend three hours with us.

Another challenge was to collect information in isolation with the respondent. In the culture of rural Pakistan, all the people want to be heard. Whenever a survey takes place, people gather and start giving their opinions about anything, not necessarily related to survey. It was a big challenge for us to keep our respondent away from other people and get unbiased responses. We are thankful to the trainers, who taught us how to handle such a situation.

Finally, in Pakistan, where literacy is extremely low, people do not keep records of revenues or expenditures that they make for their businesses. It was very difficult for us to collect information on input costs for agriculture production or any nonfarm business activity.

How did the respondents react to you and to the questionnaire?

In general, households were very friendly. Some of the respondents, especially in Sindh, were very happy to be selected. This may be due to the compensation of Rs. 500 per household that we gave to respondents. For some households, this amount matters a lot. They were ready to give up one day of work for Rs 500. However, because of the length of the questionnaire, it was difficult for us to keep the respondent focused on the questions. Sometimes respondents would say, “Write whatever you want.” We had to stop the interview and make another visit to the household to complete the questionnaire. The success rate was not 100 percent; some households refused to give an interview in the second visit. Almost all the respondents were keen to see some direct benefits from the information they provided. They got frustrated when no development work was seen during the course of our survey.

Why do you see this work as important?

Data is the most important component in designing a policy. The analysis of data guides formulation of actionable and implementable policies. In addition, this survey gave us exposure. We learned techniques for conducting surveys. We also learned how variables of interest can be constructed by using different questions. I wish for fruitful results from our efforts in terms of successful implementation of policies.


Huda Farooq worked in the Bahawalnagar district and was involved in three surveys with IDS. In round 2 she became the part of the training team.

Why did you sign up for this work?

Initially I signed up for this work to satisfy my desire to do something new. Later it became an urge to continue this work. Research work based on field experiences was one of the most demanding challenges, as I had to face different people with different mindsets to ask the same questions and get the same required information.

What were some of the challenges you faced in the field?

Handling families’ concerns because of security issues was the biggest challenge. Among other challenges, conservative family setups, privacy, rigid and noncooperative attitudes, and sometimes extremely friendly attitudes, where females wanted to share their family issues, also raised hurdles in the smooth running of field survey.

How did the respondents react to you and to the questionnaire?

Eighty percent of people responded well and welcomed us in all ways. A few were reluctant to answer the questionnaire, especially with regard to sensitive issues like home violence, diseases, and medical history. Some people showed interest at the start, but after realizing the length of the questionnaire they became restless; not everyone is willing to devote hours to the answer session. In one or two cases, when I went to the respondents in the second year to complete round 2 of the panel study, they responded, “Things don’t change in a year; you can write the same answers as last year. Why ask again?”

Why do you see this work as important?

This work is really important for regional-level policies and to figure out the root causes of various problems.


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