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The difficulties and importance of data collection in unstable locations

At ECA we use a multi-source approach for collecting cost of living data around the world, comprised of field research companies, expatriates on assignment with client companies and increasingly our own International Data Researchers (IDRs). Our IDR team consists of full-time researchers travelling throughout the world collecting a range of data and, having expanded over recent years, is now our main source of data. In the last year alone, our researchers have surveyed over 400 locations in over 180 different countries and overseas territories around the world. Our experienced IDR team collects objective, reliable data which helps us provide our clients with the most robust and up-to-date cost of living indices possible. As well as capturing price data for goods and services, our IDR team also provides the latest on-the-ground information to assist our Accommodation, Benefits, Country Profiles and Location Ratings teams, allowing them to deliver the best possible products to our clients.

As part of a recent data-collection trip, I visited two of the more challenging locations that we in the IDR team cover – Bangui in Central African Republic and Juba in South Sudan. Both these countries are considered high risk travel destinations, due to ongoing civil conflicts and fragile political landscapes. While travel to locations such as these requires careful risk assessments and extensive pre-trip planning, sending our own researchers can give invaluable insight into places where there is otherwise a lack of reliable information available. 

Usually one of the first steps when planning any trip is selecting a suitable hotel, which in Bangui was straightforward enough due to the very limited choice! Hotel Ledger Plaza remains the only international standard hotel in Bangui. Despite the challenging environment, the hotel can provide guests with basic comforts, a useable wi-fi connection and, most importantly, good security. At around USD 300 per night it is far from cheap though, and payment is only accepted in cash, meaning medium and long-term guests would need to carry extortionate amounts of cash into the country!

I had a pre-arranged driver and guide for my time in Bangui. In a location with such limited information available online, having local knowledge and insight about developments since our last research trip is crucial. Driving around Bangui, the first thing you notice is the significant UN peacekeeping operation, MINUSCA, which has been operating in the country since 2014. Initially their heavily armed vehicles patrolling the streets can be intimidating, but gradually I found their presence to be reassuring.

My first stop during data collection was Corail supermarket, the most popular choice for expatriates in the city. I was surprised by how well stocked it was. The large presence of UN staff and international humanitarian aid workers in Bangui means demand for imported groceries is high. However, expats must pay the price for their favourite products from home; for example, during my visit 100g of Nescafe Gold instant coffee cost XAF 9 500 (which works out to be well over GBP 12)! Often IDRs visit supermarkets on multiple days to better assess availability, and I found when I revisited Corail the following day that all the imported oranges that were in plentiful supply had already been snapped up! 

Although I found the availability of groceries in Bangui was generally quite good, the choice in other areas of our cost of living basket was significantly lacking, with very limited selections of suitable clothing, recreational goods and services. Even when items are available, obtaining prices in less developed locations can be a challenge. For example, almost all electrical items lacked a displayed price, meaning it was necessary to ask the cost of each item individually. Obtaining a price to send a 20g letter internationally is usually straightforward, but in Bangui it involved a 15-minute standoff in the post office as the lady insisted on weighing the physical letter before she was able to give me a price. Eventually after meeting the manager I was able to get the price for my theoretical 20g letter – which costs XAF 1 020 to send to the UK in case you’re interested!

The following week I arrived in Juba, South Sudan in what was my second trip to the world’s youngest country, having first visited back in 2013. Much to my relief, the arrivals terminal had been refurbished, which during my last visit resembled a large shed – this led to a smoother than expected passage into the country!

Driving around the streets of Juba, the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, UNMISS, wasn’t as visible as in Bangui. However, you didn’t have to look far for evidence of the heavy and widespread fighting that took hold of the city in July 2016 – many of the walls lining the main roads through the city were covered in bullet holes. Since my last visit to Juba, availability of imported products has improved. Phenicia Supermarket has significantly increased in size and is now the number-one choice for expatriates. The supermarket stocks a wide range of products in addition to groceries, including the latest iPhone! Phenicia increasingly has competition from a number of Chinese supermarkets which now also cater to the expatriate market, of which Lily’s Supermarket is the most popular. 

The South Sudanese economy has been volatile in recent years, with the weakening of the South Sudanese Pound (SSP) leading to high levels of inflation. During my visit in early March, the official exchange rate was around SSP 155 to the USD, but there was also a parallel market rate of around SSP 260-270 to the USD. Exchanging money directly on the parallel market remains illegal, although shops are free to accept USD and often choose to set the rate at the parallel market rate – meaning it is possible for expats to pay in USD and receive their change in SSP at the parallel market rate. 

One of the main challenges facing expats on assignment in Juba is the lack of opportunities for leisure and recreation during their free time. This is partly due to the lack of facilities and amenities available in the city, but also because of the precarious security situation, with most international organisations placing a 7.30pm curfew on their staff. To get around this, I was told by the manager of AFEX River Camp, which is an expatriate favourite for nightlife, that it is not uncommon for people to check-in for the weekend just so they don’t have to worry about returning home before the curfew! Such factors are taken into consideration when scoring Location Ratings for any given location, and despite noticeable improvements in many areas of expat life over the past few years, both Bangui and Juba unsurprisingly sit within our highest band of location allowance.

This is probably a fair reflection of my experiences in Bangui and Juba as a whole. Whilst it is clear that developments are being made in these locations, with goods more readily available and a greater level of safety than these two countries have seen in the recent past, it is still a difficult place to live as an expat. Therefore it is crucial that assignees and companies are thoroughly prepared for the experience of living and working in a location that is potentially unstable. 

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