Over the years, Edison has built up a substantial portfolio of clients and projects in the Middle East, conducting market, media and political research in countries such as Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and others. By far, the most challenging work we do is in Iraq–not only do the realities of the country make survey work “interesting,” but also the very act of opinion research is somewhat of a novelty to the majority of the Iraqi people. Our Iraq market and opinion research projects are amongst the most challenging–and rewarding–work we do here at Edison.
Conducting research in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is a collaborative effort between the researchers at Edison and a handful of wonderful local partners with whom we have collaborated over the years. Since the challenges of research in Iraq are unique, we thought we’d give you an equally unique perspective on just how market research gets done in Iraq, post-Saddam. Our partner in the field, IIACSS, was started by Dr. Munqith M. Dagher several years ago to address those challenges, and we had the distinct pleasure to sit down with him and ask him why–and how–he conducts research in one of the world’s most challenging environments:
Tell us something about IIACSS and its history? Why did you start the company?
IIACSS was established in 2003 after the start of the war. I and two of my colleagues noticed that there was no scientific way to identify and transmit the real Iraqi voice. Actually, the idea came to my mind during the first week of April 2003 while I, as many Iraqis during those days, was sitting in my house in Baghdad watching and hearing the sounds of explosions everywhere from the US forces’ attacks on Iraq. I had to show my family how to calm themselves, especially because I have two young daughters in addition to my two older sons. The best way for me to show them that I was not afraid was to continue practicing some of my old habits, like reading. So, I went to my small library and tried to find some books that I hadn’t yet had the chance to read. One of these books was Dr. Gallup’s book on public opinion surveys. Suddenly, I realized that this could be the best way to bring the voice of real Iraqis to the world.
As I was listening to different radio stations news about Iraq, I realized that those who were giving their opinions about what was going on were either representatives of the Coalition forces, or Iraqi exiles who had come in with the invasion. While all claimed that they were representing the Iraqi voice, I knew that none actually were representing the average Iraqis. To bring my idea to life, I contacted my two partners, who were teaching in Baghdad University with me, and informed them that I wanted to conduct a public opinion survey.
I designed a very short questionnaire, drew a sample of 1200 Iraqis living in different areas of Baghdad, used ten of my students who volunteered to do the field work as well as some of my family to work as data entry workers. I and my two partners sold our cars and used the money to cover some expenses, such as buying small electric generator. We were successful, and as a result I can claim that I and my team have done the first-ever Iraqi public opinion survey, which we published at the end of May 2003.
Did public opinion polling exist in Iraq prior to 2003?
Scientific public opinion polling did not exist in Iraq before 2003. When I told my partners that I wanted to conduct a public opinion survey, their first reaction was to ask me what did I even mean by “public opinion survey,” as this was a new term even for those who were in academia in Iraq. After I explained to them, my colleagues told me that I was crazy to even think that this could be done in Iraq during the turmoil surrounding the war. When they saw my insistence, they asked me how we could implement such an idea–who would design the questionnaire and the sample, who would do the field work, who would enter the data, and finally who would analyze and report these results. Though I had an answer for each of these questions, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to carry out the survey until I tried!
Is all research in Iraq conducted through in-person interviews? What are the prospects for research conducted by phone or Internet in Iraq in the future?
Yes, all research in Iraq conducted through face to face interviews. Recently, I have noticed that some international polling companies claiming that they are doing some telephone or internet research, but I strongly doubt that this can be scientific research for number of reasons. First, the penetration rate of land phones in Iraq is less than 20%, and in the rural areas it could be 0%. The penetration rate of Internet is less than 10%. The second important reason is that due to the current unstable security situation and the lack of trust, no one will answer any question by telephone or Internet because the respondent cannot be sure of who is on the other side of the line, and what the interviewer will do with the information that the respondent is revealing. This is very important factor, especially when we ask sensitive questions. That’s why we send our interviewers, who should be from the same area that they are interviewing, with formal IDs and formal letters from different authorities to show that we are a legal, trusted firm in order to gain respondents’ trust.
What are the biggest challenges IIACSS faces conducting survey research in Iraq? How safe is it for your staff conducting research in Iraq?
The first big challenge is the security situation. On June 2006, we lost four interviewers and found three of them beheaded. We have still not found the other one. Many of my interviewers have been captured and kidnapped by different militia groups, and some of them have been torched because these groups have suspicions that we were helping their enemies or competitors. Due to the lack of a polling culture in Iraq, there are always serious suspicious about the aims and the clients who are using the results of these polls. We have been accused by some militias as helping the Americans against Iraqis, while at the same time we have also been accused by some government authorities as helping the terrorists when we publish the results of polls that show people are not satisfied with what is going on Iraq. Many household masters and some businessmen attacked our interviewers because they thought that we were collecting information about their properties and incomes so we could target them later by delivering this information to some militias or gangs. I could relate many incidents that happened both to my teams and to me personally, but for the safety of my workers I could not reveal all these incidents. One day I’ll write a book!
Another big challenge is the lack of reliable, updated population information that could be used as a sample frame. To the best of my knowledge, my company is the only private company that has access to the last official Iraqi census (1997). After visiting about one million Iraqi households and doing about 250 different nationwide polls, we were able to update our census database. Nevertheless, we still believe that it is not perfect but it is the best available under current circumstances.
The final big challenge over the past few years was the increase in “virtual” polling companies that claim they are working in Iraq. These are foreign companies which exist on the internet only and were mostly established by some officials who were working with the multinational forces and have good access to the potential clients. However, these have no real existence on the ground in Iraq. They get contracts and hire inexperienced people to carry out the field work. Because most of the clients can not check on the field work, they simply accept the results that they get as “public Iraqi opinions.” I have discovered many frauds during the last three years which unfortunately affected some very large clients because they were unable to verify the work conducted.
As you may know, in the United States there is a massive amount of pre-election polling being conducted and released before national elections. What is the Iraqi public’s appetite for pre-election polling in Iraq and how much is actually being conducted and released?
My company has done a lot of pre-election polls for different clients, but the results have not published. I think they have been used to identify and evaluate the election behavior of Iraqi voters, and also to educate different Iraqi political parties. Iraqi political parties, unfortunately, have yet to really grasp the importance of these polls, which is why all the clients for whom I have conducted pre-election polling have been international clients.
It is not easy to get honest Iraqi opinions about the elections. Respondents in many cases were afraid of giving their actual opinion because they assumed that this information might go to the other side, which could put them in danger due to their voting intention.
Are the Iraqi people skeptical of polling or do they generally trust the results. Are Iraqi’s generally forthcoming with pollsters or are they reluctant to express their opinions?
Again, it is not easy to get frank Iraqi opinions for different reasons, mainly due to lack of trust and lack of security. During the last six years, we have become very experienced in dealing with these concerns by using different techniques to give respondents more trust in our work, and to ensure them that nothing of their opinions will be used against them. With our credibility, combined with using the right wording and the right interviewers, we have managed to be very effective–but there can never be a 100% guarantee that all opinions have been expressed honestly.
What is the next major Iraqi election and what are IIACSS plans for polling it if any?
The next election will be for the national representatives in the Iraqi parliament on January, 2010. IIACSS has planned to introduce a new product which has not been used in any previous Iraqi election, for which we will need full technical cooperation with internationally experienced polling firms, and a lot of training and preparation. The only concern that I have is that Iraqi authorities may prevent us from conducting such polling activity. For other pre-election polling activity, I am now trying to find potential clients to purchase this research and hope to soon secure agreements.
What kind of information are your corporate clients most interested in and what types of research are you performing for them?
During the last six years, most of my clients were interested in political and macro-economic surveys. There were few firms, including Edison Research, who were interested in conducting market research. During the last six months, I have noticed that more and more clients are contacting me to do some other types of media and market research. As the pioneer Iraqi polling company, I and my colleagues are planning to introduce many new products to our current research portfolio. We were the first and the only Iraqi company to offer a continuous, bi-monthly nationally representative Omnibus survey, which we debuted in October 2008. Qualitative research is also important for us, and IIACSS is proud to be one of few Iraqi companies to providing this critical research. We have six experienced male and female moderators, and four locations to do focus groups covering the entire country. Our qualitative research team has trained extensively inside and outside Iraq and has done more than 200 different groups to different international clients.
IIACSS is also proud of conducting different kind of market research that could not be found out of IIACSS, including brand image testing, media consumption and behavior, product testing, activities monitoring and evaluation, mystery shopping, media campaign awareness, media coverage and more.
Thank you, Dr. Dagher, for sharing this with Edison’s readers!