Nadiatu Issaka joined ORVI’s team in June 2023 as our inaugural Summer Research Fellow. We sat down with Nadiatu at the end of the summer to learn more about her research, her interests in weightlifting and coding, and her motivation for building a better future in Appalachia, in Ghana, and beyond.
Where are you going to school, and what are you studying? Why did you decide to study this?
I’m currently at West Virginia University pursuing a Ph.D. in natural resource economics. I decided to pursue this program because, apart from the fact that it trains me in economic theory, I also learn how to analyze policies, which is the main thing I’ll be doing when I leave school.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I lift weights often. If I’m not in class, if I don’t have assignments to do, I’ll just hit the gym and start lifting. Recently, I’ve also started playing around with codes in R to see what I can do beyond the usual stuff we’re doing in class—issues in causality, modeling, regression, etc.
What’s something you’re proud of?
I’m proud to be getting a Ph.D. in natural resource economics. I’ve always wanted to do policy stuff that impacts the lives of people—the people I care about, those who aren’t in a position to speak for themselves. That’s one way that I can speak for people, when I’m in a position to analyze policy, to make criticisms and recommendations on how these policies can be changed to improve the lives of people.
What have you been working on at ORVI?
The main focus, when I started, was looking at issues on labor standards, labor language, and the volume and kinds of contracts that were given before and after the implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. We wanted to establish a baseline before the implementation so that, as the years go by and projects are implemented, we can compare them to the baseline to see what has changed over time.
First, we focused on contracts for reclaiming abandoned mine lands (AMLs). I did a baseline analysis for Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, looking at the contracts they’d given from 2020 to 2022 and the contractors who received them. We realized that some contractors had won a number of contracts through what was obviously a very opaque process, because these contractors were often the lowest bidders, and as long as they didn’t have issues with the state, they were definitely going to get those contracts.
We were also interested in the solicitation documents. We wanted to see the language and the labor standards before and after implementation of the bill. We did a comparison across the four states to try to understand how the labor standards have changed after the implementation of the contract, so we have a baseline for that too. As the years go by, we will keep monitoring to see if anything is changing in how these labor standards are being implemented, and especially how they are being monitored. We realized that most of these documents have stated the policies that these contractors should follow, but as to what happens if they didn’t follow these policies, we were not seeing those in the document. We thought that if the documents were clear on the actions that would follow if contractors didn’t follow the guidelines that were given, it would make them abide more, especially by the labor standards, which we are very concerned about.
We did similar research on labor standards for plugging orphaned oil and gas wells, but we didn’t go into as much detail because it was more difficult to get the data without submitting FOIA requests.
What’s the best way to ensure protections for workers in AML and well plugging work?
Monitoring! States should be keen on monitoring. Apart from telling contractors to do this or that and follow the policies, there should also be in place mechanisms to ensure that contractors are reporting weekly or monthly during the duration of the contract. It shouldn’t be that states are waiting until contractors finish the contract to see what they did or what they didn’t do.
States should also make it clear what the repercussions are if contractors don’t follow these policies. If contractors know that their contracts could be terminated in the middle for not complying, they’re definitely going to be complying with labor standards. If they know they’re being monitored, they’re being followed, and they know the repercussions of not following labor policies, they’ll be more likely to do things right.
What do you find most interesting about your work with ORVI?
I’ve been doing academic research on development issues like poverty and nutrition since about 2011, but we all know how academic research works. You make policy recommendations, but sometimes it doesn’t really go anywhere.
I was super excited to work on projects that really impact the lives of people. It’s not like the research we do in school. Here you analyze real issues, you analyze real policies, and then your analysis and recommendations are presented to policymakers and individuals who are affected by these policies. It changes the way these policies are made in the future, and the lives of people, also. I’m so excited about it because that’s the broad objective of all the research we do—to directly impact the lives of people.
Why do you feel your work at ORVI is important to building a better future in the Ohio River Valley?
We often talk about issues of policy analysis through the lens of data. Data can help us say if a policy is really achieving its goals or not, or if we should change anything with the policy. The data we’ve collected and analyzed this summer is going to tell us how well the policies that we’re monitoring are doing and then what needs to be changed to improve the lives of people in Appalachia.
What will you take away from your time with ORVI?
My big takeaway is teamwork. ORVI has a number of researchers and each of them is focused on specific issues, everyone is doing something quite different, but they all come together toward the larger goals of the organization. I see how team members help each other out with data, with resources, and with contacts to make the work easier. It’s fulfilling to see that everyone is trying to achieve their goals, but they’re still available to help each other and the organization.
As this summer comes to a close, what are your next steps/goals?
I still have a number of years in my Ph.D. program, so I’m back to school in the fall. Something that has changed about the way I see research in school is that, before now, I came to the internship with some research ideas in mind, but after this summer, I think I’m redirecting my research interest and focus, at least in the short run, to something else. I really want to understand, within an academic context, how the issues I saw at ORVI would work differently if I were to do the same analysis within an academic context. I’m planning to do some of this research for my term papers. To see if the kind of research we do within an academic setting produces the same results as analysis done by NGOs. I actually hear people saying that academic research is not policy-oriented. People feel that we do a lot of manipulation, when it comes to academic research, that does not necessarily project the true state of affairs on the ground. I’m going to mirror what we did at ORVI in an academic context and see how it plays out.
On the AML projects, I want to look at wages and general life standards of employees. I would have to come up with metrics to measure life standards, definitely. But then I want to see if all these projects going on directly affect the lives of the people living in Appalachia. I want to be sure it’s not just a few contractors getting all this money and then the populace isn’t benefiting from all these projects.
I want to add that I feel very privileged to work with ORVI over the summer. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve come to understand issues that I had no knowledge of, like the IIJA. I’ve never worked with contracts or anything of that sort. It’s been an eye-opener for me. It’s particularly been interesting because the issues I’ve seen here are issues that also occur in my home country, so now I have a better idea of how these issues can be handled, so when I go back to my country, I can make input to how these issues should be addressed to make life better for all of us.