Bridging the divide

Girls carry water on their heads while walking up a hill.

Bridging the divide

Two newly hired professors bring expertise in development economics to solving global challenges

By Christopher Hann

Photo by Aude Guerrucci

Pascaline Dupas’ first job in research was, in her words, “at the very bottom of the pecking order.” She’d traveled to Kenya to work for a year as a field research assistant to Michael Kremer, a pioneer in development economics. Her first task was to help measure parasite levels in Kenyan children, in part by examining their stool samples. It fell to Dupas to label those samples. “I put their poop in a plastic jar,” she said. “We needed to know whose poop was whose. I learned so much from this.”

For Dupas, the experience proved inspiring. Her year in Kenya bolstered her desire to alleviate poverty globally, and she returned home convinced that through research she could help devise solutions to the many challenges facing the world’s poorest people. After earning a Ph.D. at the Paris School of Economics, she embarked on such research, focused primarily on issues of health and education in Africa, and over the ensuing two decades has emerged as a leader in the field of development economics.

Seema Jayachandran tells a similar tale. Like Dupas, she can trace her career path to Michael Kremer, with whom she took a course in development economics at Harvard, where she earned a Ph.D. in economics. The course was inspiring. “Something sparked intellectually,” Jayachandran said.

Over the past two decades, she, too, has dedicated her life to development economics, with much of her work focused on environmental conservation, gender equality, health and the economic issues that impact everyday life in developing countries.

Their shared interests brought Dupas and Jayachandran together to become research collaborators: A current project in Burkina Faso, in West Africa, seeks to determine how the perception of child mortality affects women’s fertility decisions. Said Dupas, “We were on Zoom way before the pandemic.”

These days the two scholars stand poised to embark on their most ambitious collaboration yet: Together they will lead Princeton’s newly launched Research Program in Development Economics, a joint endeavor between the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) and the Department of Economics.

Jayachandran arrived at Princeton in fall 2022 from a faculty position at Northwestern University. Dupas, who is now at Stanford, will arrive at Princeton in July 2023. Dupas and Jayachandran will each hold the title of professor of economics and public affairs, and will be appointed in both SPIA and the Department of Economics.

Princeton has long been a leader in this interdisciplinary field, which explores the breadth of factors — health, education, working and market conditions, domestic and international policies — that drive economic and social conditions in the developing world.

To Amaney Jamal, the dean of the School of Public and International Affairs, the arrival of Dupas and Jayachandran heralds a new chapter in the University’s longstanding commitment to development economics research.

Jamal said the new leadership will guide SPIA’s effort to internationalize its research program, enhancing the school’s global footprint. “We are extending our rigorous research to all parts of the world,” Jamal said.

“We want to make sure we’re paying attention to how international affairs affect curriculum. Is it only about the U.S. experience? Is it only about the European experience? Or can we talk more universally about the global experience?”

Wolfgang Pesendorfer, Princeton’s Theodore A. Wells ’29 Professor of Economics and chair of the Department of Economics, said the two new professors will pioneer work that can serve as a bridge for Princeton economics students and researchers to collaborate with colleagues across campus and around the world.

“What is nice about economics is that, because we share common methods across fields, the boundaries of the fields are flexible,” Pesendorfer said. “Many people in the department will do some work in various fields, among them development economics. Whenever we bring in exciting new people, it has a direct effect on all of us.”

Dupas and Jayachandran said the hiring of each other made the move to Princeton even more appealing. “Our mandate,” Jayachandran said, “is to modernize the development economics program, to bring it to where the frontier is.”

“I know we can do more together,” Dupas said, “than either one of us could do on our own.”

The price of bed nets

Dupas summarizes her life’s work in this simple passage on her website: “I am a development economist,” the page reads, “seeking to better understand challenges facing poor households in lower income countries. My aim is to identify tools and policies that can help overcome these challenges and reduce global poverty.”

In Kenya, Dupas studied the efficacy of providing free, insecticide-treated bed nets to people in poor villages. The bed nets serve as vital shields in the prevention of malaria, which, according to the World Health Organization, killed 627,000 people globally in 2020, nearly all of them in Africa.

Bed with mosquito net in Senegal.
Pascaline Dupas wearing a white jacket.

Research led by Pascaline Dupas, a newly appointed professor of economics and public affairs, found that providing free, malaria-preventing bed nets to people in poor villages in Kenya led to increased usage, helping to settle the debate over whether user fees should be charged for access to life-saving health care products. PHOTO BY SALVADOR-AZNAR/ISTOCK

In her research, Dupas delved into a long-running debate among public-health experts over the most effective methods for distributing essential healthcare products.

Should recipients be charged a nominal price for bed nets, to save resources by screening out those who might not use them? Would charging fees raise revenues and thus make distribution programs more sustainable? Or should essential healthcare products be provided free of charge to anyone in need?

With a fellow researcher, Dupas studied the impact of different subsidies on the use of bed nets delivered to pregnant women at 16 health clinics in Kenya. They found that charging for bed nets dragged down overall usage. Even when the bed nets were sold at a 90 percent discount, the use of bed nets dropped by 60 percent compared to when the bed nets were offered free of charge.

Dupas’ research helped shift policy on the distribution of healthcare products, according to a review by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a research institute dedicated to ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. “A number of influential organizations now recognize that the elimination of user fees is the most effective way of quickly increasing take-up of key preventive health products,” J-PAL wrote.

In 2008, working with Kremer and Esther Duflo — who together won the 2019 Nobel Prize for experiment-based solutions to global poverty — Dupas began a longitudinal study on the impact of free secondary education in Ghana. The study, a randomized controlled trial, provided scholarships to 682 students who had been admitted to a public high school but had not enrolled because of the prohibitive cost. By 2016, the study found, 74 percent of scholarship recipients had completed senior high school, compared to 47 percent of non-recipients from the same demographic.

Within the same time frame, another 12 percent of scholarship recipients had enrolled in tertiary education, compared to 9 percent of non-recipients. Women who won scholarships married later and delayed childbirth, and avoided unwanted pregnancies, compared to women who did not win scholarships. In 2017, informed by the study’s findings, the government of Ghana made secondary education free for all.

Dupas and her colleagues continued to follow the study’s participants up to this year. Dupas reports that girls who received the scholarship “were better insulated from the negative economic shock created by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Importantly, their children, she reports, were more likely to survive to their third birthday.

“To me,” Dupas said, “working towards improving the lives of people around the world who live in poverty is very important. There is no other thing I would like to do.”

Paying for trees

While Jayachandran’s research has focused on India, she has also worked in Africa. In 2017 she was the lead author of a study that showed the benefit of paying forest owners in western Uganda not to cut down their trees. The study was published in the journal Science and reported in The New York Times and other major news outlets.

Satellite image showing control and treatment areas.
Seema Jayachandran wearing a green dress and standing in front of a grey background.
Seema Jayachandran. Photo by Teamworks

Newly appointed Princeton professor of economics and public affairs Seema Jayachandran’s research showed that paying forest owners in western Uganda not to cut down their trees can be a cost-effective way to mitigate climate change. IMAGE COURTESY OF SEEMA JAYACHANDRAN

Jayachandran and her colleagues offered owners of forested land in 60 villages the equivalent of $11.20 an acre a year if they did not cut their trees. They compared the forested land in those 60 villages to similar property in 61 “control” villages, where landowners had not been offered the subsidy. Two years later, they found the forest cover dropped by 9.1 percent in the control villages but only 4.2 percent in the villages whose landowners were offered payments. The result showed that preserving forests’ ability to capture and store carbon can be one of the most cost-effective ways to mitigate climate change.

More recently, Jayachandran helped design a program intended to reshape attitudes toward girls and women among adolescent students in the Indian state of Haryana. Jayachandran and colleagues studied the results of a classroom program designed to teach gender equality to seventh- to tenth-graders. The students received a 45-minute lesson — in gender stereotypes, gender roles at home, and harassment, among other topics — every three weeks for two and a half years. The study found the program “made attitudes more supportive of gender equality,” even two years after it ended. Jayachandran’s research team took their findings to government officials, and the program has since been adopted in two other Indian states, reaching an estimated one million students a year.

“It’s kind of exciting,” Jayachandran said. “Ten years ago, I had this idea that the way to solve this problem was that governments should try using schools to change attitudes. We turned that into a concrete research project, and now very recently we see the research affect policy.”

Helping people flourish

Jamal herself is a leading researcher in global development. Now in her second year as SPIA dean, she expects to return to her own research with renewed vigor this academic year — namely, a book about economic segregation around the world. “Why is it,” she asks, “in this particular moment, we are seeing poor people in more exclusively poor areas and rich people in more exclusively rich areas. Not only in the United States, but globally.” Her book is tentatively titled The Global Segregation of the Poor.

Jamal is excited about the prospect of Dupas and Jayachandran creating opportunities for existing faculty and Princeton students to take part in research that expands our understanding of global topics, affects public policy, and, ultimately, improves lives. “No doubt they’re going to do remarkable things with the program,” Jamal said.

Jayachandran and Dupas say they look forward to collaborating with new colleagues, bringing visiting scholars and foreign government officials to Princeton, and especially working with students. “A lot of the impact you can have is by helping other people flourish,” Jayachandran said. “If I can train the next generation of graduates to design better policy because they understand the framework of economics, they’re going to have a huge, concrete impact on the world.”