My fundamental research objective is to help reduce unnecessary human suffering manifest in ill health, malnutrition, poverty, vulnerability to manmade and natural disasters, and the degradation of the natural resources that support many poor people’s future well-being. In this world of plenty, almost half the world's nearly-eight billion people live on five dollars a day or less. Between one third and one half suffer undernutrition due to insufficient intake of critical micro- or macro-nutrients. Almost one child in five lives in acute poverty, a disturbing fact to this father of five. Natural disasters appear to be growing in frequency and intensity, and affecting more people than ever, especially the poorest people in the world’s most remote places. Market and government failures too often coexist with community breakdown. These challenges disproportionately afflict rural populations in Africa and Asia, so my group’s work focuses mainly on those regions and sub-populations. But we have an interest in tackling the economics of social injustice wherever it occurs and increasingly work in the United States as well. In summary, my research and teaching tries to explore why avoidable injustice and suffering continue to disfigure a rich, technologically advanced world and what individuals, communities and institutions can do to improve matters.
Because university professors do little directly to contribute to this objective, my approaches are indirect, through (i) teaching and mentoring students, (ii) outreach to community groups, governments, international organizations, media, non-profits, and private firms, and (iii) rigorous scholarship to inform my teaching, outreach and other researchers’ discoveries. My research group’s work emphasizes empirical research in development microeconomics, with significant threads of agricultural, environmental and resource economics mixed in, and significant collaboration with scholars from a wide range of biophysical and social science disciplines. We undertake a good deal of primary, field-based research, but also employ secondary data where appropriate. We make all of our work and data publicly available and seek peer review of everything we do as a means of quality control. Links to published journal articles, books and book chapters, working papers, and data sets are available on other pages on this site.
The main threads of the group’s research revolve around:
Dynamics of poverty, malnutrition and well-being
Individual, household and community resilience and effective risk management
The functioning of agri-food value chains and complex food systems
Causes of food insecurity and effective food assistance policy and program responses
Policy, technological change and the structural transformation of low-income societies
Individual and market behavior under risk and uncertainty
Interrelationship between poverty, food insecurity, and climate/environmental stress
Most of the group’s research relies on external funding from various agencies. Current research projects include:
Nature Sustainability’s 2020 expert panel on “Innovations to build sustainable, equitable, inclusive food value chains” is due to report its findings at the end of 2020. I serve as the panel’s lead co-chair.
The Structural Transformation of African Agriculture and Rural Spaces (STAARS) program promotes young African applied economists undertaking in-depth, rigorous, policy-oriented research on the causal determinants of productivity and income growth, asset accumulation, and effective risk management in African agriculture and rural spaces. New micro-level insights based on rigorous research using high quality data can guide the emerging macro-level policy discourse around the structural transformation of African economies, and especially of African agriculture and the continent’s rural spaces. Originally begun in collaboration with the African Development Bank (AfDB), African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP), and World Bank, STAARS has been generously supported in recent years by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets, led by the International Food Policy Research Institute, and most recently by the USAID Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy, Research, Capacity & Influence, based at Michigan State University.
More than a decade ago, our group, in collaboration with the International Livestock Research Institute and other partners, launch index-based livestock insurance (IBLI) in northern Kenya, then expanded and adapted it to southern Ethiopia. This work has been funded by a range of donors, led by the USAID Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Markets, Risk and Resilience, based at UC-Davis, and including AusAID, CGIAR SPIA, DfID, EU, and the World Bank. The basic idea of the original IBLI product is described in this video: "Development of the World's First Insurance for African Pastoralist Herders". We continue to work on interesting research questions concerning IBLI – a ‘do no harm’ approach to inducing welfare-generating uptake; the rangeland health impacts of IBLI diffusion, etc. Multi-year panel data sets from northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, many papers from the project, teaching case studies, etc. are available on the IBLI site. IBLI builds on the earlier Pastoral Risk Management (PARIMA) research program led from Utah State University.
Work with colleagues at BRAC, Monash, and Stanford, funded by the International Growth Centre, on the diffusion and welfare impacts of the system of rice intensification (SRI) in Bangladesh. This builds on prior collaborative work on SRI in Madagascar and Indonesia.
In collaboration with remote sensing and machine learning experts, and with financial support from USAID, a group of us at Cornell, IFPRI, St. Mary’s College, and the University of Alabama is working on developing accurate, intra-annual frequency estimates of poverty and undernutrition indicators using open access big data and machine learning methods so as to reduce the cost and delay in generating useful targeting indicators in a selection of low-income agrarian countries. This builds on broader, ongoing work with computer scientists, remote sensing specialists, and others in the new field of computational sustainability through Cornell’s Institute for Computational Sustainability. For more background on the field and the institute, see this video.
Work with Katie Fiorella’s research group on livelihoods and adaptation to climate and environmental change in inland freshwater fisheries in Cambodia and Kenya.
In collaboration with Jason Rohr and his lab at Notre Dame, we are researching synergies between reducing infectious disease prevalence and boosting agricultural productivity in rural Senegal.
Building on work on poverty dynamics and risk, my group has worked on developing and evaluating both theories and measurement methods for exploring individual, household, and community resilience to shocks and stressors.
In collaboration with John Hoddinott and his research group, we are drawing on methods and insights from decades of study of food security globally to research US food security dynamics and implications for appropriate food assistance programming. This early work is supported by awards from USDA.
Past major research projects include:
Work with the African Development Bank, the World Bank and others using the then-newly available Living Standards Measurement Surveys – Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA) to provide up-to-date, statistically representative descriptions and explanations of sub-Saharan African agricultural and rural economies under a project entitled Agriculture in Africa: Telling Facts from Myths.
Work with IFPRI and the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, funded by 3ie, on India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Work with colleagues at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, IFPRI, Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization and Brown University on coupled soil and human well-being dynamics in Uganda, funded by the National Science Foundation.
A multi-year project on idiosyncratic risk, smallholder productivity, and asset building and protection in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Ghana, in collaboration with IFPRI, the University of Ghana's Institute for Statistical, Social and Economic Research, and Addis Ababa University, funded by the USAID Assets and Market Access (AMA) CRSP, with supplementary funding from the National Science Foundation and the UK DfID-funded International Growth Centre. Among other outputs, this project built on Chris Udry and Markus Goldstein’s original 1997-98 surveys in southern Ghana to establish household panel data, expanding them to 2004-5 and 2009.
A nearly decade-long research project on risk management among East African pastoralists, funded by the USAID-funded Global Livestock CRSP. Household panel data from our 2000-2 surveys are available on this site.
A multi-year project refining, applying and developing training materials on the Market Information and Food Insecurity Response Analysis (MIFIRA) framework for to help humanitarian agencies identify context-specific best responses to food insecurity. Initial efforts are in Kenya and Uganda in collaboration with Catholic Relief Services, CARE, the International Livestock Research Institute and the University of Nairobi, with funding from the USAID Assets and Market Access (AMA) CRSP.
A multi-year multidisciplinary project on food systems, soils, and poverty dynamics in western Kenya, “Homeostasis and Degradation in Fragile Tropical Ecosystems,” funded by the National Science Foundation and the USAID AMA CRSP.
A multi-year project in collaboration with multiple international development and relief agencies (Catholic Relief Services, Land O’Lakes International Division, Mercy Corps, World Vision) evaluating the impacts of local and regional procurement of food aid under the pilot program authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill. The LRP Learning Alliance generated a wealth of data and published studies that have influenced subsequently policy proposals and programming.
A three-year multidisciplinary social science research project on “Persistent Poverty and Upward Mobility” funded by the Cornell Institute of Social Sciences.
A multi-year research and technical assistance program with economics policy research institutes in sub-Saharan Africa, Strategies and Analysis for Growth and Access, funded by USAID.