New funding for development economics research on a range of topics at Yale

By Anusha Sarathy and Shawn Thacker
January 12, 2022

Yale Economic Growth Center (EGC) affiliates have recently received multi-million dollar funding from US and UK development agencies and US federal funding for research on a range of topics, from educational interventions to economic history. EGC, as a central administrator of these grants, has played a key role in bringing these opportunities to Yale University.

Education research in Ghana: Orazio Attanasio and collaborating researchers receive support from United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

Early learning programs improve outcomes from children, yet scaling up high quality interventions remains difficult in developing countries. The Lively Minds education program in Ghana will substantially expand a new model that engages parents in implementing teaching programs in schools and, therefore, reach more children. 

A teacher in reading to students on a classroom floor in Ghana
Photo courtesy Lively Minds

A team led by Orazio Attanasio of Yale Economics and EGC, and Sonya Krutikova of the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London, evaluated the Lively Minds pilot program in two districts in Northern Ghana and found significant impacts on the health, social skills, and cognitive skills of children. Lively Minds has now partnered with the government of Ghana to expand the program to the entire northern region of Ghana by the end of 2023. USAID is funding this expansion scale-up alongside a research evaluation led by EGC and IFS researchers. 

In an interview, Attanasio and Krutikova explained their involvement in the program. At a conference in 2012, the founder of the Lively Minds program, Alison Naftalin, described the program and her desire to have the program be rigorously evaluated. Attanasio agreed, and while the team were seeking funding, Lively Minds made an important change to its model. 

“When they started, they would send their people to a small rural village,” Attanasio explained. “They would recruit and train local mothers to run small education centers with a specific set of activities that had been designed over time.”

Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Call to Action

in September 2021, EGC affiliate Orazio Attanasio and coauthors launched the Latin American and Caribbean Inequality Review (LACIR) – a project to understand of the nature, causes and consequences of Latin America’s persistent high inequality to provide a basis for action intended to make the region more equitable.

The organization realized that this model was not scalable. “The NGO is small – they cannot cover all the villages in Ghana,” Attanasio said. In collaboration with the Ministry of Education in Ghana, Lively Minds shifted to a model where local kindergarten teachers would be trained centrally, and then they would go on to train the mothers. “The model became quite scalable,” Attanasio said.

After receiving funding, Attanasio and the IFS research team started a randomized controlled trial in 80 communities. The team found positive results in cognitive ability, socio-emotional skills and health – at the relatively low cost of only 37 dollars per year per child. Interestingly, these effects differed between children whose mothers are volunteers and those that are not. Both groups of children improve in terms of cognitive development and health but the impact on socioemotional skills is concentrated among the children whose mothers are volunteers. 

Attanasio and Krutikova said that the project – which began at the end of 2021 of this year and will continue until 2023 – has immense future potential as it ramps up its scale across the country. At-scale program impact evidence will be extremely valuable per se. But the research project will also study how  impacts vary with different features of the institutional framework . The scale-up implementation and the evaluation are being funded by USAID in two separate grants. 

Principal investigators on this study also include Britta Augsburg, also of IFS, Edward Nketiah-Amponsah of the University of Ghana, and Sharon Wolf of the University of Pennsylvania.

Research on technology to improve governance in India: Rohini Pande and coauthors receive USAID support for the PayDash project.

India’s workfare program, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), is often cited as the world’s largest development program. Providing rural households up to 100 days paid manual labor annually on demand, it is a critical social safety net for India’s poorest citizens. However, MGRNEGA administration is often slowed by administrative obstacles, leading to long and unpredictable delays in wage payments, which can lead the needy to incur debt or hesitate to take up the program at all.

A research team including EGC’s Rohini Pande collaborated with government officials and software programmers to develop PayDash, a user-friendly tool that tracks payment processing and approvals throughout the bureaucratic chain. PayDash makes key information more accessible, clear, and actionable so government officials can  quickly find the cause of, and address, delays. It is free and offline-compatible, enabling use in remote areas. 

“We are not providing any new information to officials – it’s all publicly available via the website,” explained Yusuf Neggers, Assistant Professor at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and a member of the project team. “We’re just packaging it in a way that makes it much easier to access.”

Empowering women through direct digital payments

New research by Rohini Pande of EGC, Charity Troyer Moore of the MacMillan Center, and coauthors shows that giving women in India’s Madhya Pradesh state greater digital control over their wages led to a surprising range of benefits.

The research team conducted a randomized controlled trial (RCT) in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, which showed that the use of PayDash among bureaucrats significantly reduced delays for MGNREGA’s 7.7 million workers. Neggers, who is currently serving a Visiting Research Scholar at EGC and Yale MacMillan Center, said that an important research takeaway was that “seemingly small adjustments to the presentation of information can have larger-than-expected effects in improving service delivery, especially in developing-country contexts where people are more likely to be bandwidth- and otherwise capacity-constrained.”

The team is now conducting another randomized trial in Bihar to test whether information giving the app to elected officials – in addition to bureaucrats – increases PayDash’s effectiveness for that state’s 4.7 million MGNREGA participants. 

Neggers explained what the new grant means to the project. “The goal with the USAID funding is to push forward in continued partnership-building, and potentially run some more A/B testing to find out what would make the app more useful.” He explained that the ultimate objective of the project is to hand a well-functioning tool over to the Indian government and see it rolled out across the country.

The Principal Investigators on this research are Pande, Neggers, Charity Troyer Moore, Director for South Asia Economics Research at Yale MacMillan Center, and Eric Dodge of IDInsight. The project is administered by Inclusion Economics at Yale University, a collaboration between EGC and the Yale MacMillan Center. 

Historical data to understand migration and human capital: José Antonio Espín-Sánchez receives a National Science Foundation grant.

Modern nations in the Americas have vast economic differences: in 2013, Bolivia’s per capita income was $1,300, while the US state of Texas’ was $34,000 per person. Researchers have traced these differences to the colonial era and established that human capital (an intangible but significant asset) was influential to later economic development.

EGC faculty affiliate José Antonio Espín-Sánchez, an economic historian, has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to look at records of forced and voluntary migration to the Americas to estimate the human capital brought to the region by Spain and its migration networks. The project is the first of its kind, and will create a database that will allow researchers to view the origin and destination of every migrant, estimations of human capital, and historical and contemporary indicators. “Every traveler to the New World had to apply for a license or get a license approved, and all this information is in Seville,” Espín-Sánchez said. “There’s also all this information on the slave trade, because the slave trader had to pay taxes.”

In line with EGC’s core data access initiative, a website hosted by EGC will provide an overview of the research database, short essays summarizing various findings, excerpted primary documents, and maps illustrating main origin and destination points for migrants. This project and grant proposal were made possible by seed funding from an EGC faculty grant.

“It is not an understatement that we would not have been able to do the pilot program, and get the NSF grant, without the support of the EGC,” Espín-Sánchez said.

Research and Evidence for Nepal’s Transition (RENT): Rohini Pande and collaborating researchers receive continued support from the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) 

Nepal’s 2017 constitution introduced a federal system, with some power ceded from Kathmandu to local governments. EGC received a grant from UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) at the end of 2019 as part of the Research and Evidence for Nepal's Transition (RENT) program, with the purpose to evaluate decentralization in Nepal and its effects on longstanding political and economic inequities.

A man in a Covid mask distributes food on a street in Nepal
Photo by Denis Dymov, Shutterstock

Specifically, the EGC team’s research had three main objectives. First, to use detailed surveys to understand whether federalism is succeeding and whether local municipalities have the power, money, and autonomy to make their own decisions. Second, to link up administrative data that were already available, which has the potential to benefit governance, since there is evidence of a lack of knowledge on the priorities and policies of local governments. And third, to work with FCDO programs in Nepal to generate data that would both complement and guide their programming priorities. Outputs of this research program so far can be viewed on the program webpage.

The 2021 replenishment allows the EGC team to move forward with the research. Principal investigator Rohini Pande said, “In 2022, Nepal is poised to have its second local elections since it became a democracy. Based on multiple years of work, we are hoping to work with political actors on how to make these elections truly inclusive.”

Michael Callen of the London School of Economics also serves as Principal Investigator on this project, which is administered by Inclusion Economics at Yale University, a collaboration between EGC and the Yale MacMillan Center.