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Renowned economists launch Global Poverty Research Lab

Northwestern committed to making the University a global center for international development

The Global Poverty Research Lab, led by Dean Karlan (left) and Chris Udry (second from left in turquoise) plan to initially focus international research efforts on Ghana and the Philippines.
The Global Poverty Research Lab, led by Dean Karlan (left) and Chris Udry (second from left in turquoise) plan to initially focus international research efforts on Ghana and the Philippines.

EVANSTON - Northwestern University’s Buffett Institute has launched the Global Poverty Research Lab, a collaborative research center that uses empirical evidence to address the challenges of overcoming poverty and to improve well-being in the developing world.

Renowned economists and the lab’s founding directors, Dean Karlan and Chris Udry, recently joined the Northwestern faculty and join a growing group of scholars at the University studying development economics.

“Northwestern has become much more committed to international development in the period of my absence,” said Udry, professor of economics in the University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, who started his academic career at Northwestern in 1990 before joining the faculty at Yale University. “There’s a strong base of people working in the area here. The administration was extremely supportive of an effort to energize and build on that strength and make the University a global center.”

Udry and Karlan see the Buffett Institute for Global Studies as a perfect example of how things have changed at Northwestern over the last 20 years.

“There’s a lot of energy and a commitment from the top to be a leader in development,” said Karlan, Nemmers Distinguished Professor of Economics and Finance at the Kellogg School of Management. “The Buffett Institute is a manifestation of that energy. We’re hoping this [creation of the lab] will be an inflection point for us, to be able to do work at a much bigger and better scale.”

Bruce Carruthers, director of the Buffett Institute, agrees. “The creation of the lab marks a new era in the Buffett Institute’s commitment to social science research on tough global issues and implications for policy,” he said.

Northwestern has become much more committed to international development in the period of my absence.”

Chris Udry
Professor of economics

In addition to Karlan and Udry, a growing group of scholars at Northwestern studies development economics and will be involved in lab activities. These scholars include Lori Beaman (economics), Erika Deserranno (managerial economics and decision sciences), Sara Hernández (economics), Seema Jayachandran (economics), Cynthia Kinnan (economics), Ameet Morjaria (managerial economics and decision sciences), Jacopo Ponticelli (finance) and Nancy Qian (managerial economics and decision sciences).

The lab will support activities on campus and abroad, including cluster-focused research that will be oriented both geographically -- starting with Ghana and the Philippines -- and around sectors like financial inclusion and social protection.

“Part of the concept of the clusters is the synergies that happen between projects when they’re geographically focused and overlapping, so one project can be generating data that can serve as the inspiration for another, or be shared by another, so that’s just an efficiency gain,” Udry said. “But it’s also a knowledge gain. When you work intensively with a number of people in a focused area, unexpected interconnections come up.”

The lab will have a close working relationship with Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a research and policy nonprofit founded by Karlan that discovers and promotes effective solutions to global poverty problems. The partnership brings with it a network of 18 country offices and new global opportunities for Northwestern students and scholars to get involved in their work. IPA also will work with the lab to engage in research-based advocacy and policy outreach.

Northwestern undergraduate and graduate students will have opportunities to work as research assistants at the lab, go into the field to do research abroad and develop skills and competencies to become full-time contributors to the lab’s work after graduation.

An important facet of Karlan and Udry’s work will be to build better research infrastructure, such as methodological work on survey design, a data depository, electronic data collection tools, application development for staff management and behavior modification, and big data tools and servers.

“Currently the infrastructure for conducting field research is wasteful, with large surveys frequently being rolled out for the purpose of single projects,” Udry said.

For the lab’s first year, Udry and Karlan plan to spend time getting to know people on campus. They hope to collaborate with and learn more about existing research projects from their fellow Northwestern faculty as well as faculty at the University of Chicago.

The lab’s first major event will be a conference in late October co-hosted by IPA. Researchers will discuss financial inclusion and household finance in the United States and around the world, as well as share new research on social safety nets, cash transfers, targeting and livelihood development.

Karlan and Udry both will give public talks in Evanston hosted by the Buffett Institute. Udry will present “Barriers to Agricultural Intensification and Technological Innovation in West Africa” on Sept. 29. Karlan will follow on Oct. 20 with “Social Protection for the Ultra-Poor: Lessons from Economics, Psychology and Religion.”

Full event details, times and locations can be found at buffett.northwestern.edu/about/events.

Learn more about the Lab at buffett.northwestern.edu/programs/poverty-research.

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