Combine economy and empathy to study life in developing countries

Reshmaan Hussam ’09, PhD ’15, once dreamed of becoming a “psychohistorian” as the protagonist of the Isaac Asimov Foundation novels which combines sociology, history and statistics to save the world. Perhaps, she thought, such a psychohistorian would be able to understand the stark and disturbing contrasts that marked her childhood living in suburban Virginia and visiting her parents’ families in Bangladesh. She vividly remembers the guilt and confusion she felt while driving through Dhaka traffic with her family, watching barefoot children banging on windows, begging for food and money. When she discovered development economics, focused on human behavior and experimental rigor, the field felt as close as possible to Asimov’s psychohistory.

As an undergraduate economics student at MIT, Hussam reinforced her natural interest in the liberal arts with skills in math, experimental design, and data analysis. She took courses with Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, PhD ’99, the founders and Nobel laureates of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which introduced her to development economics and then went on to been its doctoral directors. “There are dollar bills you can pick up all over the world,” she recalls telling Banerjee. “You don’t have to go for the million dollar change alone; look for the small dollar bills.


Hussam built his thesis at MIT around one of these small changes: handwashing behaviors in West Bengal. Millions of dollars had already been invested in public health campaigns around handwashing, with little interest. So people were skeptical of Hussam’s proposal to design a simple soap dispenser that registers usage, fills it with foaming soap as an alternative to the rough bars used for laundry and house cleaning, places it in one place. visible in subjects’ homes and uses the data to motivate households to develop a habit of hand washing.

But it worked. The simple act of providing households with affordable and accessible soap and dispensers had beneficial effects on children’s health: in a few months, those in households equipped with dispensers grew taller and gained more weight than those in households with dispensers. homes without them. One of the keys, she said, was “to get kids involved, which could then potentially be passed on to parents.”

Hussam sees his findings as a call “to think with more empathy and nuance about how people in the developing world make decisions about preventive health.” This compassionate approach is what binds his projects together, including his recent research exploring the meaning of work for Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar to escape genocidal violence.

After joining Harvard Business School faculty in 2017, Hussam spent four years working with colleagues on a project providing varying levels of cash and labor aid to refugees in camps in Bangladesh. Usually, she says, the camps are places of deep laziness. Even when NGO workers organize culinary or cultural activities, they are rarely visited. While some might interpret this behavior as laziness, “what we found was no, they’re quite desperate to work,” Hussam says. “Working, as opposed to doing activities, seems to offer meaning. ”

During the experiment, Hussam and his colleagues paid a group to engage in surveying work for two months. A second group received the same salary with no work required. And a third control group received a much smaller amount in exchange for a brief survey. For the male subjects, “we found that money alone – which is a lot of money given their destitution – hardly improves psychosocial well-being,” she says. Instead, the key was work. Men who were paid for their work were less depressed and less stressed, and reported 22% fewer days of suicidal ideation than those who were not working. Female subjects, she notes, have seen their well-being improve through money and work, seemingly bolstered by the independence that any kind of money provides.

Ultimately, “despite their poverty, the material benefits alone may not be enough when people find themselves in such desperate conditions mentally or emotionally,” concludes Hussam. Any attempt to help must come from a place of respect and shared humanity. She hopes her work will serve to humanize the millions of people caught up in refugee crises around the world – people who have lost “a home, people they can connect with and a direction or a goal.”

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