New Buffett Research Center Explores Poverty on Global Scale

By Laura HayesOctober 10, 2017

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. The Buffett Institute is a manifestation of that energy,” Karlan says. “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.”

Buffett Institute Director Bruce Carruthers 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.”

The Lab will support activities on campus and abroad, including cluster-focused research that will be oriented both geographically—starting off 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 shared by another, and so that’s just an efficiency game,” Udry says. “But it’s also a knowledge game when you work intensively with a number of people in a focused area: unexpected interconnections come up.”

The Lab will enjoy 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 will also work with the Lab to engage in research-based advocacy and policy outreach.

At the Lab, Northwestern undergraduate and graduate students will have opportunities to work as research assistants, 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, 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 says.

The Lab will pursue questions about how to improve the research process, such as how to best conduct surveys and hire surveyors.
“We [as researchers] actually are strikingly bad about doing quantitative analysis of our own surveys and our hiring methods for surveyors,” Karlan says. “What’s the right profile for a surveyor? To give you one example, for a project in the Philippines we had a question about field agents: Would you prefer to hire an uneducated person who grew up in a rural area and is very much like the people you’re working with in terms of upbringing, or would you prefer an educated person who grew up in Manila and finished college? Who is going to do a better survey? I don’t know. We don’t reward [finding answers to these questions] professionally, from a career and academic perspective, but it could actually be really helpful and improve everybody’s work. So we want to invest in things like this.”

For the Lab’s first year, Udry and Karlan plan on spending 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.