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In focus: John Hoddinott (Impact Evaluations lead)

John Hoddinott (Professor, Cornell University and Impact Evaluations lead on our programme) grew up dreaming of being an ice hockey player but ended up dedicating his life to understanding the causes and consequences of poverty, hunger and undernutrition in developing countries.

It was the Ethiopian famine in 1983 which first sparked John’s interest in poverty and economics, the international tragedy causing him to consider putting his research efforts towards understanding why it happened and if there was a way to prevent similar events in the future.  This search led him to a DPhil in economics from Oxford where he started a life-long journey of using #dataforgood.

As one of the senior researchers working on our programme, John oversees work in Bangladesh on the sustainability of social protection interventions. Through randomised control trials, cash and other combinations of interventions were given to a group of families in extreme poverty, with a view to seeing whether direct giving and leaving the choice of where to spend it to them was a tactic which could help improve their circumstances. Checking in again after eight years, John and his study team were thrilled to have traced 90% of the original study participants.

Twenty years ago, many questioned whether providing poor people with cash would even work. The consensus now is that economically marginalised people are sensible with their money. So, we do know these programs work well when they’re in operation in terms of reducing poverty, improving food security and so on. But in many places these things can’t be funded forever simply because the need is so great. What happens when you turn off the tap? Do beneficiaries revert to their pre-intervention status, or can you create space that allows them to continue to prosper even though they’re not receiving payments?

Talking about our programme’s focus and how technology can become a crucial tool in poverty reduction research, John emphasises the need for sustainable impact.

One of the themes we have within our programme is understanding a combination of two things – what are the sort of structural factors that mean some people end up in extreme poverty, and are there ways we could actually lift them out of that poverty? There are countless interventions and projects done by people all around the world, but the real question is, do they work for the long term?

Our programme has streams of work around understanding which interventions work in the long term. In Kenya and Ethiopia, research is looking at improving financial inclusion in high-risk environments and in Madagascar, how to work in a high risk and very poor environment. In Tanzania there is the addition of looking at how mobile phone and other Information and Communication technologies (ICT) may have an impact on alleviating poverty. All hope to identify what exists now which, when leveraged, could be a catalyst for putting people onto more sustainable livelihood trajectories.

We all know from our own personal experience that we leverage our own networks all the time. Not only does that have social value but it can also be a way in which we can help ourselves economically by making connections to people. When you create new ICTs you create a physical device for connecting people. The idea was to kickstart creation of electronic networks for people and by creating those networks, possibly create new opportunities in ways which can help the possibly risk share.

When considering the future of poverty data and research, John recognises the need to link together different sectors of work, as well as starting to utilise technological advances for the benefit of both accumulating and processing data.

One important area is going to be the continued ability to link together economic and geographic data. To both understand spatial drivers of poverty, but also to understand how climate change is actually going to affect our ability to reduce the extreme poverty in the future, and that can only come when we can integrate those types of data. And then I think the second big area which has promise but may take longer to unfold is around big data and AI type work.

As the programme continues, John is optimistic about the findings coming out across the countries.

If we look at the methodologies available to us and compare them to what was available 10 or 20 years ago, we are in a much better place. We’ve got a richer set of methodologies which allow us to do deeper dives on questions or to explore questions which are important that we simply couldn’t address before.

The exciting streams of research under our programme are contributing to achieving John’s vision from his university days- slowly but steadily getting closer to understanding poverty and finding ways to prevent it in the future.


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