Pairing economies with empathy in the study of life in the developing world

Reshmaan Hussam ’09, PhD ’15, once dreamed of becoming a “psychohistorian” as the protagonist of the Isaac Asimov Foundation’s novels that combined sociology, history, and statistics to save the world. Perhaps, in his mind, such a psychohistorian would be able to understand the unrealistic and fearless comparisons that marked his childhood living in suburban Virginia and visiting his parents ’families in Bangladesh. She remembers the guilt and confusion she felt driving in traffic in Dhaka with her family, watching barefoot children tapping on windows, begging for food and money. When he discovered the economies of development, with a focus on human behavior and diligence in experimentation, the field felt as close to Asimov’s psychohistory as he could get.

As an undergraduate majoring in economics at MIT, Hussam developed his natural interest in the liberal arts with expertise in mathematics, experimental design, and data analysis. He took classes with Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, PhD ’99, the Nobel laureate founders of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), who introduced him to the economies of growth and after which he served doctor’s advisor. “There are dollars you can get all over the world,” he recalls Banerjee saying. “You don’t have to go for a million dollar change; find the little dollar. ”


Hussam built his MIT dissertation around a small fee change: hand-washing practices in West Bengal. Millions of dollars have already been poured into public health campaigns around hand washing, with little to show for it. That’s why people are skeptical of Hussam’s proposal to design a simple soap dispenser that uses wood, fill it with sparkling soap as an alternative to the harsh bars used for washing and cleaning the house, place it wherever it can be found in members ’homes, and use the data to encourage households to establish a hand-washing habit.

But it works. Just providing homes with affordable and affordable soap and dispensers brings health benefits for children: within months, those in homes with dispensers get taller and weigh more in houses without them. One key, he said, is to “make kids happy about participating, which can possibly be passed on to parents.”

Hussam considers his consequences a call to “think with more empathy and insight into how people in the developing world make decisions about health avoidance.” That compassionate approach is what unites his projects-including his recent research that explores the meaning of work for Rohingya refugees who have fled Myanmar to avoid genocidal violence.

After joining Harvard Business School faculty in 2017, Hussam spent four years working with colleagues on a project offering various levels of financial assistance and employment to refugees in camps in Bangladesh. Often, he said, camps are places of deep laziness. Even if the NGO staff organizes culinary or cultural activities, their attendance is low. While some may interpret this behavior as laziness, “what we find is not, they are desperate to work,” Hussam said. “Working, as opposed to doing activities, makes sense.”

During the experiment, Hussam and his colleagues paid a group to participate in a two -month survey job. The second group received the same salary without having to work. And the third control group received a much smaller amount in exchange for a short survey. For the male subject, “We find that money alone – that much money given to their disability – hardly improves psychosocial well -being,” he says. However, the key is to work. Men who were paid for work were less stressed and less stressed and reported 22% fewer days of contemplating suicide than those who did not work. The female subjects, she said, have seen increases in benefit from money and work — as if they had the power to be independent of any different money given.

Later, “despite their poverty, material benefits alone may not be enough when people have such a desperate mental or emotional state,” Hussam concludes. Any attempt to help must come from a place of respect and shared humanity. He hopes his work will serve the humanitarian millions caught up in refugee crises around the world-people who have lost “a place to live, people who can connect, and a direction or purpose. “

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