Combining economics and empathy to study life in developing countries


Reshmaan Hussam ’09, PhD ’15, once dreamed of becoming a “psychohistorian”, just like the protagonist in Isaac Asimov’s foundation novel, combining sociology, history and statistics save the world. Perhaps, she thought, such a psychohistorian could understand the stark and disturbing contrast between her childhood living in the suburbs of Virginia and visiting her parents and family in Bangladesh. She clearly remembered the guilt and confusion she and her family felt when they drove in Dhaka, watching the barefoot children knocking on the windows and begging for food and money. When she discovered development economics that focused on human behavior and experimental rigor, she felt that this field was very close to Asimov’s psychological history.

As an undergraduate student majoring in economics at MIT, Hussam cultivated her natural interest in liberal arts through skills in mathematics, experimental design, and data analysis. She attended classes with Dr. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo 99, the Nobel Prize-winning founders of Abdul Latif Jameel’s Poverty Action Laboratory (J-PAL), who introduced her to development economics and later served as her PhD advisor. “You can buy dollar bills all over the world,” she remembered Banerjee saying. “You don’t need change for a million dollars; look for small dollar bills.”

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Hussam wrote her MIT paper around such a small change—handwashing in West Bengal. Millions of dollars have been invested in public health campaigns around handwashing, but there has been little performance. Therefore, people are skeptical of Hussam’s proposal, which is to design a simple soap dispenser, record the usage, replace the coarse soap used for laundry and house cleaning with foam soap, and place it in a visible place in the subject’s home. And use data to encourage families to develop hand-washing habits.

But it worked. Simply providing families with cheap soaps and dispensers that are easily available can bring health benefits to children: within a few months, children in families with dispensers grow taller than families without dispensers. Weight gain. She said that one key is to “make the children excited about participating, and then it may transfer to the parents.”

Hussam believes that her results call for “more empathy and nuance to think about how people in developing countries make decisions around health prevention.” This compassionate approach links her projects together—including her. Recent research explores the significance of working for Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar to escape genocidal violence.

After joining Harvard Business School in 2017, Hussam spent four years working with colleagues on a project to provide different levels of cash assistance and work to refugees in refugee camps in Bangladesh. She said that usually camps are very idle places. Even if NGO staff organize cooking or cultural activities, they rarely participate. Although some people may interpret this behavior as laziness, “we found that it is not the case, they are very eager to work,” Hussam said. “Working, not doing activities, seems to provide a sense of meaning.”

During the experiment, Hussam and her colleagues paid a group for two months of measurement work. The second group received the same remuneration without the necessary labor. The third control group received much less money, but only conducted a brief investigation. For the male subjects, “we found that cash alone—a considerable amount of money given their poverty—can hardly improve social and mental health,” she said. Instead, the key is work. Compared with non-working men, paid men were less depressed and less stressed, and the number of days of suicidal ideation decreased by 22%. She pointed out that the female subjects saw an improvement in happiness from cash and work-which seemed to be given by the independence provided by any money.

Ultimately, “despite their poverty, when people are in such a state of mental or emotional despair, material gains may not be enough,” Hussam concluded. Any attempt to help must come from a place of respect and common humanity. She hopes that her work will humanize the millions of people in refugee crises around the world who have lost “a place to call home, people to contact, and direction or goal.”


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