Morgan Hardy is an Assistant Professor of Economics at NYU Abu Dhabi. She has extensively worked on firms and labor markets in sub-Saharan African countries, with a particular focus on Ghana.
1. When and how did you first get interested in development questions? What led you to end up spending so much research time in Hohoe, Ghana?
I wasn’t really aware of development issues nor the possibility of a development research career until my early twenties. I grew up in a small rural town in upstate New York, where I had minimal exposure to subjects beyond math and English during public schooling. Most of the adult figures in my life were in music or the arts and I assumed I would follow suit; my plan was to become an artistic director for theatrical productions. I thought economics was only for people interested in the stock market.
When I moved to New York City to attend Columbia University at 17, the stark (and complex) inequality of opportunity that I witnessed between my hometown peers (most of whom were not financially able to attend a four-year college) and my new peers (most of whom had felt intense pressure since birth to attend only the “top” four-year colleges) began to spur my interest in social issues. Through Columbia’s core curriculum, I was also gaining exposure to historical social philosophers like Plato, Rousseau, Smith, and Marx and taking courses like West African History, which was really my first exposure to issues of global poverty and inequity. I was working close to 30 hours a week outside of class across three jobs in theatre and event management and I remember a moment I had when I was putting together ~1,000 giant plastic sparkling sunflowers for some over-the-top artistic director’s vision immediately after Gregory Mann’s lecture on the Rwandan Genocide when I just felt this extreme calling to change my priorities. I switched my Work Study job from the theatre to the economics department and began saving to spend my senior year fall semester abroad somewhere in Africa.
I ended up in Ghana, specifically (and thankfully!), because of my love of math — it was the lowest income country on the African continent with an institution from which I could transfer the courses still required for my mathematics degree at Columbia. I arrived with an abstract education in philosophy of development and the naive belief common amongst young Ivy League undergraduates in my ability to make immediate and grandiose impacts within a country to which I’d never been. These initial five months in Ghana were transformative. Embedding myself within the student population at the University of Ghana, similar to my initial arrival at college in the United States, I became quickly aware of the magnitude (and complexities) of inequality within Ghana. I spent a month working with Engineers Without Borders in a small pineapple farming community outside of Nsawam (yes, coincidentally very close by to Chris Udry and other’s famous field site), where I learned lessons about aid in theory vs. aid in practice. I spent about three months working as a nurse’s assistant at University Hospital in Legon, where I witnessed tragedies and grew an intimate Paul Farmer style awareness of the role of socioeconomic circumstance as a determinant of health outcomes. I tried (and failed) to create a lasting literacy organization that matched University of Ghana students as tutors with illiterate teenagers working at the open-air markets nearby campus, developing a new appreciation for the difficulty in establishing sustainable interventions. I left Ghana in December 2007, humbled by these experiences and determined to develop a skillset and toolbox with which I could return and make more meaningful impacts.
The process of making it to the research stage of a PhD program in economics was long and full of setbacks, including multiple years applying and failing multiple core exams. (I include this digression just to say to those reading this who are struggling that it doesn’t mean you can’t succeed eventually.) It took me four and a half years to return to Ghana in the Spring of 2012, as a rising third year PhD student at Brown University, but I have had active field projects in Ghana every year since.
2. You’ve now worked on many field experiments, ranging in size from experiments you and your research team have run completely independently, to large-scale multi-year experiments with government programs. Thinking back, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned that you wish you could have told your grad school self, or that you find yourself having to remind yourself frequently about?
I think that my working manifesto for the field-based development economist would include the following five lessons:
Lesson 1 - Field projects are risky investments. The size of the upfront investment costs, the expected returns, and the uncertainty over those returns vary by project. Often, though not always, the most interesting and potentially impactful projects require the most upfront investment costs with the most uncertain returns.
Lesson 2 - Field projects are active investments. I have never conducted a field project where the initial plan remained unchanged throughout implementation. Realities (and our awareness of them) are constantly shifting, and it is important to be receptive and entrepreneurially responsive, constantly triangulating between logistical and ethical constraints and the goal of producing the most illuminating evidence possible with the resources you have. It is imperative to have at least one principle investigator paying daily attention to live fieldwork and for the rest of the investigator team to be available for time sensitive re-optimization discussions with understandably imperfect information.
Lesson 3 - A field-based research agenda is like an investment portfolio. It requires deliberate balancing (and some luck). Conducting research in economics, especially field research, requires resources and institutional backing. Access to these resources and institutions depends on your ability to signal your value. For academic economists, this is often through publication in top journals. Throughout (and especially early on in) your career, the realized returns to your field projects impact your ability to fund and conduct your next field project. Transparent consideration of your field project portfolio as one with diversifiable risk is important in deciding where to focus and your decisions may largely depend on your already accumulated reputational wealth (in publications or networks) as well as your personal risk preferences.
Lesson 4 - Publications are a means, not the ends. Although signaling (and publications) are an important output in keeping your research agenda “lights on,” it is important to not make every decision based on a myopic prioritization of your likelihood of top publications. Assuming you are pursuing this career out of some desire to help improve the lives of those living in poverty or with less privilege than yourself, there may be times that you decide to invest your time and attention on areas with less clear paths to measurable output. These seemingly meandering experiences and endeavors may be where you learn the most, make your most innovative progress, or believe that you make the impacts for which you are most proud.
Lesson 5 - Fieldwork is a team sport. This is last, but absolutely not least in my list of lessons. Old-school economics paints a picture of a lone genius scribbling insights on a napkin, but the vast majority of impactful research in recent decades stems from a production function that looks a lot more like an expertly coordinated beehive of contributors. Relationship and communication skills are an incredibly important ingredient to success in this profession. Your ability to identify your own working style, strengths and weaknesses and then find partners with common goals that you trust to complement you well is indispensable.
Bonus Lesson 5.1 - Search for your partners broadly. Your best matches are probably not the people sitting next to you in math camp before your first semester of your economics PhD. I met and bonded with Jamie McCasland, with whom I have subsequently co-authored the majority of my papers focused on small firms, while working on fieldwork in Ghana in 2012. I met Gisella Kagy during a gender-focused poster session at a PopPov conference in Kenya in 2014, where we hatched our research agenda on gender profit gaps. I met Christian Meyer in Ethiopia in 2016, when we were both on independently planned trips to investigate the government’s industrialization initiative, and we’ve worked together on East African labor research ever since.
Bonus Lesson 5.2 - Your search should not be limited to other PhD economists. I have developed and nurtured some incredible partnerships with field coordinators over the years that have allowed for more ambitious, nimble, and exploratory fieldwork. This is actually the more precise answer to how I started working specifically in Hohoe, within Ghana, as you originally asked above. We chose Hohoe as a pilot area back in 2014, because my now longtime field partner and founder of Data Pivot Ghana, Charles Sefenu, had roots there to help embed us effectively within the context.
3. One of your papers that I find myself referencing most frequently is your paper on demand constraints as an explanation for why women earn lower profits than men: the idea being that women business owners crowd into only a few occupations, where they all compete with one another for a limited pool of customers, so that even if they have more inputs, they don’t have enough customers to grow. Given these results, one approach has been to try to get women to switch to operate in more male-dominated industries, another is to ask why the more productive women are not able to take over more of the market and drive out less productive competitors, while a third option is to say we should instead be focusing on boosting large firms and generating wage jobs for these women to do instead. Based on your experiences, what is your view of where policy (and research effort) should focus?
I also find myself often going back to this project! I think all of your suggestions for policy and research focus are reasonable considerations. However, what this paper and my experiences have really made salient for me is the importance of thinking rigorously about the deeper dynamics behind inequality. Much of gender inequality research treats hiring or wage discrimination and even slightly less proximate determinants like occupational choice as exogenous individual-level variables to be estimated or manipulated. The benefits of identification from randomized control trials can also push researchers to keep their questions and their thinking in this partial equilibrium framework. However, it is likely that many of these variables are actually equilibrium outcomes with deeper roots to be uncovered and examined. I took Glenn Loury’s class based on his book The Anatomy of Racial Inequality while at Brown and his way of thinking about inequality as an equilibrium outcome really stuck with me. I think that gender inequality research is really lacking that kind of theoretical work. I would encourage any graduate student gifted in theory and interested in gender to consider becoming the Glenn Loury of gender.
A key (and related, because good inequality theory requires reliable stylized facts and trends) research and policy agenda is a re-examination of our existing public data sources and collection protocols through a gender inclusivity lens. This has been a paramount for Gisella and me the last few years. Our working paper with Nusrat Jimi cautions the naive use of existing commonly available enterprise data sources to study gender gaps without a careful consideration of their sampling protocols, which we show likely result in data more representative of the average male-enterprise owner for the majority of even the most intensive pre-existing enterprise listing endeavors. For example, the Ghana 2014 Economic Census approached all visible enterprise structures finding over 600,000 businesses across Ghana. This visible structure criterion (as opposed to enterprises that are mobile or run exclusively from within a household) is less likely to be met by female-owned enterprises. Additionally, the difference in performance and reported barriers between female-owned enterprises that do and do not meet this criterion are larger than the differences across their male peers. Gisella and I are now working with Monica Lambon-Quayefio to pilot an inclusive enterprise data panel in Aburi, Ghana, which we are using to help inform the next round of the Ghana Economic Census, which is currently expected to now also include enterprises found via household structures.
4. You run a 3 week study abroad program at NYU Accra which takes students to Ghana and has them involved in taking part in field research, with this even leading to a published paper on how microenterprises owners bargain over prices varies with their household liquidity constraints. Can you tell our readers a bit more about this program (do you have anything written up about it you can link?), and suggestions for how they might involve undergraduates in field research more as part of the class (especially for classes taught in developing countries, but the same could be done with immigrants or low-income populations in developed countries) – for example, in my work on how development economics is taught in developing countries, it was notable that mostly teachers just teach it theoretically, going through textbook chapters, and do not engage in the markets around them.
I agree that much of development economics education is conducted without clear engagement with realities on the ground. My undergraduate experience described above (moving from abstract coursework to actually trying to “do development” in Ghana) left me really wanting to create a course that could bring students through a condensed version of that experience. One of the reasons I was drawn to NYU is its push to be a global university. In addition to NYU Abu Dhabi (its flagship global degree granting campus, where students come from all over the world largely on full scholarship) and NYU Shanghai, it has 12 other global sites where students that matriculate at the three main campuses can also study. Before I joined NYU Abu Dhabi in 2016, it was agreed that I would design my own version of a development economics course that I would teach yearly at the NYU Accra global site. My goal for the course is to make it accessible to anyone with only a high school training in mathematics and English, but intensive enough to bring them to a beginner’s appreciation of the concepts and tools used for evidence-based policy making and immersive enough to give them the initial on the ground experience to critically engage with tools. The course spans three full-time weeks and each week has a different focus: (1) research design, (2) fieldwork, and (3) data analysis. (Here is a link to a folder with an example syllabus and prompts for the key assignments.)
I don’t know of other courses like this, whether at high-income country or low-income country institutions. One potential reason could be the cost. Paying for the cost of the fieldwork component, but also the cost to bring international students to Accra makes my NYU Accra course quite expensive. It is able to exist largely because of the generous financial aid package provided to most NYU Abu Dhabi students who make up the majority of my course roster each year combined with the additional infrastructural support granted by NYU’s global network site. I think, however, there should be lower cost ways of providing a similar style course to students already based in low-income institutions if instructors are able to link up with organizations like Innovations for Poverty Action or The World Bank to allow undergraduate and masters-level students to shadow fieldwork. In high-income country institutions, instructors could also consider having students conduct their own survey work in surrounding lower-income communities.
One important cost that I do not think is avoidable for this type of course is instructor time. Making live updates to my course plan, teaching materials, and assignments, in addition to managing the complex infrastructure of support staff that I often piece together when combining the course with my existing research endeavors requires much more time than a more abstract or static course. Similarly, I think that your suggestions for improvements in the teaching of development economics may also arguably require some increase in instructor time cost. I am able to pull my course off largely due to the lower teaching expectations placed on me (number of courses and class size) by my institution relative to the average institution and especially relative to the average low-income country institution. Given this insight, a suggestion I have to improve upon the quality of development courses in low-income countries might be some kind of endowed teaching fellowship where motivated instructors could apply for course releases in order to reduce the quantity and improve on the quality of courses taught.
5. Another institution you have been a big part of building are the PEDL matchmaking workshops which attempt to link young researchers in the U.S. and Europe with those in developing countries (here was the 2023 call with details). Can you point to a couple of successes or collaborations that have been formed through these workshops? For others trying to form these partnerships, were there any surprising lessons or constraints that it is key to keep in mind?
This workshop, for me, is really about lesson 5 from my answer to your second question above – “Fieldwork is a team sport.” I strongly believe that the key to quality research is the right partnerships. It has taken four iterations to really hone the program into something that combines lectures from organizers and facilitators on finding and maintaining healthy and productive research partnerships, the development of a research project, the building of a research agenda, and grant writing with remote and in person intensive group work and bonding opportunities. (Christian Meyer, Chris Woodruff, and myself are happy to share our materials and learnings on this with anyone thinking of organizing a similar workshop for other development sub-fields.)
I do not have any randomized evidence to back this up, but I do believe that these early career intervention workshops have been quite successful in increasing the quality and diversity of PEDL focused research and researcher partnerships. We’ve had a number of successfully funded PEDL grants coming from this workshop and we receive emails years later from participants crediting the workshop with expanding their networks and opportunities within the field. Two highlights from our 2018 and 2020 workshops are Chacha, Kirui, and Wiedemann’s work on domestic trade flows in Kenya and Huppertz, Majune, and Olapade’s work on continental integration and firm awareness of trade policy. Our 2022 and 2023 workshops have some promising early stage projects without much online presence yet, so stay tuned.
A key constraint we observed in the years following each workshop is the lack of availability of well-paid and research productivity incentivized jobs available to researchers in low-income countries. Many truly promising partnerships from the workshops have struggled to fully bloom after the workshop when the researchers based in low-income countries faced burdens from low salaries and high teaching loads with little time available for research. Building well-endowed and secure research umbrellas based in low-income countries that can provide the freedom and incentives to pursue frontier science is central in diversifying those who are contributing to top publication outlets and driving the profession.
6. After a lot of your work has been on constraints to small firm growth, some of your ongoing work in Ethiopia and Uganda is focusing on industrial firms. Any noticeable differences in how larger firms consider participating in research studies compared to micro firms? What is one question you are super excited to find the answer to and for us to look out for going forward?
It’s really hard to disentangle the many other differences between conducting largely exploratory work with small firms in Ghana and working on industrial and migration policy research in East Africa. An overall difference I have noticed is the greater complexity, constraints, and time required to pull off research projects that are truly embedded in and inspired by the evolving realities and needs of the context. Christian Meyer and I spent nearly four years (starting in 2016) working closely with the government of Ethiopia and other stakeholders in Ethiopia’s flagship (ready-made garment) industrial park to find an ethical and logistically feasible yet scientifically rigorous research design (a cluster-randomized control trial) set up to shed light on the impacts of these industrial jobs on rural-to-urban industrial workers, their households, and origin communities. Immediately after “breaking ground” on our baseline survey in early 2020, the context demanded a focus shift to an observational documentation of the pandemic-induced downsizing experienced by existing migrants in the face of the global garment demand shock both during and in the year following the crisis peak. The conflict that followed soon after and Ethiopia’s subsequent loss of its African Growth and Opportunity Act benefits ultimately rendered our four years of setup for the original questions no longer feasible nor relevant and we have now shifted focus to studying the governments push for gulf migration with Anne Krahn. This evolution of my work in Ethiopia is a great example of my belief in not making every fieldwork decision with a myopic focus on top publications. Although I have few publications to show for my efforts, I truly believe we have provided helpful and timely insights and learned a lot from these last seven years working on livelihoods in Ethiopia that I am now able to translate into the Ugandan context as we ramp up work with the Ugandan Investment Authority in their endeavors to pursue their own ambitious industrialization agenda over the coming years.
Here are our previous Six Questions with interview series: