Tavneet Suri is the Louis E. Seley Professor of Applied Economics and a Professor of Applied Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She was until recently the editor-in-chief at VoxDev, and has worked extensively on issues around technology adoption and usage in sub-Saharan Africa.
1. Can you tell us a little about your path to becoming a development economist? When did you decide this is what you wanted to do and how did your experiences growing up in Kenya shape the questions you decided to work on?
Thank you for including me in this series!
I always knew I wanted to have a foot back home in Kenya, but initially I couldn’t envision how. I studied economics as an undergrad and then came to Yale for the MA Program in International and Development Economics (IDE) with the plan of working for the World Bank after. While an IDE student, I took Chris Udry’s PhD class in development and got inspired (which, of course, means that Chris is to blame for everything I do!). The rest is history…
I am sad to say that nothing about growing up really shaped my research. I grew up in Nairobi at a time when we were a closed/planned economy, with little freedom of speech, lots of fear of a (single party) government, especially given what had happened in Uganda. None of that really shaped my work. But being Kenyan of course did. Kenya will always be home and I still have only one passport! I will always want to do research in Kenya, to generate evidence that could have an impact on policy here (in fact, I am writing this from Nairobi).
The thing that has inspired the questions I get interested in is being on the ground, observing, talking, learning. Two examples. First, all our work on mobile money came from watching it launch and thinking that, given what people were using it for, it could change risk-sharing. Billy Jack (my long-time collaborator) was living in Nairobi at the time and together we started this agenda, to date my favorite collaboration! A second example is the water tanks credit experiment (with Billy, Joost de Laat and Michael Kremer). Michael had funding to study the nexus between water and agriculture and so the rest of us were on a mission to narrow the question and find a partner. I ended up in Central Kenya at a small dairy with a savings and credit cooperative and got interested in credit for water tanks. The core idea of the paper was a moment of inspiration during the pilot when the dairy credit officer asked me what we would use as collateral for the pilot loans, and I thought “why not the tank itself”? Mix in Billy’s creativity on contract variations and we now have a paper on asset collateralized loans for water tanks.
2. You have written several influential papers and a couple of reviews on mobile money. Given how quickly technology has evolved in this space, and how long both research projects and the publication process can be, I imagine there was a risk that you would end up writing about constraints and technological features that had changed by time you wrote the paper. This same issue is likely to face authors working on other technology issues today like green technology and generative AI. What has been your approach to dealing with this possibility, and any advice for researchers working on fast-changing technologies?
Hard question! The mobile money work was indeed risky. There is no two ways around that. The technology could have died quickly instead of booming like it did. High risk, but also high return.
I guess my advice would be to hedge yourself. Billy and I started working on this in the early days of M-PESA. We designed a survey with complicated oversampling and an idea for an instrument. We didn’t need all that, but had M-PESA stopped growing, I think we would have had at least one (less interesting) paper. Working with the technology provider directly to build in some A-B tests based on administrative data may provide such a hedge. Another way to hedge is to always think about measuring the failure side: why technologies fail is still an open question, especially outside the space of agriculture. Finally, I would say that thinking about the evolution in technology as part of the project or agenda, and adapting to incorporate this into ongoing work, can be rewarding. That is what happened with mobile money for us: we followed it with work on digital credit, a (failed) project on a digital bond, etc.
3. Currently you are undertaking one of the most ambitious studies I’ve seen, which is a long-term trial of a universal basic income intervention in Kenya, where the intervention runs from 2017 through 2029, and then of course one wants to also see what impacts are once the money flow stops. We could undoubtedly have a whole conversation about the many aspects of planning, funding, and implementing such a study, but perhaps it would be most interesting to hear what the biggest surprises or lessons you have taken so far from undertaking such a long-term study are?
I joke that most people will write wills for their assets. Instead, I will be writing a will for my UBI project! I think there have been three big surprises for me in the UBI project so far. First, the large impacts we see so far on the growth in the number of non-farm enterprises, their revenues, and on the private sector, more generally (the paper should be out soon!). Second, there is much more of a land market than I expected. I think this notion we have that land markets don’t exist is perhaps not so clear cut (a paper on this coming soon too!). Third, I was surprised at just how much mobility there is, not full households moving, but people or groups of people moving. I completely underestimated this. For such a long-term study, keeping track of all this mobility is hard: we track migrants, and then migrants of migrants, migrants back, migrants of migrants of migrants… and then we need to think about how to add in the outcomes of these migrants (by no means a trivial question). Ultimately, I think we will have to track individuals and focus on individual outcomes rather than household outcomes.
4. You are one of a small number of development economists who teach in a business school rather than an economics department. For young scholars who may be wondering about how development fits in an MBA sequence or business school program, can you tell us a little about what you teach, and about what development economics can offer to business education?
I love being in a business school. I have taught a variety of classes over my years at Sloan: macro (for over a decade and, no, I am not kidding!), core micro, econometrics, and development. I think there is plenty of demand for a development-oriented class on the role of the private sector in the development process (what I teach), or around how to build effective businesses in developing economies given all the constraints, and the institutional and infrastructure gaps. A lot of our students want to start businesses in developing economies, so these sorts of classes provide a lot of value. More broadly than the teaching, I think development economists bring a lot to the table. We think about contexts that are unusual for a business school, but ones that are becoming increasingly important and relevant to MBA students and to the world.
5. Over the past six years you have been editor-in-chief of VoxDev, which has been a tremendous new outlet for disseminating summaries of development research. In your last column you share some of the statistics, including that 698 columns were published, and almost 1 million different people from across the world have viewed the site. For readers interested in contributing something, what share of unsolicited article summaries would you typically accept? Has the experience of editing and seeing the demand for these summaries influenced how you promote your own work?
I have to admit that most (well over 95%) of what we put out on VoxDev comes from us soliciting pieces or podcasts. Of the unsolicited papers that came to us, we probably accept half, but it is a very small sample size. I would like to encourage people to please send stuff to VoxDev. Email a paper to firstname.lastname@example.org. It makes their job much easier! I don’t think running VoxDev has influenced how I promote my own work at all. But, I did get a lot out of it: you can read about that in my column.
6. What’s next on the agenda now that you have a bit more time after stepping down from VoxDev?
For me, this year is the year of stepping down from things and handing them to others. VoxDev was one, another was being Scientific Director for J-PAL Africa and there are more in the works. The year is not over yet! :)
I have to admit I love building things, but you cannot build if you also continue to run things.
That said, in the short run, I want to focus on research. The UBI project has taken a lot of my energy, time and mental bandwidth and I feel ready to start some new, perhaps equally ambitious (in a different way) research. One of the projects I am most excited about is working with an MIT biological engineer who genetically engineered a bacteria to efficiently fix nitrogen. This seems to be a potential substitute for chemical fertilizers, but with 2% of the carbon footprint. He spun the technology out and we are working with this company to do some trials in Africa. This may be a game changer for yields in Africa, but it's another high risk, hopefully high return, project.
In a couple of years, do I want to build something again? Very decisively yes. Do I know what? Not quite, but I have some ideas percolating…
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