By Diana King
Harvard Kennedy School professor and CID faculty affiliate Rema Hanna has long been interested in questions of human and civil rights, and in the tremendous power of governments to impact people’s lives and well-being. At Cornell, she excelled in the economics courses required for the undergraduate policy analysis major, prompting a professor to enlist her as a teaching assistant – and launching a career she never imagined..
“When you’re the child of immigrants, the expectation is that you’ll be a doctor or a lawyer,” she recounts. “So I thought I’d be a lawyer.” Her experience in college drew her more to public policy.
Hanna pursued a PhD in economics at MIT, and became a leading development economist. Her research focuses on improving the provision of public services in low and middle-income countries, particularly for households that are among the very poor and most vulnerable.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Hanna was on lockdown in Somerville as governments worldwide scrambled to brace their most vulnerable populations against the shock of a deadly health crisis. She soon began receiving calls from policy leaders, who asked: “What does the evidence say about social protection policies in countries of different income levels? What do we know about what works and why? What don’t we know?,” she recalls.
Hanna, who serves as co-scientific director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) Southeast Asia office in Indonesia, and Faculty Director of CID’s Morocco Employment Lab and Social Protection Initiative (joint initiatives with J-PAL) has been at the forefront of an explosion of research into social protection programs. For 18 years, Hanna and her colleagues have been studying which programs work and how to improve them – work that has resulted in several large-scale policy reforms.
Broadly defined as measures to help lift and keep people out of poverty, social protection falls into three buckets, Hanna explains. There are safety net programs designed to get poor households over a basic living standard (such as food subsidies and cash transfers); social insurance programs that insulate people against shocks and keep them from falling (back) into poverty (e.g., subsidized health insurance and pension programs); and active labor market programs that buffer against income loss and instability (e.g., minimum wage laws and retraining for workers in dying industries).
Social protection programs have contributed to the dramatic fall in extreme poverty in the decades leading up to the pandemic. But suddenly, the decline was reversing, and many people were at risk due to the pandemic. To address this, governments and relief organizations created over 3,300 social protection measures in more than 220 countries in one of the largest and most rapid expansions of social policy in history.
The unprecedented trove of data from those programs are just starting to be collected and analyzed by Hanna’s Social Protection Initiative. Launched in early 2022, the project will synthesize existing evidence, generate and fund new research, and convene hundreds of researchers and policymakers.
For Hanna, the project represents an opportunity to both “take a step back,” and think about future directions.
The universal issues surrounding social protection – How do we fund these programs? How do you make sure the right people are getting help? How do you deliver it to them? – are magnified in low and middle income countries that may lack resources and institutional structures. In the face of limited resources and greater need, how do you select the best program?
The pandemic made clear the vital importance of gathering evidence-based answers to these questions before crises hit. In Indonesia’s case, the research base had been growing for over a decade.
In 2008, Hanna conducted a breakthrough field experiment in Indonesia to identify eligible benefit recipients. “In the U.S., if you want to help someone who’s fallen on hard times, they might apply for food stamps, or unemployment insurance, or there’s a record from their bank, or tax returns,” she says. “But the households that are poor in low and middle income countries often rely on informal markets and leave no paper trail.”
She tested two means of identifying the poor across 640 villages: large-scale surveys that measured a household’s assets (television, car, etc.) to predict income, and community targeting that relied on communities to come together to decide who in the village needed assistance.
Community targeting performed about as well as the surveys in assessing income and determining who most needed aid. But the method was faster, cheaper, and captured more nuance, noting, for example, who recently became a widow. Crucially, there was a greater level of satisfaction with community targeting because “people felt that they participated in the process and had a voice,” and, contrary to expectations, “it wasn’t co-opted by the local elites,” says Hanna.
Ten years later, they enabled the Indonesian government to rapidly expand its social security rolls during Covid. Policymakers leveraged an existing block grant program, which provided funds to local regions for public goods and services, and allotted a portion for individual transfers to households that needed assistance. To identify the households, local municipalities used community targeting.
“They added 8 million more people to the rolls, over 2.5 million of them female heads of household,” says Hanna. From the data, “it’s starting to look like the community did a pretty good job.”
Looking ahead, Hanna is both worried and sanguine. The full impact of Covid, climate change-related shocks, and ongoing wars on poverty and inequality are uncertain. What keeps her optimistic is the “human element,” talking to people in the field, seeing people’s lives improved by evidence-driven policies and innovation, and collaborating with young researchers and policymakers at the start of their careers.
This past summer, she celebrated the 10th anniversary of a research center she helped found in Jakarta. Since its founding, many young researchers from Indonesia have gone on to advanced degrees in the U.S. or have returned to government or research posts in Indonesia.
The center’s flourishing points to the very real possibility of “growing a more effective government,” one that takes care of its most vulnerable, and creates opportunities for people to thrive – perhaps in careers they may never have imagined.
Matt Teuten, Eko Saputro