ELIANA LA FERRARA, professor of public policy, has studied the effect of Brazilian telenovelas on women’s fertility and marriage outcomes, how kinship and social standing affect wealth in Tanzanian villages, and the levels of trust in multiracial communities in the United States. The thread running through her work is an unwillingness to limit herself to traditional microeconomic models, where “prices and quantities” overshadow all else, and instead pay attention “to psychological, sociological, and sometimes anthropological factors that I believe as economists we cannot overlook.”


Q: How does your work connect to solutions to pressing global problems?

I study the constraints that prevent individuals and communities from escaping poverty. Traditionally, economics has focused on material constraints like lack of access to capital, education, and health. I’m interested in social constraints. So, in which cases do societies facilitate getting out of poverty, and in which cases do they magnify the problem by adding additional constraints?

For example, I’ve studied kin groups and networks, and I’ve shown that this social structure can help poor people get access to credit when they wouldn’t be granted formal loans because they lack collateral. But I also found that stereotypes and social norms imposed by communities may prevent vulnerable groups—defined in terms of gender, ethnicity, or race—from accessing the same opportunities that other members of society do.

My approach to addressing these problems is, firstly, to use economic theory to understand the incentives of individuals and communities, secondly, to collaborate with policy partners on the ground, in order to design solutions to address these problems, and then, finally, to collect original data and conduct rigorous empirical analysis to test the effectiveness of these approaches.

Eliana La Ferrara

“I think it’s extremely important to take into account dimensions such as identity, stereotypes, and aspirations when trying to tackle the problems that people who live in poverty need to solve.”

Eliana La Ferrara

Q: How has your research surprised you?

One of the things I found surprising is the extent to which it’s possible to use unconventional tools to generate behavior change that is conducive to economic development. For example, I worked a lot on the use of entertainment media as a tool to fight poverty or generate behavior change in developing countries. In early work, I studied soap operas—telenovelas—in Brazil. And what I found is that exposure to soap operas where the main female characters were childless or maybe had one child led to sharp decreases in fertility in a country where the total fertility rate was about five [children per family] when television was introduced.

More recently, I’ve collaborated with TV producers to create series or reality shows in which we embed educational messages, and we try to change behaviors related, for example, to HIV/AIDS or to technology adoption in agriculture. And with a group of colleagues, I found that one of these TV series, Shuga, which is produced by MTV Staying Alive Foundation [a social- and behavior-change charity], led to increases in testing rates for HIV and improvements in attitudes towards HIV-positive people in Nigeria. That is quite surprising, because these are deep-seated preferences that are hard to measure and have been traditionally difficult to change through top-down educational messages.


Q: What are the big takeaways from your work?

Although I was trained as—and I think like—an economist, the problems that fascinate me the most are those that cannot be solved purely by using an economic lens. I think it’s extremely important to take into account dimensions such as identity, stereotypes, and aspirations when trying to tackle the problems that people who live in poverty need to solve.

Banner image by Kayana Szymczak; inset portrait by Martha Stewart.

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