February 22, 2023
How do social factors affect the ability of individuals and communities to escape poverty? From social norms to gender and ethnic stereotypes to the content of digital and traditional media, social factors play a key role in lifting people out of poverty—or keeping them poor. Eliana La Ferrara discusses her global work using the tools of economics and other social sciences to create solutions to public problems based on rigorous evidence.
Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener’s role in proposing and supporting this series as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
- [Announcer] Welcome to the Wiener Conference Calls series. These one-hour on-the-record phone calls feature leading experts from Harvard Kennedy School who answer your questions on public policy and current events. Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener's role in proposing and supporting this series, as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
- Good day, everyone. I'm very pleased to welcome you to this Wiener Conference Call. I'm Ariadne Valsamis from the Office of Alumni Relations and Resource Development, and I wanna particularly thank Dr. Malcolm Wiener who supports the Kennedy School in this call and in so many other ways. Today we have the great pleasure of welcoming professor of public policy Eliana La Ferrara, who joined the Kennedy School last year from Bocconi University in Italy. As an economist who works in development and political economics, Eliana focuses on the role of social factors in economic development, combining field work, empirical analysis, and microeconomic theory to address questions at the intersection of economics and other social sciences. We are so fortunate she's agreed to share her expertise today with the Kennedy School's alumni and friends. Eliana, over to you.
- Thank you, Ariadne, and thank you all for participating this call and giving me the opportunity to talk to you about my research. I would also like to, in particular, thank Dr. Wiener for the support to the school and for making this series available. So today I want to give you an overview of a line of research that I've been pursuing through the years in which I basically try to use the tools of different social sciences combined with economics, of course, I'm an economist, to tackle problems related to poverty. So let me share my screen. And hopefully you're seeing presentation mode right now? Okay, great. So if you look at the trends in global poverty over the past 50 years or so, you see a steady decline. So it's clear that the world today is in a better place when it comes to poverty headcount ratios, how many people are below the poverty line, but there persists very, you know, high extent of poverty, especially concentrated in the Sub-Saharan African region, and as well as extreme inequality. So we still have a long way to go when it comes to poverty reduction. Of course, these averages also mask poverty within countries. So even industrialized countries and high-income countries like the US have clearly pockets of poverty within themselves. This gives you a snapshot at the country level. So traditional explanations and policies have focused around lack of endowments or resources, as well as lack of information or knowledge or, you know, access to technology. And what I want to do today is focus on a set of issues that are maybe not so well-explored, you know, but nowadays are at the forefront of what we're trying to do in research. That is the role that social factors play. And we're gonna try and understand how they shape individuals' economic outcomes and whether they constitute constraints or opportunities. So this will allow us to use the tools of economics, modeling, data analysis, but get insights from sociology, anthropology, psychology, first of all to understand realities that are intrinsically complex, but also to propose policy solutions that can be innovative. So I decided to give you a flavor of three strands of research that I've been pursuing that have these common trend of social aspects being important in all of them, but touch upon slightly different questions. One is the role of kinship, social ties, and social norms in development. The other is stereotypes and implicit biases that people have and that might disproportionately affect the poor or disadvantaged groups in society. And third is using social influence as mediated by media. In particular, talk of television, about television, but you can also use similar tools with social media nowadays to reach people and transmit pro-development content. So let me start from the first batch of results and evidence that is around kinship norms. If you think about kinship as an opportunity, one good example is to think about insurance, okay? One fact about the poor is that they're typically more vulnerable to income shocks than people who have wealth accumulated or savings. And when you think about the rural poor, one source of such shocks is clearly weather fluctuations and agriculture. And historically, formal insurance products were not available in many rural and remote areas. Nowadays things are much better, although takeup of such products is also still quite low. And if you are not insured against these income shocks, what you would experience is wide fluctuations in consumption. When the harvest is good, you eat, when it's not good, you starve. And we're talking about people who are already at subsistence. So these fluctuations can potentially bring you below subsistence level. And it's quite common during the lean season for people to skip meals, for example. Now, in this setting, it has been understood and documented that informal risk-sharing networks can help smooth consumption. So if I have a bad year and my neighbor or my relative can help, we enter this implicit understanding that when their turn comes and they will have a bad year, I will be the one lending a hand. And having family links in this setting has a particular advantage because if I cheat on a family member, this is gonna be immediately well-known, and I will be punished for that. So there is a sense in which these social links can help acquire information about the reliability of different potential business partners, for example, but also enforce, punish those who violate informal agreements. And in some early work I did on credit in Ghana, I showed that it was much more common for people to borrow and lend to relatives precisely because these advantages could be leveraged. So this could be a good thing, right? Being in a tight-knit community gives you access to informal insurance. What's the flip side of this? The flip side of this is that expectations then start coming your way. And research has shown that Sub-Saharan Africa in particular has a very strong set of egalitarian norms. People who have surplus are expected to share it. And this has traditionally limited individual wealth accumulation, sometimes with extreme consequences. So some of the traditions around supernatural beliefs, witchcraft and so on, are historically applied to individuals who get rich very fast. This is something that the community doesn't like. Now, one consequence of this is that people may be discouraged from accumulating wealth or saving because they fear that demands on those savings will come from all over. And there are some very interesting studies done by colleagues in Cameroon, for example, where they found that members of credit cooperatives who had their own savings in liquid accounts actually borrowed. So they were paying higher interest than what they were getting on the account. Why? Because they wanted to have an excuse that they could use with relatives if they were approached saying, "Sorry, "I cannot give you money because I have a loan to repay." Another study that was done in Kenya basically got participants into rooms where they were playing investment games. So they were given some money that they could invest, earn certain returns, and what they did was they varied whether relatives were watching and seeing how much you were earning or whether there was a private experiment. And what the other researchers found is that especially women, when there is someone who's watching, prefer to sacrifice returns for the option of not disclosing the final income that they make. So the idea is, if I can hide the money, I'm willing to even take lower return precisely because I have these demands on my money. So this is all about, all within, you know, influence that we may or may not have experienced in our lives, so when we deal with relatives or social connections. There are social norms that are maybe more extreme or more specific of certain culture and that can be harmful also in objective terms related, for example, to health. And some of these norms are still widespread in the developing world. Here I listed just three examples, child marriage, the practice of dowry, which in India, for example, very often amount to a full year of income and parents don't know where to find this money to marry their daughter. And then what I want to talk to you today is female genital cutting. And these practices have clear effects on the ability to accumulate education and on one's health status, hence they affect human capital, and they seem not to have any economic benefit or clear function. So why do they persist, and what can we do to reduce their prevalence? So over the past three, four years, I've been studying these questions, focusing on this practice of female genital cutting. What is it? It's the practice of cutting or removing part of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It's an initiation ritual. It's often done to girls between infancy and age 15, and it's performed by traditional circumcisor. So there's a lot of risk just because, you know, the tools used and the setting is not one where you can clearly control the risk of infection. It's not a, you know, marginal phenomenon. It affects over 200 million girls and women in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. And it has serious health consequence, both at the time of cutting, bleeding, infection, and later in life. For example, it can be associated with difficulty in delivering a child. So here you see a map of Africa with some prevalence rates, and darker colors correspond to higher prevalence rates. You see places like Somalia, where virtually every single woman is cut, but even Egypt, it's not well-known, but 91% of the women have female genital mutilation. And if you go to the Western part of Africa, there are countries there with very high prevalence rate, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and, you know, it is clear that this is a practice that is still quite ubiquitous in many parts of the continent. So why does this practice persist? And one simple explanation is, especially for the milder forms that are not too invasive, people might underestimate the health costs. And, you know, it's often perceived as something that could be a signal of virtue for the woman because it reduces her incentives to go and look for physical pleasure from other partners that might not be her husband. Another possibility is that people attribute cultural value to the practice. And this is a very serious motive because once it's embedded in somebody's culture, giving it up is like abandoning, to some extent, one's own identity. And I won't talk about it today, but one of the approaches that we've used with colleagues is to propose a practice that preserves this identity component, but without the cut. And finally, not finally, one third reason could be misperception. So it could be that people believe that everyone else in the community is in favor, but the truth is that privately, maybe people are not. So this is something that is called pluralistic ignorance in social psychology. And I'm gonna tell you how we exploited this idea to potentially work on an approach that realigns beliefs with the actual support. And finally, people might fail to coordinate. Maybe everybody knows that it's not a great idea, but they don't want to be the first movers, they don't want to be the first one to abandon because they are afraid of being punished, social sanctions. And there are NGOs like Tostan, for example, is quite famous, that have worked on so-called public declarations by convincing a number of families within communities to together pledge that they will not cut their girls. And the idea here is that you're trying to reach a tipping point where if enough people are against the practice, then basically the whole community will move from an equilibrium where everybody cuts to an equilibrium where nobody cuts. So together with colleagues, I've worked in Somalia on a large-scale intervention where we selected 141 communities, we organized community meetings separately for men and women. And the first thing we did there was we asked them to cast a vote in an anonymous way. They just had a piece of paper that said yes or no, no names on it. And they had to say whether they were in favor of abolishing Pharaonic circumcision, which is a very extreme and, you know, very invasive form of female circumcision. And we also said, you will receive a small compensation in the form of airtime if you can guess what the other people are actually gonna vote, okay? So this for us was a way of not only getting a truthful picture of how much support there is, because when I vote yes or no without putting my name, I don't have any incentive to lie, but also of getting a measure of what are my beliefs about community support, because I wanna try and get that money, hence I'm gonna try and guess the real opinion of everyone else, okay? So this is kind of the preliminary part of the intervention, which gives us the measurements before we do anything. Then we randomly divided those 141 communities in four groups. One, the C line here, is the control group, nothing else happens. We end the meeting. Then there is a first treatment, T1, where we announce the results of the poll. So we open the box and we say, "Hey, 30 people, 18 in favor of abandoning and 12 against," for example. In a second group, T2, we played a coordination game where we drew a circle on the floor and we said, "If you are in favor of abolishing this extreme form, "just step into the circle." So this is like a, you know, kind of lab-in-the-field equivalent of the public declarations that the NGOs are doing. And finally, there was a third group where we did both, we both announced the results of the poll and we had this coordination game. So what did we find? First of all, we found that people were overestimating support for this most invasive form of FGC. So they thought that many more would want to continue compared to the real opinions. Second, once we announced what the actual support is, we saw a reduction in Pharaonic circumcision rates two years later. Although what we also saw was that an intermediate form, which is less harmful, but it's still circumcision, it's called Sunna, actually that part went up. So it's as if people substituted from the most harmful to the intermediate one. And in separate work, I've been trying to understand whether this is actually a good thing or not from the point of view of eventually abandoning the practice, because you could think that it helps, you know, make a small step and then make another small step, but it could also happen that precisely because this intermediate form is not so harmful, it will become what we call an absorbing state. It might become the new norm forever, okay? And so there's other work that I don't report today where we discuss this norm transition and the role of intermediate norms. And we also found that this coordination exercise we did with the circle was largely ineffective. So that part didn't change circumcision rates at all, okay? So this was what I wanted to tell you about norms. And again, I'm very happy to go back to it and discuss more during the Q & A part of the call. Let me talk now about stereotypes. And for those of us who, you know, are sensitive about discrimination bias, which I suppose is probably all, we know that part of this could come from explicit, you know, intent of a person. But a part might simply come from something that, you know, we internalize as we grow up or as we are exposed to messages during our lives. And these are stereotypes, okay? And when these stereotypes are systematically negative towards underprivileged groups, this could actually lead these groups to internalize that negative image and cut back on their efforts. So in the area of education, that's what I'm gonna be talking about, if I'm a kid who perceives that nobody thinks I can make it to college, why should I bother studying hard when I'm in high school? I will just give up, and then this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, okay? So some of the work I've done in Italy on stereotypes and immigrant children is basically one attempt to think about how in today's societies where clearly communities have become much more diverse, children of immigrant groups might face potential discrimination in schools, okay? So the way nowadays some organizations are trying to counteract this role of stereotypes is, for example, organizing implicit bias training or other forms of awareness for their employees. But there is very little research on whether this works or not. And you know, some of the research that's out there is not too positive. What I've done with another colleague at HKS, Michela Carlana, is to basically work with teachers in Italy and dig deeper. So first, test whether stereotypes lead to discrimination against immigrants, and second, check whether once you become aware that you have stereotypes, you change your behavior, okay? So I will not discuss these graphs for in the interest of time. They basically tell us that the Italians teachers give lower grades to immigrant relative to native students with the same level of ability where ability is measured by a standardized test score. So it's kind of an objective proxy. I want to tell you how instead we measure this implicit bias and what we do about it. So we use a tool that's called implicit association test, AIT. And this tool has been designed by social psychologists, some of whom at Harvard. And it consists in a quick computer task that you do to pair two concepts as fast as you can. And the idea is that the speed in associating these concepts is a proxy for how common these two are in your mental process. Sorry. I apologize. Let me tone down a bit, hopefully you hear me. So this is a typical screenshot of an IAT. You see name in the middle that is clearly an immigrant name. And then you are supposed to hit right or left depending on which of the two top corners this name belongs to. So in this case, you see it's an immigrant name, so you should hit right, but what's happening is that this corner includes the word good next to immigrant. So if you are someone who doesn't commonly associate immigrants with good, you're gonna be a little bit slower in hitting this right button. Then in a screen where the immigrant word is in a corner with the adjective bad, okay? So what the IAT does. It reshuffles these words. And then you get pictures or names popping up, and it computes a speed, an average speed in the cases where immigrant is with good and immigrant is with bad. And then if you're systematically slower in screenshots like this one, you turn out being implicitly biased. So what we've done is with these teachers, we have them take an IAT, and then we say, "Would you like to receive an email with your score?" And most of them said, "Yes, I want to know what my score is." And then their score was placed into thresholds that could be no bias, slight, moderate, or strong. And everybody received the email, but we randomized when the email was sent out. For half of the teachers, it was the week before they were meeting to give the end-of-term grades. For the other half, it was the week after, okay? So for the second group, it was too late to change their grades. For the first group, it was not. And we went back to see whether the treated teachers gave different grades to immigrants relative to natives. And what we found was that the bias in grading went down, okay? So if I got this email telling me, look, your score actually suggests that you have implicit bias, when I get to the meeting, I end up choosing a grade that's more favorable to immigrants relative to the bad grade I would otherwise give. And this suggests that teachers were not aware or had not fully internalized their stereotypes because otherwise I'm not giving them any new information. Basically, they already know, right? And in fact, we had one of our survey questions, which was, should immigrants have the same right to jobs as native Italians? And the teachers who said, "No, they shouldn't," those teachers did not react to our treatment, okay? So what are the policy implications? Interventions aimed at increasing awareness of implicit stereotypes can help counteract discrimination. So for example, having committee members taking an IAT and learning that they may or may not have implicit bias, the caveat, of course, is that possibly you might overreact and then, you know, maybe penalize one group compared to the other. So Ariadne, I don't know if you want me to stop or I have about five more minutes of--
- I think we should continue, and please take a moment and take a drink and catch your breath there. I know how hard it is when the coughing starts, so don't worry. That would be wonderful if you could continue.
- Thank you. I will stop if I see that I cannot talk anymore. And, you know, just so you know, it's something called reflux, which makes me cough. So it has to do with my stomach and I apologize for that. Okay, so media, that's the last thing I want to tell you about. And I started working on media, you know, because I was motivated by a graph like this. In the left part, you see the rate of TV ownership across some African countries between 1990 and 2010. You see how it's growing sometimes by a factor of five, okay? On the right-hand side, you see the share of women with secondary education. It's also increasing. You see, it takes more time to build that, okay? And I'm absolutely someone who believes in education, and I would put all my funds in that. But the point I'm trying to make is that there is a low-hanging fruit there, which is many people have been acquiring TV sets and watching TV programs end up, is there anything we can do to exploit that? So can we use television? And nowadays you would say social media or smartphones. When I started it was television as a vehicle for development policy. And for many behavior-change campaigns that target deep preferences like fertility, sexual behavior, gender-based violence, we really don't have a strong case that traditional information campaigns have been so effective. So recently there's been a move to approaches that are based on media and that try to mix education and entertainment. And that's what I want to give you a flavor of in this last part, which is the so-called edutainment. What is that? So before telling you what that is, even without explicit educational goals, there's evidence that TV programs affect behavior. And I've done some work on Brazil. I think there might be someone from Brazil in the audience here. So they can confirm that novelas are actually very big parts of Brazilian life. They're a pretty high-end product. It's not like a cheap soap opera. There are historical reasons for that. But the evolution of this is that there's a media conglomerate called Rede Globo, which since 1965, has been expanded in the countries and becoming basically almost a monopolist in the production of soap operas with audience rate of 60 to 90%. And in the early days, one striking feature is that basically most of the soap operas you could see were with unconventional female characters, either people with just one child or zero children, not so often married, many more were divorced or separated than it was true in Brazilian society. And the reason for this was not any ideological preference of global owners, it was that the plots of these soaps were so complicated that if every character had five children, the viewers couldn't follow at all, okay? So just because of this accident, quote unquote, we have a natural experiment where viewers were exposed to small families on TV. And we are asking, did this exposure to a small family affect the desired family size, okay? So we wrote a paper where we were exploiting the fact that Globo was entering different municipalities at different time to check whether fertility was changing across these municipalities precisely after Globo entered. And what we found was that already one year later, you saw the fertility rate going down, and the effect was large. It was comparable to giving two more years of education to women, okay? It was also particularly strong for women who were poor and less educated because these are the women who can easily see these role models on TV, but they are those who may not instead be reached by traditional, you know, knowledge about contraceptive methods and so on in the absence of targeted interventions. So the next step is to say, okay, we've seen that even when you don't want it, what you show on TV affects people's behavior. How about doing it on purpose? And here this edutainment is basically the strategic placement of role models or socially desirable behavior within entertainment programs. And why could it work? There's an interesting literature from psychologists and communication studies that says that first, these role modeling and exemplifications can increase self-efficacy, can help people see how others have set feasible goals. Second, because you are immersed in the narrative, you don't feel like you are being lectured, okay? And hence you reduce the so-called counter-arguing. You don't raise these barriers that prevent you from absorbing the message. And finally, there's no information overload. It's pretty simple to follow. So together with Abhijit Banerjee and Victor Rosco, we worked to evaluate the impact of this TV series called "Shuga" produced by MTV International, which basically aims at promoting HIV testing, reducing risky sexual behavior, and reducing stigma towards HIV positive people. And what we did was we targeted young population in Southwest Nigeria, and we basically created a series of screening centers that could be like community centers or rooms in schools where we invited young people to come, and we randomized whether we were showing the third season of "Shuga" or another soap opera, which was still produced and screened and filmed in Nigeria but had no educational content, okay? So we did this in the fall of 2014, and we went back to collect data in the summer of 2015. And what did we find? We found, first of all, that knowledge about HIV transmission improved, attitudes towards HIV positive people and testing also improved. Here is a story about, that's in the movie about a kid who's HIV positive because his mom gave it to him, and he's ostracized by the football team where he plays. But then things go well, and then we put a question in our questionnaire whether you agree that an HIV positive kid should allow to play football. And we see the answers to that increasing by 12% among the people who watched "Shuga" relative to the control group. And then the most important outcome for us was, of course, testing, which doubled. We had fewer sexual concurrences, which is a risk factor for HIV, fewer chlamydia infections, less reported sexual violence. Although a big failure was that we didn't manage to move at all the propensity to use condoms. So even the lower rate of sexually transmitted infections is mostly due to a change in the type of partner that they have, rather than the change in whether they use a condom or not, okay? And we also find that the effects are stronger for viewers who are more involved in the narrative. So I want to conclude by saying that overall, I think there is an exciting agenda which merges the tool of economists with those of social psychologists, communication experts, and allows you to maybe complement, not substitute other forms of development policy. And I'd be very happy to now get your feedback, questions, or any comments. Thank you.
- Thank you so much, Professor La Ferrara. That was wonderful. We're going to open the session up now for your questions. To ask a question, please use the virtual hand raising feature of Zoom, and please, in good Kennedy School fashion, keep your question brief and end it with a question mark. You'll be notified via Zoom's chat feature when it's your turn to speak. Please be sure to unmute yourself when you hear from the staff. And finally, we would all appreciate it if you could state your Kennedy School affiliation. And I would like to start things off with a question that was submitted earlier by Scott Bradford, PhD 1998. Scott's question is, what have been the main mechanisms through which people have actually escaped poverty since World War II, education, foreign aid, economic freedom and growth, immigration, political freedom, or others?
- Thank you, Ariadne, and thank you Scott for submitting this question. It's a very big one. And I cannot do justice to all, but let me maybe touch on two broad families of explanations. One is more macro and has to do basically with growth and globalization. So if we think of what's happened after World War II, there has been increased openness to trade for many countries. This has created access to market opportunities and ultimately jobs. And also if you think about technological innovation, it's a period where huge advances have been made, which have increased firm's productivity, again, creating jobs. All of this feeds into higher growth rates. Similarly, investment in the area of health, education improves, the stock of human capital increases, again, production and growth through that. So there are many reasons why, you know, the growth rates of countries that were in extreme poverty have managed to lift them up. And we know that those declines I showed you in the beginning are basically driven by China and India, you know, achieving these extremely high growth rates over this period. But there is a second class of explanations that has more to do with policy and also government intervention. And this has to do with our ability to use social safety nets and social welfare programs to tackle really the population that's more at risk. So think about cash transfer programs. A very famous examples are the so-called CCTs, conditional cash transfers, in Mexico, , in Brazil, . Now, those programs basically give a monthly stipend to households that are below the poverty rate, and there's some conditionality attached, mostly in the form of sending your kids to school for a certain amount of school time. And these have been easier to support politically because the conditionality makes it, in the view of the taxpayer, something that has, you know, a long-term prospect of getting people out of poverty because through education, you know, these kids will be in a better position tomorrow and has helped cope with the extreme pockets of poverty in these countries. And recent research has even tried removing the conditionality part and saying, let's give unconditional , and has found equally strong effects. There are also approaches by NGOs, both in the area of microfinance and the famous microcredit, microfinance movement. While not necessarily successful at generating, you know, high growth rates and business growth at certain levels, it has certainly been successful as an anti-poverty policy. But also new approaches like the one by BRAC, the Bangladeshi Rural Advancement Committee that started in Bangladesh and it's now all over the world. These are the so-called graduation programs where extremely poor women, mostly, get a package that includes asset transfers, like a cow, for example. They get training. They get, you know, some access to microfinance. And so, there's a package of, it's like, you know, the poverty trap literature where to get people out of a poverty trap, you need a massive investment. So they get the type of massive investment, and studies replicated around the world have shown pretty consistent positive results in permanent exit from poverty for these households up to like 15 years later. So I would say these are some of the factors and approaches that have contributed.
- Thank you. I wanna remind people, you can use the virtual raise your hand feature on Zoom, and I'm gonna go with another one of our, another few of our pre-submitted questions because several people asked about education, and I wonder if you could share what you've learned about how to boost efforts in education. Have you found there are ways in particular to boost student aspirations that might have an impact on economic development?
- Oh sure. Of course, this is an area where a lot of people have been doing research and investment in education, and, you know, attempts to increase educational achievement broadly fall into two classes of factors. One is the demand-driven approach, which is are families demanding enough education for their children? Another is the supply factors, like do we have enough schools? Do we have enough teachers? Are teachers motivated? Are teachers competent? So there's a lot of research done on all this, on how to increase demand, improve supply. The point you mentioned about aspirations is, again, something more recent and something that blends these, you know, psychology and economics approaches. And there are a few things I can mention. One is a study that I didn't do, but a couple of studies that I didn't do. And they were done in Africa, one in Ethiopia by a group from Oxford where they showed documentaries of successful, you know, villagers who had started a small business. And they saw that the families who saw these documentaries invested more in the education of their children. So there was this aspirational component. Another is a very nice paper by Emma Riley, a young researcher also from Oxford, where she took this movie "Queen of Katwe," I don't know if any of you saw it. It's basically a young female chess player from Uganda who out of a slum, basically learns how to play chess and becomes a champion. And she showed it to kids one week before they took the test, like a big test, I think at the end of secondary school or between the transition to secondary school, I forget which level, but she invited them to the movie theater. And once you arrived, you would get a ticket that would say either "Queen of Katwe" or another movie, okay? And so you were just randomly split. And what she saw is that one week later, the girls who had been assigned to "Queen of Katwe" did much better in maths, okay? So it's not that they were studying more because it was very, very close to the exam, but this idea of feeling empowered and aspiration. So I myself have worked on this in the context I described in Italy with immigrant students, and what we did there, still with Michela Carlana and Paolo Pinoti, another colleague from Milan, we worked to provide high-achieving immigrant students with counseling about future educational opportunities. So in Italy, like in many European countries, tracking happens very early. So around the age 14, you have to choose whether the high school you go to is vocational, it's something that's more like humanities oriented, more science oriented. So there are different layers and they're clearly ranked in terms of prestige and income, you know, subsequent job opportunities. And we saw that immigrant students, even the good ones, ended up choosing vocational schools very often. And so these counselors were working with them to basically say, let's look at what you can achieve and if you have the capabilities, you know, consider these other options. And we saw that, especially for boys, this program helped them go to a higher-ranked track, and they were not doing any worse than those who had gone to the easier track. So there was, in fact, an aspiration failure, so to speak, that we managed to address.
- That's wonderful. We have a participant ready to ask a question. Please identify yourself, state your affiliation, and ask your question.
- [Monte] Good afternoon, Professor Ferrara. Monte McMurchy calling at present from Toronto. However, preparing to return back to DR Congo where I've spent the past 10 years off and on. First of all, allow me to commend you and congratulate you on your moral courage in how you're conducting your research. In terms of, shall we say, female--
- Genital cutting.
- [Monte] To me, it's a form of pernicious torture, notwithstanding the social context. And in terms of education where I have devoted the majority of my time, female empowerment in terms of education is absolutely essential. And my question to you is, are you optimistic in terms of your research or how are you feeling? Because I suspect that at times, you must be very, very depressed because at times, I become extremely, shall we say, disengaged, but there is something that is compelling me, propelling me to keep doing, to afflict the comfortable, provide comfort to those who are afflicted. And yes, what are your thoughts in terms of the future based on the research that you've conducted in the past? And thank you.
- Thank you. This is, well, it's kind of a soul-searching opportunity you're giving me right now. Let me say I'm more optimistic about the work I've done in education than about the one I've done on female genital cutting. So with education, I've seen these, you know, kids change their high school choice. There's a program I did with Michela Carlana on tutoring online during the pandemic in Italy where we found basically university students who volunteered to give three to six hours of free tutoring and help the kids, the disadvantaged kids, not fall back. And this program, this tutoring online program has now been exported in Latin America. And, you know, it's something where I worked, I saw the fruit and I'm like optimistic. Female genital cutting, maybe I've been trying to tackle something that is very hard to change, that requires societal changes more than just individual choices. So there is something on these, you know, intentions to cut. When we collected data in Somalia. We did see movement on people's intentions, but I came out of that experience with the conviction that unless a broader part of society, including, for example, religious leaders, because while Pharaonic circumcision has nothing to do with Islam in Somalia, there is some association that people make between being a good Muslim and Sunna. And it's not the case overall in the Muslim world, but in that country, that association is made. And so having religious leaders on board in that case could help a lot, which is something I haven't done in my attempts. There's some work we are doing with in Sierra Leone where we've worked with a local NGO that tries to propose an alternative practice. So in Sierra Leone, FGC goes under the name of Bondo, which means bush. And it's a ritual where girls for one month are taken as a group to the bush, and it's actually something very positive for them because they're taught how to be good mothers, good wives, they form bonds that they keep for their entire life. It's like, you know, a set of people you know you will rely on, your cohort of young women. So all that part is something that parents are very reluctant to give up because they feel they would deprive their daughter of a support network. But at the end of that month, there is the ritual of cutting. And so with this NGO, we've tried to hold meetings where we say, "How about we find another signal, another sign, sorry, "that is not the cut, "but it's something that still symbolizes this membership "but is less harmful." And we are seeing some effects of that. But again, it's maybe a little too early to tell, too soon to tell. So I would say on that front, I don't feel like I have arrived at a place where I'm super happy, but I think it's still important to continue trying, but it needs to be a change that the communities themselves decide and own. I don't see this as in any way feasible if it's a part of a, kind of top-down approach.
- Thank you so much. I'm gonna try to get in two questions because in the interest of time, I'm gonna ask them quickly, although they're very thoughtfully asked in the chat. The first one is from Elizabeth McAllister who has a mid-career MPA from 1989, and she wanted to return to the TV interventions. And her question is about sensationalizing violence on TV. She says, in my career in development, local sociologists have claimed that the USA shows have a big impact on young boys who started car chases and increased use of guns. And she's wondering if you have recommendations about how to address the impact of negative role models in communications and social media. And then I'm gonna slip in because it's also a US question, Mark Pomper's question. Mark has an MPA from 1984 and he wants to know if there are any domestic, i.e. US efforts in addressing poverty that have shown promise. And I don't know if you can do both, but I thought I'd put them both out there because I think this will be our last answer. Thank you so much.
- Okay, thank you, Ariadne. So Mark, I'll start from yours because I don't feel qualified enough to give a broad overview. I can tell you a part of the efforts that I'm more familiar with, not the one more with transfers or, you know, social welfare, but the one that has to do with education, so kind of long-term approach to reducing poverty. And the US has been also at the forefront of some very interesting experimentation, mostly with policies related to access to schools of different qualities and including some early experiment back in the 70s about relocating disadvantaged families in school districts with good education. The Moving to Opportunity program is a famous one, and it has been shown to have long-term impacts on social mobility, but also more recently on kind of incentives for students to perform better and, you know, work at the school level to improve social mobility of disadvantaged groups. But let me maybe devote a bit more time to the question I know more about, which is the one about the negative and sensational coverage of messages that we don't like so much. I think that's actually a very big limitation of the approach that I discussed because ultimately, if you want the entertainment part to capture your audience, you have to give in to the tastes of the audience to some extent, okay? And this could be having gossip, you know, people betraying one another. It could be many things. In some cases, it can be actually violence. And so what's, I think, the state of the art right now is that it's not easy to draw a causal effect on from being exposed to this type of violence on TV, for example, to what you do. Why? Because the individuals who choose to watch those programs might be those who are already inclined or have a certain taste or propensity for those behaviors, right? So we see the association for sure, okay, but whether it was caused by the TV program or given that you were that type of person who chose to watch a TV program is hard to establish. And that's why, for example, in the Nigeria work I did, we didn't say, "Oh, "Shuga" is on television. "Did you watch it? "Let me run a poll with those who watch it," because we would've gotten people who had certain tastes for the topic. We went down and said, "I give you access and I don't give you access." So in the case of movie violence, the best piece of research we have from a methodological perspective is a paper by Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna where they exploited the timing at which violent movies were released in theaters. And basically, on the opening weekend, they went and looked at the official crime statistics in the area where the movie was being released, and they found something that was completely counterintuitive. So they found that violence went actually down instead of going up immediately after this release of the movie. And the way they explain it is that there is an incapacitation effect. So, you know, that Saturday night, those violent types, instead of being around in the streets were in the movie theater watching the movie, okay? So this, I think, is an answer that is convincing in terms of methodology. It is true, this is the effect. It doesn't necessarily speak to the longer-term effect of what are these movies when they circulate and they shape people's preferences or tastes in a certain way, what are they going to imply for later? So the bottom line is that either the producers find a way of detaching a bit from the tastes in those cases where the taste would involve negative role modeling, or maybe the approach is not as desirable as one could take.
- Thank you so much, Professor La Ferrara. We've come to the end of our time, and we really appreciate you for doing this with us. Thank you to everyone who joined us for the call. Our next Wiener Conference Call will be on March 23rd with former Governor Deval Patrick, who now heads the Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership. And we very much hope you will join us again. Again, thank you so much. Bye-bye all.
- Much all for participating and for your questions.