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Northwestern University

Confronting Global Poverty

Development economists like Christopher Udry are identifying the root causes of poverty in the developing world — and potential solutions

Economist Christopher Udry has never forgotten his 10-year-old neighbor in Ghana, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer after college.

The girl was bright, motivated and spoke five languages. She nevertheless quit school to take care of her siblings while her mother worked to support her family.

“Think of the lost value to the world — all the undeveloped ideas and unrecognized creativity,” Udry says. “Hundreds of millions of kids just like her are born into poverty, without an opportunity to realize their potential.”

Unwilling to accept that reality, Udry has spent his career since then studying the economics of developing nations. Today, Udry is among the foremost U.S. authorities on development in Africa.

A compelling intellectual challenge

Udry — who began his academic career as an assistant professor at Northwestern in 1990 — has returned to the University after 19 years at Yale, where he directed the Economic Growth Center and served as the chair of the economics department. He is a recognized expert in development economics, a field that has been growing in prominence in recent years.

The field takes on questions that range from the pragmatic, such as the effectiveness of efforts to raise living standards, to deep questions of social theory, such as the root causes of famine. Its rise has been spurred by the proliferation and availability of data on individuals and households, as well as sweeping transformations in the world economy that have altered some fortunes but not others.

“The combination of an extreme affront to social justice, a compelling intellectual challenge and new tools and resources to tackle the issue makes development economics very attractive for new scholars,” Udry says.

Udry has conducted extensive field research in West Africa, exploring areas such as technological change in agriculture; the use of financial markets, asset accumulation and gift exchange to cope with risk; and gender relations and the structure of household economies.

Effecting change, improving lives

At Northwestern, Udry is taking that work to a new level as he co-leads the University’s Global Poverty Research Lab along with Kellogg School of Management economist Dean Karlan. The lab, a Buffett Institute initiative, uses the power of empirical evidence to address poverty and improve well-being in the developing world. It already hosts a research cluster in Ghana that tracks the long-term welfare of families, as well as novel projects on gender and economic behavior, social protection programs and the use of technology in agriculture.

“We want to take the lessons of our research and connect those ideas to policy debates around the world to effect change and improve lives,” Udry says.

These efforts, along with the work of many of Udry’s colleagues, “put Northwestern well on its way to becoming a major hub in an international research network on economic development,” says Lawrence Christiano, the Alfred W. Chase Professor and chair of the Department of Economics.

“The fact that many people on our planet continue to live in dire poverty is one of the major problems of our time,” Christiano says. “Northwestern will become a significant player in this area of scholarship.”

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