Chris Barrett takes a collaborative approach to the world's poorest people

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Chris Barrett at the edge of the hippopotamus-filled Mara River in Kenya.

Chris Barrett's economic development research takes him into the most poverty-stricken areas of rural Africa, the halls of Washington, D.C., and back to Cornell University, where he collaborates with biophysical and social scientists on innovative ways to improve the lives of some of the poorest people on Earth.

Barrett, an international professor in the Department of Applied Economics and Management, works primarily on rural poverty and hunger problems. In summarizing why he does what he does, he quotes the opening sentences of economist Ted Schultz's 1979 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

"Most of the people in the world are poor, so if we knew the economics of being poor, we would know much of the economics that really matters. Most of the world's poor people earn their living from agriculture, so if we knew the economics of agriculture, we would know much of the economics of being poor."

But Barrett also speaks of the "moral imperative that undergirds much development research."

As co-director of the African Food Security and Natural Resources Management program for the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, he is a man on a mission -- and it is very much an applied calling. In mid-March Barrett met with Washington lawmakers to address food aid reform, and in early April he took off for Benin, West Africa, to help plan research priorities for international agricultural research centers.

"Ultimately, I'm interested in improving the well-being of the poorest members of humankind and doing what we can in practical terms to help them help themselves," he said.

In 2005 Barrett published two significant volumes: "Food Aid After Fifty Years: Recasting Its Role," co-authored with Daniel G. Maxwell; and an edited collection, "The Social Economics of Poverty: On Identities, Communities, Groups and Networks," both published by Routledge.

The books reflect the key threads of Barrett's research program, with the exception of his important work on environmental stress in developing areas.

"The rural poor depend disproportionately on nature for their livelihoods, and that introduces matters of sustainability that are absolutely essential to survival," he said.

His book on international food aid continues to draw attention from the media and policy-makers as the issue has become a political hot potato. Food aid "is one of the most complex and misunderstood instruments of contemporary international policy," Barrett said.

Images of small children in refugee camps getting food from aid workers is a far cry from the realities of the Byzantine system.

From cargo preference restrictions that require 75 percent of all food aid to be carried on U.S. ships and minimum bagging and processing requirements to aid winding up in the wrong hands, food aid seriously underperforms its potential to serve the poor and vulnerable. Donor agencies, nongovernmental organizations and private businesses are struggling over "how to make the best use of this overtaxed and often misused resource," Barrett said. His book lays out strategies to make the program more effective, and he provides an overview of food aid in a lucid Cornell Adult University CyberTower lecture available free online.

"The Social Economics of Poverty" looks at how social relationships and their trappings affect the phenomena of poverty traps -- situations where people remain in perpetual deprivation. In it, eminent economists acknowledge they have a lot to learn from the other social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc.) in order to understand why poverty persists in a world with abundant resources.

"The book is aimed at informing economists of the value of spending time with other social science literature," Barrett said. "But it's also about getting economists to think about how to integrate conventional, quantitative economic analysis with more qualitative approaches to thinking about power, social exclusion, prejudice and culture."

Very much a collaborator, Barrett said he is grateful to be at a place like Cornell where, for instance, there are "first-rate biophysical scientists who actually understand agro-eco systems and will explain things to me."

The African Food Security and Natural Resources Management program is supported by the National Science Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and USAID. Barrett somehow finds time to serve as one of four editors of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, among the world's premier applied economics journals.