Cornell heads up international effort to relieve poverty in sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where poverty keeps getting worse, a Cornell economist says. His new mission: to head up a major, collaborative research effort with a strong focus on policy that will have a major impact on improving the lives of millions of poor Africans.

“Poverty is pervasive and worsening in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Erik Thorbecke, the H.E. Babcock Professor of Economics and Food Economics at Cornell. “In fact, in all the developing regions of the world, the severity of poverty and malnutrition is greatest in that subcontinent and is also growing at the fastest rate on Earth.”

Thorbecke has been fighting poverty worldwide for more than 30 years, consulting or working with economists in Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, the Philippines, Greece, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kenya, Zaire, Ghana and Tunisia, among others.

An expert on poverty and malnutrition alleviation in developing countries, Thorbecke was commissioned last year by the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC) to assess the impact and effectiveness of its research quality, competence and relevance to policy. The consortium is a network of 120 economic researchers devoted to strengthening the capacity to conduct independent, rigorous inquiry into problems related to economic development and policy in 22 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

In response, Thorbecke published his evaluation as a monograph, The AERC Research Program: An Evaluation (AERC Special Paper  21). In that 81-page booklet, Thorbecke described the AERC research program as “an extraordinarily successful operation” but recommended that the consortium seek to better understand the various dimensions of poverty that is so endemic to the region.

“My major recommendation was that they undertake a new research theme consisting of poverty, employment, labor markets, human capital and the fiscal role of government with reference to human resources,” said Thorbecke, former chair of the Department of Economics at Cornell and now director of the Program of Comparative Economic Development and professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and the Department of Economics.

When that recommendation was accepted by the consortium, which is supported by an $8 million budget from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, USAID, The World Bank, the British Ministry of Overseas Development, among other private foundations, bilateral aid agencies and international organizations, the AERC decided to move forward with the collaborative research, asking Thorbecke to coordinate a four-year project with African scholar Ali Abdel Gader Ali.

The total budget of this project is $3.8 million, including grants from the Ford Foundation and USAID to fund training and research activities at Cornell. Key participants at Cornell include a team of economists within the Cornell Food and Nutrition Policy Program directed by David Sahn, professor of nutritional sciences, and Gary Fields, professor of industrial and labor relations.

Thorbecke and his collaborator will be gathering information on the magnitude of poverty in 15 African countries that would shed light on appropriate policy. The project will draw heavily on the rich data source of household surveys that have been conducted under the auspices of the World Bank and will develop economic models to better understand the data.

Thorbecke credits his endowed chair, which he has held for almost 20 years, for enabling him to participate in numerous initiatives over the years to better understand the development experience of different countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

“The endowment has allowed me to co-sponsor about half a dozen major conferences on issues related to poverty and economic development,” said Thorbecke, whose most recent conference this past May, for example, focused on the relevance of the Taiwanese economic performance in recent years to development theory and policy.

Fluent in five languages – English, French, Dutch, Spanish and German – Thorbecke is the author or co-author of about 20 books and monographs and more than 100 technical papers and currently sits on the editorial boards of three economic journals in his field. He played a major consulting role in the 1960s, when the poverty rate in Indonesia was reduced from 60 percent of the population to 15 percent 10 years later.

Thorbecke, who teaches courses in economic development and growth and national and international food economics, helped the Indonesian government work out a social accounting matrix that was institutionalized there. On a more personal note, Thorbecke’s great-great- grandfather on his mother’s side was Fernando Wood, who was mayor of New York in the 1860s and built Central Park.

To examine poverty, income distribution and labor markets in sub-Saharan Africa, Thorbecke plans to examine why current stabilization and structural adjustment policies and economic growth in developing Africa can be improved and complemented by needed reforms.

“It is clear that we have to generate much more systematic microeconomic information to develop more accurate estimates of the magnitude of poverty and the characteristics of poor households,” said Thorbecke, who credits Cornell with being one of the strongest economic development centers in the world. “We need to develop poverty profiles at the regional and socioeconomic level to help identify appropriate policies for the future.”

Thorbecke also said that the researchers will need to study labor markets, such as the specific labor and supply and demand conditions prevailing in different markets and the role of the government in areas related to poverty alleviation such as education, health, nutrition and public investment in infrastructure.

Cornell will collaborate with the World Bank and a number of other institutions, including the International Labour Office. Cornell will prepare a number of background papers on various issues related to different aspects of poverty in the region; run four training workshops on poverty, policy and labor market analysis; and provide research training for African economists.

“Our goal is not only to encourage research in poverty alleviation but to suggest specific policies that will reduce poverty for millions of Africans living in the context of economic growth,” Thorbecke concluded.