February 27, 2015

Georgetown Professor Examines Solutions to Poverty in India

As an economist studying poverty alleviation and as an assistant professor in the School of Foreign Service, Shareen Joshi has led research focused on questions of gender, civic action, and public policy in India. Like many development scholars, Joshi explores the widely-held theory that investing in women is one of the best long-term solutions to extreme poverty.

Self-Help Groups

In villages across Rajasthan, India, small groups of rural women meet regularly in self-help groups. These village-based organizations focus on building the savings and credit of their members. To examine the impact of self-help groups, Joshi and fellow Georgetown professor Raj Desai designed a study with the help of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union in Dungarpur, Rajasthan.

In the study, Joshi and Desai compared control villages to treatment villages where SEWA helped to establish self-help groups in the community. After two years, Desai and Joshi found that women in the treatment villages were more likely to participate in group savings programs, exerted greater control over household decisions, and displayed greater civic engagement.

These findings suggest new solutions for poverty alleviation.

The Impacts of Policy

The nature of poverty requires an approach that recognizes its complexity. Joshi often works directly with the Indian government, either at the state or national level, utilizing large datasets and her own fieldwork in order to examine the impacts of public policy.

Recently, Joshi worked with undergraduate alumnus Anusuya Sivaram to study the impact of a conditional cash transfer program, in which the Indian government paid mothers to deliver their children in government-approved institutions with the goal of reducing infant and mother mortality.

Despite its good intentions, Joshi’s research revealed that the cash transfer did not necessarily translate to higher-quality care. She also found that many Indian women traveled back to their mothers’ houses to give birth, making it difficult for them to benefit from the scheme.

“That’s the thing,” Joshi said, “poverty is never as simple as it looks.”

Connection to India

Joshi finds that her background and family in India make it easier to navigate the complexities of Indian society.

“Indian society is hierarchical,” Joshi said. “If you’ve grown up there, you understand the cultural, social, and economic constraints in the different layers. If you’re in a village, it’s a very different world than the government office in New Delhi. The complexity of both environments is challenging for researchers.”

Currently, Joshi is examining the relationship between mortality and pollution in India’s rivers, working with large government datasets in order to develop a spatial understanding of pollution.

Above all, Joshi feels a connection to the communities that she studies, as her parents continue to live in Rajasthan and her children were adopted nearby.

“This is not just a place inhabited by others,” Joshi said. “I feel a personal connection. This is where my life story began and continues. I think that’s why people are willing to give me better, deeper glimpses in to their lives.”