In Bangladesh, August is for planting; December and January are harvest time. In many agrarian societies around the world, the time between planting and harvest is “the hunger season.” Food and money from the previous harvest are largely exhausted; the price of rice has risen, yet there is little work, so wages are low. The threat of starvation is unrelenting.

The nature of agriculture explains lean seasons, but why such disasters strike year after year and how best to help people cope are matters more difficult to understand. Mushfiq Mobarak ’97, a professor of economics at Yale University’s School of Management, has the knowledge and the will to experiment with solutions, collect and analyze the data, and find answers.

Mobarak is also from Bangladesh, where his parents held government jobs that provided for a modest lifestyle. An economics and mathematics major, he turned to development economics after a compelling course with Macalester Professor Vasant Sukhatme.

Sukhatme recalls, “Mushfiq was rather quiet in class, rarely raising questions or volunteering answers to questions, but whenever I called on him, his answers were deep and much better than I might have been able to give.”

After Macalester, Mobarak earned a PhD in economics at the University of Maryland–College Park and worked for the World Bank before rejoining academia. A development economist, he also co-chairs the Urban Services Initiative at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT, and leads the Bangladesh Research Program for the International Growth Centre (IGC) at the London School of Economics. As part of these networks, he conducts development projects in Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Kenya, and Malawi.

For example, “people are desperate to migrate to countries with greater economic opportunity,” says Mobarak. “During the hunger season, why don’t Bangladeshi people migrate to the cities, where job opportunities are greater?”

To investigate, Mobarak’s research team offered round-trip travel costs to two thousand households for one family member (usually an adult male) to move to the city to work. The people induced to migrate earned on average $110, an excellent return. And several years later, sans further monetary incentive, many were still migrating seasonally.

Such seasonal migration to the city increases each family member’s caloric intake by about 600 calories a day—the difference between eating three meals a day and scraping by on two, the research team found.

So why weren’t they doing this before? Inherent risk aversion is one reason many were not migrating, his data suggests. Less obvious may be the reluctance of city dwellers and policymakers to see poor people pouring into the cities.

Such insights aren’t the result of ivory tower number crunching. They require sending a staff of people into villages, asking questions, doing data entry, and managing teams and projects. Later, experienced economists and mathematicians must sift out the truth.

FightingFamine246.jpgDid returning workers bring diseases back to their rural homes? Did marriages dissolve when spouses were separated? “The data doesn’t show those downsides much in Bangladesh,” says Mobarak, cautioning that such a finding may not hold elsewhere in the world.

Based on such promising results, other development organizations are now replicating the seasonal migration program, and Mobarak is running a scaled-up version of the program with 30,000 households. He hopes to track more broadly what happens to the village economy and those who stay behind when large numbers of migrants move seasonally.

Mobarek has worked with other Mac alums in the J-PAL and IGC networks of development researchers, among them Hossein Alidaee ’13, who has sought to improve agricultural productivity in Malawi, and Tricia Gonwa Koroknay-Palicz ’05, a World Bank economist running irrigation projects in Ghana.

But back to his day job as a Yale management professor: What does a development economist teach MBA students, many of whom are headed to Wall Street and Fortune 500 corporations?

In his course Economic Strategies for Doing Business in Developing Countries, Mobarak covers topics such as corruption, the possibility of having a company nationalized, and the threat of a sudden change in government. Another class closely related to his research deals with persuading consumers to adopt new behaviors, technologies, and products, in the U.S. and abroad. In an international course that focuses on local business environment, Mobarak includes a two-week trip to a developing country—Brazil, Sumatra, or Borneo—in which students dive deeply into issues such as the economics and politics of deforestation by meeting with government, NGO, and private sector officials working on these issues.

Mobarak and his wife, Anna McGaw-Mobarak ’97, both grew up in homes of limited means. Although their children live in the shadow of one of the world’s great universities, the family travels often around the world, thus broadening their kids’ worldview. “They have seen what it is to be poor,” says Mobarak. “We want to bring up kids who are aware of the world’s challenges.

“Macalester made a tremendous difference for my wife and me,” says Mobarak. “Not that many colleges [back then] were offering financial aid to international students. I met students from all over the world, and my education opened up so many opportunities. It has allowed me to do the work I do today.”

JAN SHAW-FLAMM ’76 is a staff writer for the magazine.

January 21 2016

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