April 29, 2011

Economics Professor David Stifel Helps Students Understand the Root Causes of Poverty

David Stifel

Although the Madagascar portrayed in the animated Disney movie appears as a lush and idyllic paradise solely inhabited by animals, the reality is that 18 million people live on the small island off the coast of Africa, and much of the country’s roads are in disrepair or simply don’t exist.  As a result, many Malagasy live in isolation, relying on oxen to plow their fields, if they’re lucky, and barely able to afford the most basic of necessities.

“Most rural dwellers do not live near a paved road and it takes up to two days of travel on dirt trails to get to a major market where they can sell their crops,” says David Stifel, associate professor of economics, who has been studying the relationship between infrastructure and poverty in Madagascar for the past few years. The country has a 70 percent poverty rate and two-thirds of the population lives on less than $1 a day.

Stifel spent the 2006-07 school year working with the National Statistical Office in the former French colony to quantify the economic benefits of building roads to rural areas — where farming is the leading source of income — and identify communities that hold a “higher promise of agricultural productivity” if there was access to infrastructure.

“Building roads significantly increases agricultural productivity and decreases poverty,” Stifel says, “and the benefits accrue for years and years.”

In short, the road to prosperity is paved – at least for farmers in Madagascar – and although Stifel is reluctant to credit his research directly, the number of road projects increased over the past few years, funded primarily by international organizations.

Poverty has long concerned Stifel, who spent the first nine years of his life in Thailand, where his father worked as an economist for the U.S. Agency for International Development and later the Rockefeller Foundation.  He still remembers the small thatched huts in mostly rural areas of the country sheltering families of six or more who lived without electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing.

He says that when his family moved to New Jersey in 1974 it felt like he had traded one exotic locale for another, but he never lost his affinity for Asia with its colorful markets, glittering temples, and friendly people. In fact, as an undergraduate at Colgate University he majored in Asian studies but was drawn to economics and development while pursuing a master’s degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and then a Ph.D. at Cornell University.

“If we want to address poverty over the long run, we need to understand its root causes and address them on a policy level, not just address the symptoms,” he says.

He made his first visit to Madagascar in 2000 while doing postdoctoral research through the Cornell Food and Nutrition Policy Program. He stayed for a year before returning to Cornell to teach economics. In 2003, he joined Lafayette and currently teaches development economics, microeconomics, and econometrics. Students who want to know his classroom approach don’t need to look far.  His teaching philosophy is posted on his website, where he describes in great detail his goals as a teacher.

“I enjoy challenging my students both inside and outside the classroom,” he says. “When I do, very often they live up to those challenges.”

Take, for example, the Lafayette Initiative for Malagasy Education (LIME), a program he started in 2009 after a letter from the U.S. ambassador to Madagascar made its way through the academic food chain to his desk. The ambassador had recently been posted in Cameroon, where a good number of young people attend U.S. colleges and universities. By contrast, few students from Madagascar win acceptance to American schools.  The ambassador was trying to change that by asking top American colleges to intervene.

Stifel knew the problem wasn’t related to intelligence. Malagasy youth are extremely bright, he says.  Rather, he believed, it was an issue of language and a disconnect between a French system of education and an American application process that places significant weight on the SAT and its recent addition of an essay component.  With the help of Hannah Stewart-Gambino, dean of the College, Stifel initiated a dialogue with the U.S. Embassy in Madagascar to see what Lafayette could do to help.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if our students designed the program?’” he says.

And indeed they did. The first group of 10 made the 30-hour trip to Madagascar’s capital of Antananarivo in January 2010 and evaluated a group of Malagasy high school students’ proficiency at test taking.  They quickly determined that they couldn’t compete in the U.S. admissions process without access to SAT practice materials, tutoring, and essay writing pointers, all steps routinely employed by most American students before applying to college. The Malagasy students relished the attention of the Lafayette students, often asking for extended tutoring sessions.

“The Malagasy students are eager to have the opportunity to come here and study,” says Stifel. “They appreciate what an American college education will give them and they are seizing upon that.”

The first group of students won’t be eligible to apply to Lafayette and other colleges and universities for another year, but the plan is for LIME to return to the same high school in Madagascar every January to provide help and demystify the college application process.

“I told the students they are there to help the Malagasy students overcome obstacles. They’re not better than them; they’ve just had different experiences.  To their credit, they figured out pretty quickly on their own that that’s the case.”

Nonetheless, it opened students’ eyes to a culture that was initially foreign to them, requiring the kind of open-minded analysis and multi-faceted perspective indicative of a liberal arts education.  It also underscores Stifel’s belief that learning needs to be active, not a passive resuscitation of textbook facts. By taking students into the field, Stifel hopes they will learn to not only appreciate cultural differences, but celebrate them.

“I know not every student is going to become an economics scholar,” Stifel says. “So I take it as my responsibility to cultivate the analytical capabilities of my students so that in the future they can make well-informed and conscientious decisions as citizens and professionals.”

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