Cornell and Global Poverty Reduction, four questions for Professor Erik Thorbecke.
Erik Thorbecke is an emeritus professor of development economics. In 1984, with the help of two students, he developed the Foster-Greer-Thorbecke Metric for Generalized Poverty, providing developing countries with a powerful tool for measuring the prevalence and extent of poverty in their economies. Professor Thorbecke will be a panelist for Cornell and Global Poverty Reduction, a sesquicentennial event to be held during the Charter Day celebration in April 2015.
How did being on the faculty at Cornell influence your career?
Cornell, in contrast with many, many other institutions, and certainly with the Ivy League institutions, has a very strong, probably the best college of agriculture and life sciences in the world. And when you're talking about economic development, which really means, how do very poor countries that are essentially agricultural, how can they move and become where the center of gravity moves towards light manufacturing, services, and so on, how can this process take place, one has to know a great deal about agriculture. The setting is one of subsistence farmers selling very little commercially, so it's essential to help them get the imports, the high yielding varieties, the fertilizers that they need to increase productivity so that the income goes up, the labor productivity goes up, and so that their children can move out of agriculture and be absorbed productively in different sectors.
How did Cornell equip you for conducting economic development research?
At that time, the chair had a research budget, and it was a good research budget, and that helped me a great deal to take certain risks that I probably could not have taken in terms of the direction of my research interests. Another way in which Cornell really helped was through a lot of interaction with all of these very gifted colleagues who share the same interest, and also graduate students. The reputation of Cornell in this field was such that we could attract very highly motivated graduate students from all over the world.
What do you wish people understood about development economics?
Many people feel that programs that are focused on reducing poverty conflict with economic efficiency. To put it very bluntly, these programs are money down the drain. And I think that this is a false picture. If these programs are well designed, they can not only reduce poverty, but they can also increase production so that the conflict between what economists call equity and efficiency vanishes. You can have the best of two worlds. You can have reduction in poverty at the same time as increased productivity.
There is plenty of evidence that groups of very poor women receiving microfinance will use it in a very entrepreneurial way. They will start buying fish, go to the market, sell it in the market, buy vegetables, sell it on the market. And again, this has had a major impact on providing particularly women with an opportunity to be productive. In the past, whenever a woman would get a loan, the husband or the spouse had to cosign. Now, with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and in many other places, this is no longer so.
As a member of the African Economic Research Consortium, you travel to the Sub-Sahara region every six months for meetings. What inspires you to be so active?
We train probably something like 200 young Africans in the methodology for estimating poverty, also how to run surveys and so on, and these young Africans have now moved into positions of power. And that gives me really great hope because these people are not only technically well trained, but they also have integrity. I don't know if you have followed what is happening in Africa, but certainly since 2000, there has been what some people call the African growth miracle or African Renaissance. There has been an enormous acceleration of economic growth in most of Sub-Saharan Africa. It's not just in terms of a economic growth, but if you look at infant mortality, if you look at HIV incidence, if you look at education, these countries are now doing so much better.
For information about the Cornell and Global Poverty Reduction Panel and other sesquicentennial events, visit 150.cornell.edu.
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Erik Thorbecke is an Emeritus Professor of development economics. In 1984, with the help of two students, he developed the Foster-Greer-Thorbecke metric for generalized poverty, providing developing countries with a powerful tool for measuring the prevalence and extent of poverty in their economies. He will be one of four panelists discussing global poverty reduction April 25, 2015 during Cornell's Sesquicentennial celebration. The event will be broadcast live on CornellCast.