A Needle in a Haystack (the research question)

The reformulation process was quite the search, but I was finally able to figure out a way to find a question that would be more feasible and gain a better understanding of the issues overall. Talking to researchers at IFPRI was an incredible experience as I explored how to make the most of my summer research. The people there conduct surveys and impact evaluations of development interventions in South America, Africa, and Asia. I learned about multiple fields of research ranging from nutrition, environment, technology developments, governance, and women’s empowerment. Previously I had focused all my efforts on education in developing countries because that was what I had first hand exposure to, but learning about all these other areas peaked my curiosity and opened the door to a whole lot of exploratory research.

As I discussed my interests with more researchers, I came to the conclusion that everything is so interconnected that it is difficult to attempt a general research project on education incentives because every area plays into education in one way or another. Parents can send their children to school if the opportunity cost of sending them to school is lower than the benefit of keeping them in their homes to help with the household economy. In order to increase the parental incentive to send their kids to school, education policy programs must improve the factors at home that contribute to better economic conditions and add benefits to attending to school. One of the greatest problems in impoverished communities is the prevalence of undernourishment. So many people have to survive on less than $2 a day that they cannot properly feed their families. Therefore, undernourishment rates are extremely high in developing countries. This leads to poor human capital, which in turn contributes to lower overall growth in the country. In order to lower undernourishment, a successful development project has been school feeding programs. During the afternoon, children are given a meal at school as an incentive for their attendance. This increases the benefit of school attendance for parents because it saves them the cost of providing their children a meal. It also improves the nutritional status of the children because the school meals are fortified with extra vitamins and nutrients since it is most likely the only meal the child will have all day.

Since nutrition plays such a large role in education, human capital, and overall economic growth, I decided to limit the scope of my research to this key input. Originally I had planned to examine all the factors of education alongside which factors were being targeted by development education policy. Narrowing the project is allowing me to work backwards in a sense that I identified nutrition as one of the main inputs after researching different education policies and education incentives.

The next stage of my research led me to further scope out which aspect of nutrition I wanted to study. One of the main puzzles that I had come across in my literature review was that many of the developing countries were growing economically, but this growth did not translate into improved rates of undernourishment. India is one country that particularly caught my attention as it is rapidly developing but has the lowest rates of undernourishment in the world. What was the missing link? After discussing this question with John, he gave me 2 books and 3 articles to read in order to fully understand all the factors contributing to nutrition in developing countries. So now my input into education had its own factors that required me to further narrow my research.

However, in doing my reading I found the question I had been looking for. One article studied the impact of growth in different sectors (industry, agriculture, services) on overall economic growth based on the labor intensity of each sector. In developing countries, most of the impoverished people are farmers and contribute to the growth of the agricultural sector. Therefore, I wanted to find out what the rate of agricultural growth was in the developing countries and whether that was correlated with a decrease or increase in the rate of undernourishment. Voila, I found my needle in the haystack! The next step would be the intricate process of weaving all the data together…


  1. Sneha Raghavan says:

    working with data is really so much more satisfying than working solely in the realm of ideas, and i don’t think one is ever complete without the other. when you work with ideas and read other people’s writings, its fascinating to form links and see how people bulid on each other’s research, but i completely agree with your ‘voila’ feeling- working with the data and forming links is a way of creating your own ideas and backing it up. and it’s so awesome to create something that you can claim as your own end result (or on-the-way result).

  2. Morrison Mast says:


    My research this summer focused on a non-profit turtle conservation organization in Brazil. I thought that you might find it interesting that this organization had established local gardens in some of the communities that I visited. Children from poor families had the opportunity to work in these gardens during the day, growing food for their families while simultaneously learning about agriculture, the environment, and biology. This takes a bit of pressure off of families, and keeps their kids off the streets while educating them. Many of the kids in these programs go on to work for this non-profit in the future. I didn’t visit any communities where these kids were technically starving or undernourished per se, just thought it was an interesting example of sustainable development that may relate to your work.