Will Thompson, 2017

Will Thompson, a doctoral student in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, studies poverty in developing nations and evaluates the strategies used by global nonprofits to provide sustainable pathways out of poverty.

Thompson’s doctoral research evaluates the work being done by the global nonprofit Heifer International in the Asian country of Nepal, where about 25 percent of its 28.12 million people live below the poverty line ($1.25/day) and half of children under five suffer from stunted growth.

The nonprofit distributes livestock and provides technical training to families in need around the world as a means of developing self-sufficiency. Recipients agree to “pass on the gift” by sharing animal offspring- as well as the skills and knowledge of animal husbandry and agricultural training- with other impoverished families in their communities.

“Their [Heifer International] belief is that by enhancing a poor household’s productive assets through a gift of livestock and technical training, they can provide the ‘push’ needed to get these households on a sustainable pathway out of poverty,” he explains.

Along with his advisor, Dr. Nick Magnan, Thompson is conducting a field experiment in Nepal to identify the effects of the Heifer International program on a range of outcomes, including: income and assets, health and nutrition, behavioral and psychological factors related to poverty, and women’s empowerment.

“The experiment also lets us test the pathways by which the program works, and lets us gauge how sustainable the program is and how well benefits persist after Heifer has concluded their work,” he says. “These are important aspects of productive asset transfers and are poorly understood.”

In addition to Thompson’s main research project, the 2015 Earthquake in Nepal had a major impact in the geographical areas he is analyzing.

“The earthquake presented a unique opportunity to study the effects that natural disasters have on a vulnerable population.”

After surveying over 3,000 households in rural Nepal, early indicators seem to suggest that the Heifer program has a positive effect on outcomes like financial inclusion and women’s empowerment.

“While not enough time has passed to say there is a positive impact on long-term outcomes like income, assets, and children’s health, we think these short-term outcomes ‘set the table’ for the long-term,” Thompson explains.

“Our research also suggests that the benefits from the Heifer program spread to people in the community who were not direct beneficiaries.”

“This work is important because there is a finite amount of funding available for development projects,” he says. “Knowing what and how a program works is crucial for efficient design and targeting of interventions. “

Thompson hopes his research provides a sound basis for donors and policy makers to make wise decisions concerning the allocation of their scarce resources.

“From an academic standpoint, I also hope our final results contribute to our understanding of the nature of poverty: how households fall into it, how they climb out, and what sorts of policies can help to reduce it. “

After graduation, Thompson plans to continue policy related research, either in academia, in a think tank or an NGO, or a government agency.

“My main criteria is that I have the opportunity to continue doing research that influences real-world decisions in the fight against global poverty.”