Rohini Pande:Leading the Economic Growth Center in a New Direction

Friday, November 22, 2019
Portrait of Rohini Pande

During her 13 years at Harvard, Rohini Pande examined how institutional choice can empower disadvantaged groups. Now she intends to pursue an expanded research agenda on global economic justice at Yale.

Yale’s Economic Growth Center (EGC) has, for over half a century, been an important driver of research on how structural transformation and economic development occur in low-income countries. In July 2019, incoming economics professor Rohini Pande became the director of EGC. With Pande’s appointment comes an expanded agenda for the EGC around global economic justice, and a renewed focus on the links between individual well-being, inequality, and economic growth.
“I am lucky to follow in the footsteps of Mark Rosenzweig who has nurtured a strong culture of scientific inquiry at the EGC,” says Pande. “This is an exciting time to support Yale’s agenda in development research. Today, Yale’s economic department has one of the largest and most intellectually diverse set of economists studying the central questions in international development.” 
Pande sees her appointment as the latest step in a long history of innovative thinking at the EGC. The Center was founded in 1961 as an interdisciplinary project to apply rigorous new quantitative methods to the study of growth and development, supported by the Ford Foundation. Under Rosenzweig’s leadership, the EGC continued to invest in quantitative approaches to development. Pande says, “Given this rich history, one of my first projects at EGC is to document its history and, in particular, showcase its role as one of the original development research institutions that supported the use of rigorous data to understand poverty and growth.” 

I am lucky to follow in the footsteps of Mark Rosenzweig who has nurtured a strong culture of scientific enquiry at the EGC. 

-Rohini Pande

Pande, who grew up in India and was educated at Delhi University, Oxford, and LSE,  has focused her research on how formal and informal institutions shape power relationships and patterns of economic and political advantage in society, particularly in developing countries. She is interested in the role of public policy in providing the poor and disadvantaged political and economic power, and how notions of economic justice and human rights can help justify and enable such change.

In one recent experiment, she and her coauthors showed that providing poor Indian women direct-deposit facilities for their wages increased female labor force participation and, in the longer run, led to more progressive gender norms. In another project, she and other researchers, including her Yale colleague Nicholas Ryan, are collaborating with the government of an Indian state on an emissions trading system that aims to reduce high levels of particulate air pollution that are dramatically reducing life expectancy.
When asked what direction international development is moving in and how Yale research fits in, Pande responds, “Following decades of growth, we know there’s enough wealth in the world to ensure that everyone could have enough to live on. But across the world there are hundreds of millions of people who have been left behind. Today, extreme poverty is increasingly concentrated in conflict-ridden fragile states, in isolated, disadvantaged regions and ethnic groups within countries, and in certain demographic groups within households. This has important implications, both for individual well-being and for the working of different societies and political systems. If we want to eradicate extreme poverty, we need to know who is poor, why they and often their communities have remained poor while the world has gotten richer, and what interventions will work best to allow them to escape from poverty. We also need to understand what makes communities and countries prone to conflict and, increasingly, what makes them vulnerable to climate-related shocks.”
Rohini Pande standing at a department reception surrounded by studentsShe adds, “Questions of how to end extreme poverty and reduce economic inequality are now closely intertwined: how to enable redistribution within countries, how to change behavior within households, and how to achieve shared prosperity in fragile and conflict-affected settings. There has long been widespread tolerance of increasing inequality with the idea that inequality is the inevitable price for growth and that growth would eventually be “the tide that lifts all boats.” But since economic growth is often associated with wealth concentration and is also running into planetary environmental constraints, it is important to ask how can we use public policy to distribute more fairly and in ways that advantage, rather than disadvantage, the poor.”
The EGC is an ideal setting for her to examine such questions, according to Pande. “The work of Yale researchers is providing important insights on processes of structural transformation and the role of institutions in enabling equitable growth and adequate domestic redistribution. Ongoing research highlights the challenges posed by asymmetric distributions of power within households and within communities. Yale researchers are creating new knowledge on how to design effective environmental and climate change policies, especially in 
countries with low state capacity. They are asking important questions on how do we make states accountable to their citizens, especially the poor and how can political institutions be structured to enable this. The work of EGC’s vibrant economic history group is helping us place current development  trajectories and policies in a broader context.”
Pande says her aim with the EGC is to amplify the research of faculty and create a strong platform from where Yale faculty can influence development research and policy. “We’re lucky to have a coherent set of ideas emerging from Yale faculty research and faculty who have taken on important development policy positions,” she says. “Ultimately, I want to create a broad umbrella for research that will help us understand the drivers of economic growth and also who is getting left behind, why, and what we can do.  And I intend to invest in strong modes of communication to ensure that this research knowledge is transmitted to, and made useful for, the policy community.”
She also points to commonalities with the research goals of the Department’s new Tobin Center, which focuses on US domestic policy. “Many of social policy issues in lower middle-income countries with large poor populations – for instance, China, Indonesia and India – are increasingly similar to those in rich countries: for instance, how to set up health systems that are affordable by both the state and individuals.”
More broadly, across researchers in the economics department, Pande sees opportunities for research to move more seamlessly between similar questions situated in different contexts. “How can we best ensure human capital investments that equalize opportunity for children in disadvantaged communities? And how can we reduce gender gaps in the labor market? These questions are as crucial as countries develop as they are in the US.”
In addition to moving forward EGC research, Pande intends to continue the Center’s work in mentoring young economists, and hopes to host researchers not only from the US but also lower-income countries.  She notes, for example, that the 2020 Kuznets lecture presenter, World Bank Chief Economist and Yale faculty Penny Goldberg, has organized a one-day junior faculty workshop, which will bring back to campus several of Yale’s Ph.D.s who are working on trade and development. 
The work of EGC’s vibrant economic history group is helping us place current development  trajectories and policies in a broader context.
-Rohini Pande
Pande herself has been a consistent supporter and advocate for economists-in-training, particularly women. She was awarded the 2018 Carolyn Shaw Bell Award by the American Economic Association, in recognition of her work furthering the status of women in the economics profession through mentoring and other means. In her acceptance speech, Pande gave statistics that expose the bias that female economists face in the economics profession and recommended specific actions that university departments can take to remove barriers to women’s advancement.
For Pande and the EGC, the 2019-20 school year promises to be a busy one. “This will be a year of understanding faculty priorities,” she says, and further mentions that events are being planned as part of the series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the matriculation of women in Yale College and the 150th anniversary of the first women students at the university.