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A new tool for breaking the cycle of poverty

Understanding why certain populations remain persistently poor has presented a challenge for social and natural scientists alike. Now, Harvard researcher Matt Bonds, PhD, and colleagues present a first-of-its-kind theoretical method that could help break the cycle of poverty traps.

I first met Bonds when he arrived at Stanford in 2015 where he spent the last two years or so as a visiting professor with the Center for Innovation in Global Health. With PhDs in economics and ecology, Bonds has dedicated his research to decoding the interplay between various economic, environmental and biological factors that cause people to become trapped in cycles of poverty. In our first meeting, Bonds explained how he was drawing on the fields of economics and ecology to come up with new insights for breaking down complex questions of poverty.

Published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, Bonds, the paper’s senior author, and an interdisciplinary team of researchers, including Stanford biologist Giulio de Leo, PhD, offer a framework, which could inform interventions to improve economies, health and ecosystems.

Health, well-being and subsistence of the world’s rural poor is heavily reliant on the natural environment in which they live. Their surrounding ecological systems provide subsistence, but also spread high rates of infectious diseases through pathogens carried by agricultural pests, rodents, parasites and other vectors. Thus, in the model, natural resources and infectious diseases represent “limits” to economic growth.

A Stanford press release explains:

The study’s models show that disease transmission and recovery rates are the most consistently important determinants of long-term health and wealth dynamics. The framework also highlights feedbacks, processes and parameters that are important to measure in future studies of rural poverty. They could help identify effective pathways to sustainable development and better predict countries’ resilience to economic, health and environmental shocks.

Case in point: A major, one-time wave of support – such as an injection of capital or agricultural supplies – might be enough to disrupt the vicious cycle of feedback between poverty and disease and set a country on a path of healthy development. However, this widely adopted development approach would only provide temporary relief in some circumstances, the study shows. In those cases, only permanent and sustained system changes can create lasting economic development and public health improvement.

The model is playing out in Rwanda, a country defying poverty traps less than a generation after a devastating genocidal civil war. The country made deep investments in health care, providing broad and robust care for the poor, which was followed by dramatic economic growth. The model, coupled with lessons from real-world examples, offers a new tool for evaluation of policies and interventions that aim to achieve a healthier, wealthier planet.

Previously: Unlikely partners, who have helped thousands in Nairobi slums, visit Stanford, Stanford researcher on elephants: "We should value animals that have the same levels of sophistication that we do" and A small African country with a powerful voice
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