Reaching the 80 Percent: Q&A with Krishna Kumar


Jun 15, 2015

A farmer in China inspects his rice

Photo by njr_2011/Fotolia

Krishna Kumar is the director of RAND Labor and Population and holds the distinguished chair in international economic policy at RAND. He also leads the Gene and Maxine Rosenfeld Program on Asian Development, which provides financial support for Pardee RAND Graduate School students and faculty to explore critical issues related to Asian economic, social, and political development.

You just returned from a four-day trip to Jordan. Many of your projects are international. What drives your interest in these research opportunities?

Forty percent of the world lives on less than $2 a day. Eighty percent lives on less than $10 a day. I have always believed that, for RAND to have global impact, it needs to address the well-being of these people. The tough part is that the people who need our help the most are the people who can afford us the least. Finding funding to work in these areas is pretty difficult.

At RAND, I lead the Rosenfeld Program, which provides financial support for Pardee RAND Graduate School students and faculty to explore issues related to development in Asia. This role, along with my distinguished chair, gives me the flexibility to explore new markets and countries where we can be of assistance. They supplement the funding that I get for research.

What are three projects that the Rosenfeld Program has made possible?

Well, we just finished a three-year randomized trial in China assessing whether a training program to help farmers use fertilizers more optimally worked or not. The project was funded by 3IE, an international foundation, but it didn't cover all of the costs. The Rosenfeld Program bridged the gaps.

And with the Indian School of Business, we got funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to evaluate a low-income housing project in India. The Rosenfeld Program enabled the groundwork we had to do for this project.

Finally, we are looking at informal labor markets in Bangladesh. More than 85 percent of the labor market in Bangladesh is informal, meaning workers might not have benefits, or might not have a contract. We want to know, Are they stuck there? Are they choosing to be there? What is the path forward for them?

What positive outcomes have you seen as a result of your research?

We found, for rice farmers in China, those who were not using fertilizer are now doing so; and those who were overusing fertilizer have cut down—bringing both “poorer” and “richer” farmers closer to optimal usage levels.

For our low-income housing project, the private sector in India is now entering the market to provide affordable solutions for the working poor, so that they can buy their own homes.

What role do students play in your research?

Part of the Rosenfeld Program is clearly aimed at working with Pardee RAND fellows. These fellows are part of the projects from start to finish—and beyond. Their dissertations sometimes spin off from the research projects.

It's a well-kept secret that mentorship runs two ways. I am learning as much as, if not more than, they are. I wear many hats, but teaching and advising students is probably the most enjoyable part of my work.

Looking ahead, what issue do you think is most important, to our world and its people, to explore?

In the developing world, most people are very young. In Bangladesh, India, and Jordan there is a burgeoning young population. The question is, Will we reap the demographic dividend, or will it become a demographic disaster? These people will be in the labor force for another 40 to 50 years. Some of the best things that RAND could do, and I hope to be a part of, would be in the area of youth employment.