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'It's just not enough to look at the data'

Jishnu Das, a distinguished professor of public policy at Georgetown University, discussed his research on health and education during a fireside chat with Duke Sanford's Manoj Mohanan.

Over the last couple of decades, Jishnu Das has co-developed some of the most prominent research programs on learning outcomes and quality of care in low-income countries. The distinguished professor of public policy at Georgetown University joined Duke Sanford’s Manoj Mohanan for a conversation about his research on health and education. The fireside chat was co-hosted by the Duke Center for International Development and Duke Margolis Center for Health Policy.


Every experience counts

Mohanan: "What motivates you to conduct empirical work in education and health?"

Das: "I like to translate what personal experiences we have into thinking about a problem. I think often people are told to disregard their personal experiences, but with education and health every experience counts."

Shifting the needle on service delivery

Mohanan: "In this large period of time you’ve been trying to document, study and understand service delivery, have things improved at all? My own work shows it’s very hard to shift the needle on service delivery."

Das: "Health has been one of the areas where if you look at the trajectory of infant and child mortality, it's plummeted around the world…so I think we've done really well on that aspect. But then there are other things that are picking up that we don't know enough about – depression, suicides, drug use and chronic diseases."

"On education, things are much worse is my feeling. This is the one sector in the world where the productivity has plummeted. You're spending more and more money to get the same thing. Illiteracy in the U.S. by some benchmarks is between 20% and 25%. The fact that we haven't been able to make progress on that in 70 years in the U.S. tells you that there’s something fundamentally wrong that we don't have a handle on and I don't think we know yet what that is."

Mohanan: "Do you think technology and information technology can help in either health or education?"

Das: "There’s been a decline in cost of computing over the years while [education] test scores remained flat. What the techno guys have is the online life. They should be thinking hard about partnering with people who are working with college students because there's an offline life and an online life and the two intersect. They know how you're doing online…but they have no idea what you're doing in an offline time. Thinking about our own lives as a blend of what's happening online and offline will give us a hint on where and how technology could be useful."

Looking beyond the data

Mohanan: "You’re one of the few people being very senior in the profession who takes a significant amount of time every year to travel to remote villages…to spend time with the people of the populations that you want to understand. What keeps that going?"

Das: "Walking around, talking to people, getting some sense for me is absolutely critical in terms of thinking about what's the right question to ask."

"The main theme of research, I feel, is not only to produce knowledge, but also to be always open to the idea that it’ll change you. If you’re open to the idea that it will change you, then you’re always open to the idea that there’s a lot you can learn just by talking to people."

"For me, it's just not enough to look at the data and write your paper. You need to go talk to people, sit there, see what's happening and get a good sense of stuff."


About the speakers

Jishnu Das is a distinguished professor of public policy at the McCourt School of Public Policy and the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His research led to the widespread adoption of a training program for informal providers in West Bengal, health facility inspections in Kenya, networks for private sector providers in India, the scale-up of quality measurement tools in health globally, and the development of financial products for private schools. Prior to joining Georgetown, he was lead economist at the World Bank, where he received the Research Academy Award in 2017 and 2013 for his work on health and education.

Manoj Mohanan, the Creed C. Black Professor and senior associate dean for faculty and research in the Sanford School of Public Policy, is an applied microeconomist, focusing on health and development economics, with a background in medicine and public health. His research focuses on topics related to health and health care in developing countries including: performance-based contracts, measurement of provider quality and performance, social franchising, and social accountability/monitoring. He also studies the role of subjective expectations and beliefs in health care behavior. Several of his projects feature field experiments, policy interventions and evaluations.