Meet the Expert: Ashu Handa

Illustration of Ashu Handa

Ashu Handa is an economist whose work centers on global poverty, health, and human development in sub-Saharan Africa. At AIR, he works to expand Equity Initiative work internationally and supports AIR’s global poverty research and policy efforts. He has been a professor at the University of North Carolina for 20 years, and he previously served as chief of social and economic policy at UNICEF’s Office of Research-Innocenti.

POSITION: Institute Fellow

AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Human Development, Poverty Reduction Policy


Q: What piqued your interest in a career in poverty research and alleviation?

Ashu: I was born and raised in Ghana and in the 70s—when I was a kid there—it was an economic disaster. There was rampant inflation and a huge parallel market for the US dollar; people had trouble putting food on the table. Growing up in that environment, I wanted to understand how it all worked: Why some countries did well and others didn’t. That inspired me to earn my Ph.D. in economics; I specialized in the economies of low-income countries, particularly those in Africa.

Q: Much of your work has centered around understanding the broad effects of national cash transfer programs. How do these programs work?

Ashu: I study government-funded programs in Africa, where targeted families receive a small amount of cash on a regular basis, about $10-$20 per month. These families are either ultra-poor or have another vulnerability: a family member with a disability, or a young child or elder family member to support. Through these programs, families usually receive cash without any conditions attached.

Q: What makes a cash transfer program effective?

Ashu: I’ve assessed about a dozen of these programs. One key to their success is the operational aspect. Is it transparent? Do the recipients understand exactly how much to expect? Is there a grievance mechanism, a way to complain if something goes awry? Essentially, to what extent is it really empowering the poorest people—not just financially, but holistically?

As for features that generate impact, the two most important pieces are the regularity of payment and the value of the transfer. Our research and analyses have shown that a cash transfer of approximately 20% of a family’s income, or their consumption, will have transformative effects on the household. For ultra-poor households, a cash transfer of any amount will help with food security, of course. But 20% is the benchmark that allows them to invest in their futures: steps like enrolling children in school, buying medicine when it’s needed, or buying livestock or fertilizer.

The other essential piece is the timeliness of the payment. If you’re expecting a payment every month and it doesn’t come, you can’t plan accordingly. For example, if you’ve enrolled your child in school because you’re expecting a monthly cash transfer, but you don’t receive it on time, that’ll be a problem when school fees are due.

Q: What is the most common misconception around global poverty?

Ashu: Sometimes when I describe my work to Westerners, they’ll say something like, “But don’t cash transfer projects reduce incentives for people to work?” If they had any sense of what the average day for an ultra-poor person in Africa looks like, they would never worry about that. Cash transfer amounts are relatively small; they’re not going to lead the recipients into lives of leisure. We’re talking about people who engage in multiple livelihoods to make ends meet: They farm, they sell, they herd livestock, they cook goods to sell. I think a lot of people in the West do not appreciate how incredibly resourceful, innovative, practical, and resilient poor people in Africa are.

Sometimes when I describe my work to Westerners, they’ll say something like, 'But don’t cash transfer projects reduce incentives for people to work?' If they had any sense of what the average day for an ultra-poor person in Africa looks like, they would never worry about that.

Q: You are working with AIR’s Equity Initiative to expand our Pipeline Partnership Program to Africa. What are your plans for that project?

Ashu: The goal of the Pipeline Partnership Program is to build a pipeline of diverse candidates who can contribute to behavioral and social science research. We particularly want to engage graduate students who reflect the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity of the communities that they will serve.

I will be developing partnerships with a couple of universities here in Africa to support their Ph.D. students. We’re planning a range of supports, including some professional development and technical training, including some short courses on research methods. We’re also hoping to develop work experience opportunities at AIR for the students at PPP schools.

Our support will go beyond the students, to the actual universities themselves. We want to help them strengthen their curricula by co-teaching courses with local faculty and offering faculty trainings.

Q: Many of your studies use longitudinal data. What resources and planning do these studies require? What are the benefits of this type of research?

Ashu: At different points in time, people are going through different things. In a cross-sectional study, you’ll only capture that one moment in time, which may or may not be representative of their lives of overall. There’s only a limited number of questions that you can ask about human well-being and development based on that cross-section.

But if you follow people longitudinally, you can follow their trajectories—how their previous experiences affect their future outcomes. That can give you great insight into why some people become high achievers or not.

In terms of the resources and planning required, they can be substantial. As part of the Transfer Project, I just finished a longitudinal study in Malawi, where we interviewed teenagers. Half of their families had been randomly assigned to receive the cash transfer immediately, and the other half received it three years later. We wanted to know the long-term impact of living in a household that received this income support—whether there was an impact after they left and started families of their own. We interviewed teenagers 10 years ago, and so now it was time to follow up with them, which was a challenge. Young people are so mobile. We’ve been calling relatives and hunting down phone numbers. But the potential research gains—to see whether the cash transfer benefits are intergenerational—are also incredibly high.

Q: You describe yourself as a classic “third culture kid.” How has that affected your work?

Ashu: My parents are Punjabi Indian, but I grew up in Ghana and studied in the United States—I speak like an American and my wife is American. These days, I live in Kenya. So when people ask me “where are you from,” there’s not a simple answer. On the flip side, we third culture kids can live anywhere, because we’re used to constantly adapting to different cultures and languages.

That helps my work because I’m never afraid of moving somewhere new—my second job was teaching Portuguese in Mozambique, for example. And from my collaborators’ perspective, they see me as adaptable, someone who isn’t necessarily bringing in another culture’s baggage.

Q: Where can we find you on a typical Saturday?

Ashu: I’m playing some kind of sport. Depending on the country, it might be soccer, tennis, or squash. Wherever I am in the world, I’m also watching the English Premiere League and supporting West Ham United. In the evening, I’ll probably end up dancing somewhere with loud music.

Q: What music would we find on your playlist?

Ashu: I travel a lot, and when I hear a song I like, I Shazam it. Back in May, I was in Accra on business, and “Finesse” by Pheelz came on. I loved it immediately, and started playing it all the time. Then, about a month ago, Barack Obama’s summer playlist came out, and Finesse was on his playlist. But it was on mine first!