Understanding lives

Morgan Hardy’s economic research sheds light on Africa—and rural America

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 8/4/21

LIBERTY, NY — Morgan Hardy grew up in Sullivan County and graduated from Liberty Central School, and now she travels the world.

Her story isn’t about music or some sort of art, what …

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Understanding lives

Morgan Hardy’s economic research sheds light on Africa—and rural America

Posted

LIBERTY, NY — Morgan Hardy grew up in Sullivan County and graduated from Liberty Central School, and now she travels the world.

Her story isn’t about music or some sort of art, what you usually think of when you join “work” and “world travel.” It’s about economics, the dismal science that drives modern life. It’s about women and their contributions to their families, about the poor and their jobs.

It’s about why people are the way they are.

Hardy, an assistant professor of economics at New York University Abu Dhabi, has done her fieldwork in Ghana and Ethiopia, but the results of her research hold, in some small way, lessons or pointers even for us here, thousands of miles away in the world’s richest country.

She was in town in June, having been honored with a place on the Liberty Central School District’s Wall of Fame. We talked over Zoom about what she does and what it means.

The work at hand

“I want to understand the lives of the poor,” she said, for instance, why they make the economic choices they do. “I try to understand their small businesses... These are really difficult environments to know how to help.”  

Look at Ethiopia. Some may remember the terrible famine of the 1980s or the late-20th-century civil wars, but it’s now a fast-growing economy with a population expected to double to 210 million by 2060, according to the World Bank. “The future of the world’s population is in Africa” because that’s where the babies are, Hardy said.

But that means that, “due to this accelerated surge in population growth, the country is facing a critical challenge of creating enough jobs,” according to the World Bank.

The government has pushed to industrialize through the creation of industrial parks, focusing on goods for export, especially ready-to-wear clothes.

Hardy’s been studying the Hawassa park, expected to ultimately employ 60,000 people and generate a billion dollars worth of exports. So says the Ethiopian Investment Commission, anyway. There are 18 textile companies from various countries, including America and China. The cost of labor is cheaper than in China.

It’s interesting from a gender perspective. Lots of women work in the garment factories, and they “want to pocket as much of their wages as possible,” to send home to their rural families, she said.

But her current research looks at what happened when the pandemic hit. It “affected people in places where there were no documented cases yet.” She has an upcoming paper on what happened in those early months, before COVID-19 got to Africa.

Thousands of workers lived in informal settlements while they worked in the park, churning out ready-to-wear products for people worldwide. But lockdowns shut down jobs (and sometimes incomes), which affected discretionary spending, which meant people weren’t buying clothes, which meant that even though there was no COVID-19 at the Hawassa Industrial Park, the workers lost their jobs. “Suddenly, the revenue stream... is shrivelling up,” Hardy said.

Some of the workers got paid leave. Others didn’t. Many went home to the country. “There was a lot of outmigration,” Hardy said. It’s somewhat like people—including young people—moving to Sullivan County..

Except there, job loss meant that 40 percent of Ethiopia’s people worried about not having enough food to eat.

The garment workers were keeping their families alive, even when they just earned a dollar a day.

The global and the local

There’s half a world of mileage and major cultural differences between our region and the countries Hardy has studied. But still, allowing for that, “there are a lot of similarities,” Hardy said.

Take inequality within the country. Almost any country. “There’s this ten percent that’s gaining all over the world,” she said. And then in Ethiopia there are many women traveling to cities to work for a dollar a day.

In the United States, the middle class is shrinking for the first time since 1960; according to Pew Research statistics, it dropped from 55 percent of the population in 2000 to 51 percent in 2014. The reason? There’s an increase in the very top and the very bottom, they found.

In terms of numbers, the countries are different, but if you think of wealth as comparative, as how you frame yourself versus your neighbor or the person on TV, it’s still relevant.

Here’s another. You can bring training to a county (or country) but you should make sure that the jobs are available. You can take advantage of Ghana’s unemployed college graduates and teach them to code (“The government estimates there are more than a quarter of a million of unemployed graduates in Ghana,” says German broadcast company Deutsche Welle), but what if there’s no corporate interest in bringing in coding jobs?

What we should ask, says Hardy, is “Why aren’t there jobs in Africa; why are there jobs in Silicon Valley?”

Or: why aren’t these jobs in Sullivan?

And then there’s migration in search of work. Build the jobs somewhere and people will come, the thinking goes. But they don’t, always, she said. Their support systems matter, and people don’t want to leave them. Family, community. It’s important.

Finally, a common problem is data bias. “It can drive things in a meaningful way,” she said. In other words, the background of the person interpreting the data matters. Hence the importance of diversity (in race, the country you’re from, gender, rural versus urban, class). Without a variety of perspectives, we create imperfect models.  

As economists like Hardy forge new ways of looking at the numbers, their work becomes more important. The way Ethiopia is industrializing, the way rural America brings in new jobs, data is needed. Understanding is needed to see how these jobs affect the people who work them, their families and their communities.

“So many countries around the world,” she said, “this is the path that they see.”

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