Sometimes big ideas start with small experiments. That’s been the experience of HBS associate professor Nava Ashraf, whose experimental approach to research in developing countries has produced insights that have influenced government policies.

Ashraf, an economist by training, has conducted behavioral-change experiments in health, agriculture, and microfinance in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. She brings that globetrotting experience to bear when teaching a second-year course called Managing Global Health.

At a recent HBS faculty research symposium (video), she traced her interest in global health to the realization that an estimated 13 million people die each year for lack of low-cost products that could save their lives. Over the past seven years, she has conducted research projects in Zambia aimed at better understanding “how to get products to people, and how to get people to use them.”

In one study exploring the country’s high birth rates, 1,031 women were randomly chosen to receive a voucher guaranteeing free and immediate access to a range of modern contraceptives through a private appointment with a family planning nurse. A control group of 768 received nothing. To uncover the effect of disagreements between spouses about the number of children to have — women generally want fewer than men — half of the women chosen to receive vouchers got them without their husbands present, and the remainder with their husbands present. This gave a select group the opportunity to withhold information from their husbands about access to contraception.

The results? Providing cheap and convenient forms of birth control led to a reduction in unwanted births only when women were given full autonomy over accessing the products. Women who received the birth control option information without their partners present had a 57 percent reduction in unwanted births.

When Ashraf presented her findings to the Zambian Ministry of Health last summer, officials pointed out that it was government policy to emphasize men’s involvement in contraceptive use. Rather than change policy, officials asked Ashraf to conduct research on how to change men’s preferences for having more children. “So I’m piloting projects on that right now,” she said.

Ashraf is one of a small number of HBS faculty who pursue experimental field research. For her, it’s essential. “We can’t solve the challenges of global health without deeply understanding what motivates customer and provider behavior,” she said. And field experiments make that possible.


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