Eliana La Ferrara

As a young woman, Eliana La Ferrara fell in love with Africa and its people. Feeling that her dream of studying philosophy may not bring about much of an impact, she decided to pursue economics to help disadvantaged people. Today, La Ferrara is an expert on development economics and her areas of expertise range from social mobility and counteracting stereotypes to state functioning within fragile environments. For her field work, she travels to South America, the Middle East and of course Africa.

Eliana La Ferrara

At a glance

Title: Professor of Economics at Bocconi University, holds the Fondazione Romeo ed Enrica Invernizzi Chair in Development Economics

Nationality: Italian

Field: Development Economics

A lesson in loyalty: Was an undergrad at Bocconi University and came back in 1999 to start there as a teacher

In the field: Fell in love with Africa in her early 20s, during a trip to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and her research brings her back on a regular basis.

Finding a way out of the aspiration trap

A focus point in La Ferrara’s most recent work is finding ways to help people escape the poverty trap. She found that one way to do this is to learn more about people’s aspirations. “We’ve come to realize that neglecting the component of what the poor perceive as attainable is a serious shortcoming.”

Neglecting the component of what the poor perceive as attainable is a serious shortcoming.

The traditional view, explains La Ferrara, assumes that limited resources are the reason people get stuck in poverty. Individuals who are poor will have low investment, for example in education, and that will keep them poor. The solution may seem simple, that the way out of poverty is through additional resources and higher income. According to La Ferrara, that view is far too short-sighted.

“Sometimes you’ll find that even when people have the opportunity of accessing resources they choose not to,” explains the economist. “The implication is that giving resources will not be enough. You need to help people change their mindset.”

Tutoring, counseling programs and role models can have a critical impact in helping people become aware of what resources are available to them and how they can build on those. When people see what others from similar backgrounds to their own were able to achieve, it can have a long-lasting impact on their own aspirations. “That’s what makes people perceive, oh, I can do it as well,” she says.

Counteracting stereotypes

La Ferrara’s interest in aspirations led to a study on investments in education. In Italy, she found that the age at which students are tracked, the practice of separating students based on performance, can have a significant impact. While she acknowledges the often fierce debate about when or if students should be tracked at all, her work suggests that further education and future career opportunities are higher when students receive information about track choice and counseling on their strengths and weaknesses.

During their research, La Ferrara and her colleagues saw that teachers were less likely to recommend migrant children for higher tracks, even if they were doing well in school. With an implicit association test (IAT), La Ferrara highlighted the negative stereotypes and biases that teachers were holding and acting upon. Most teachers hadn’t realized they had such biases until after the IAT.

The test results were shared with the teachers, many of whom changed their assessment of migrant students. “This is quite promising,” says La Ferrara. She points to examples in the U.S. where many recruiters at universities and at large corporations are already encouraged to do IAT-tests to reveal implicit biases.

More diversity, less trust?

Fresh out of grad school, La Ferrara looked at American municipalities with the aim of understanding societal dynamics when there was more diversity. “I showed that increased ethnic diversity was associated with less participation in groups, less trust,” she says. “If municipalities are more diverse, you see lower participation rates.” Her early work on ethnic diversity, social participation and trust became her most cited to date.

When La Ferrara found an overall negative association to diversity, she became more interested in how to leverage the positive effects, even when there are negative stereotypes present.

“If you not only diversify but also help people who start off from different conditions to get to know each other better, then the negative effects might not necessarily materialize,” says La Ferrara.

She refers to a study that took place at South African colleges, where black and white first-year students were assigned shared rooms.

“For us, it’s important to understand if exposure to roommates who were of a different group from yours might change stereotypes,” she says. La Ferrara and her colleagues used an IAT test in this situation as well. At the beginning of the academic year, the test showed that most of the students had negative prejudices against the other group. At the end of the year, the bias of students that had been paired with someone from the other group had decreased dramatically.

“That to us was an important piece of evidence that making people have contact with members of another group leads to a virtuous circle where both groups change their attitudes,” says La Ferrara. “There are lots of reasons from a conceptual and theoretical point of view to believe that having a diverse set of skills will make us more productive, more creative.”

If you not only diversify but help people to get to know each other better, the negative effects might not materialize.

Being educational and entertaining at the same time

Looking at developing countries, there are simple and effective solutions to change people’s aspirations or even influence their decisions and beliefs. One underlying concept of this has been part of La Ferrara’s work for years.

Edutainment, which La Ferrara describes as a combination of education and entertainment, is the idea that media can be entertaining while conveying an educational message.

Her work on edutainment began with an unsuspecting type of media: soap operas. In the 1960s, telenovelas gradually entered Brazil, one municipality after the other. The families shown on TV were vastly different from the typical Brazilian families at that time. The female characters portrayed on the show usually had one or no children, while there were many children in most Brazilian families.

“In cities that started receiving this type of program, fertility rates would start dropping,” explains La Ferrara. “People saw relatively well-off and happy families on the screen and somehow decided that by decreasing their own family size, they might improve their living conditions.”

Can deep-seated beliefs be changed?

The Brazilian study led her to collaborate on a study to evaluate an edutainment program centered on the topic of HIV prevention. The format, again a TV series, showed young Nigerians in a hip, urban context, with some of the protagonists portrayed as promiscuous.

In a randomized controlled trial, La Ferrara and her colleagues showed the TV series in screening centers in Nigerian urban locations and analyzed how the perception of those who had been exposed to the show changed compared to those that had not seen the show. The results were striking. People who watched the TV series not only knew more about how to protect themselves against HIV and how to treat the disease, there was also an increase in test rates and a decrease in STDs.

The societal issues that can be tackled through edutainment are plentiful, ranging from health to gender inequality or parenting.

“This suggests that even on deep-seated preferences like those related to sexual behavior these programs can potentially work,” says La Ferrara.

Even on deep-seated preferences these programs can potentially work.

A very full table

La Ferrara always has more than one project on the go. Currently, she is involved in a project focused on female genital mutilation in West Africa, exploring alternatives to the ritual that preserve the cultural importance without the bodily harm. In Bahia, Brazil, where many young girls believe that having a baby is a way to give meaning to their lives, La Ferrara is working on a project with the aim of raising aspirations through peers and education. In Egypt, she is working with UNICEF on an early childhood education edutainment project.

La Ferrara is optimistic about the growth and direction of development economics. In recent years, she has seen an increase in young students pursuing development economics and at Bocconi University where she teaches, La Ferrara encourages her students to move in that direction. “There’s so much room for people wanting to work in development, to have a real contribution,” she says. “The most fulfilling for me is really when I see my students deciding to do development, do fieldwork themselves. That’s really what makes my day.”