This Indian Researcher Is Ensuring Aid Money Gets To Those Who Need It Most

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Economist Soumya Balasubramanya grew up in India and now her research is being used by development donors and governments in Asia and Africa to make sure programs aimed at vulnerable groups have the impact they are supposed to.

Balasubramanya, who is a research group leader in economics at the International Water Management Institute at CGIAR, says her research aims to identify investments, policies and interventions that can help vulnerable populations who will disproportionately bear the impacts of climate change.

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“I work on issues at the interface of water, agriculture, food, livelihoods, energy, poverty and markets; and engage the public and private sector to influence dialogue and decisions on inclusive and sustainable growth,” she said, adding that the aim is to reduce uncertainties and risks for the marginalized, while building resilience.

“My research had been used by development donors and recipient governments in Asia and Africa to design and adaptively manage investments, policies and interventions,” she said.  

Balasubramanya highlighted two projects in particular in Asia, where her team’s rigorous approach was used to improve lives.

She said that smallholders in Tajikistan are highly vulnerable to food insecurity without quality irrigation services, and training in participatory irrigation was previously only provided to the male lead farmers, but the agricultural labor force is now feminized due to male migration.

“Our research econometrically demonstrated that farms taken over by non-trained males did not risk losing access to irrigation, but those taken over by females did, which affected the food security of these households,” she said, adding that this led to recommendations for gender-inclusive investing.

In another example, Balasubramanya said her research identified sustainable solutions for eliminating sewage dumping from onsite pit latrines in rural areas in Bangladesh.

“We modelled the least-cost solution for transporting fecal sludge, and quantified the willingness of latrine owners to pay for such services, thereby considerably reducing the need for subsidies,” she said.

Balasubramanya grew up in New Delhi, India and from a young age was interested in understanding the world around her.

“In the India that I grew up in, no one around me could help me understand how one became an archaeologist, or a volcanologist – India has NO volcanoes!” she said, “both areas of study meant meagre job prospects. And being a middle-class Indian kid, that was not an option.”

She would go on to study at the Delhi School of Economics where she enjoyed taking courses in environmental economics, resource economics and development economics.

“What I wanted to do was work on issues of the environment as they affect the poor, which still seemed unclear, but fortuitously, I had an opportunity to be involved in a primary data collection activity for a World Bank project that was evaluating the effects of community forest management programs on deforestation and livelihood generation in one of the poorest parts of India,” she said.

Balasubramanya would go on to spend several weeks in remote areas of India including Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, collecting data that would enable the investigators to answer questions about how deforestation could be reduced while also preserving the livelihoods of the poorest who depend on extractive activities to feed their families.

“After graduating, I pursued opportunities with the CGIAR, which is probably the only set of research institutes in the world that bridge the gap between rigorous scientific research and supporting policy decisions,” she said.


Another female Indian researcher working on development is Thanammal Ravichandran, a researcher at the International Livestock Research Institute, in Hyderabad, India.

MORE FROM FORBESHow Are Indian Women Using Milk And Tech For Better Lives?

Ravichandran is now a consultant to the Mulukanoor Women’s Cooperative Dairy and uses science and technology to help the woman-run dairy collective to get better outcomes for female farmers.

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