Economics professor Pallavi Panda explores how trade and social policies affect women and children in Africa and Asia.

By Robyn Rime

The causal impact of global trade policies on local populations: As a field of study, it sounds wonky and impersonal. What possible effect could lifting export tariffs have on, say, the daily health of women in Nigeria?

A significant effect, says Pallavi Panda, associate professor of economics in Geneseo’s School of Business. Recipient of the college’s Business Advisory Council’s award for research with a positive impact, Panda examines how changes in trade and social policies affect women and children in developing countries, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

“Did enacting a trade policy help alleviate poverty, change women’s labor force participation, or improve child health, like reducing malnutrition or infant mortality?” Panda asks. 

Her answer is yes, there’s evidence that globalization has a positive impact on women and children. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000, aims to assist the economies of sub-Saharan Africa and improve economic relations between the United States and countries in the region. The ongoing effort, which provides duty-free access to U.S. markets for eligible countries, has boosted trade from the region. Panda has found that countries witnessed notable effects when they increased their exports from women-intensive industries — such as apparel and agriculture, rather than oil or other natural resource mining.

“There’s a direct link between certain kinds of trade policies, depending on a country’s exports, and the lives of that country’s women and children,” says Panda. The AGOA increased local employment opportunities for women, “and we saw an increase in income for women in these areas that translated into lower infant and lower neonatal mortality rates for children, which is children dying before the age of one month or one year.” Sub-Saharan Africa still experiences considerable child mortality, so providing economic opportunities in these regions can produce significant results.

“We tend to think of trade on a more removed, macro level,” says Panda, “but it makes changes at the grassroots level, within individual households.”

In another study, Panda examined a Thai government policy of offering scholarships to medical students who were required to practice in rural areas after graduation. She expected to see that the increased number of doctors improved health outcomes for measurable care, such as vaccination rates. Interestingly, vaccination rates for follow-up shots did NOT improve. Digging into why, Panda discovered that the new doctors served primarily in public hospitals; in developing economies, she learned, care provided by the government is seen as inferior, even when access is easy and free. 

“Not only quantity but the quality — and perception of quality — is important in health care service delivery to rural areas,” says Panda. “Why would people spend more money on private health care instead of free public health care? If you make something free, the valuation of the good becomes lower in people’s minds, and that changes their behavior.” 

Panda’s research is based on data from demographic health surveys that cover a number of developing countries. Data analysis often takes a year, a timeline compounded by the fact that data is only collected every four years or five years and then at different points in time in different countries. Largely standardized survey questions help her formulate the issues to explore, and undergraduate students in the School of Business help her organize the material and review the academic literature. Several students have recently co-authored papers with her, and she received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching at this year’s convocation.

Panda has no shortage of intriguing questions to explore, but she faces very real limitations. “Sometimes insufficient data prevents you from teasing out if there is actually something going on,” she says. “And I can’t ask experimental questions for 30 sub-Saharan African countries. We have many great ideas and many undone projects in our desk drawers.” 

Pallavi Panda with two women she met at an open market in Kenya to discuss production and exports. Panda presented a paper on trade in sub-Saharan Africa at a conference. /Photo courtesy of Pallavi Panda