Numbers are often considered cold, heartless concepts, but Casey Goldvale begs to differ. To her, numbers are an essential part of compassion. As an undergraduate pursuing economics and mathematics, Goldvale is convinced that in order to help struggling communities and reduce inequality, interested parties need to cultivate a strong quantitative understanding of the problems they face and the solutions available.
Knowledge Through Numbers
This belief is what draws Goldvale into research on development economics. She focuses on analyzing empirical development data, working on multiple projects but with the overarching goal of understanding sustainable small-holder agriculture and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. As Goldvale puts it, “Until we understand the situation we’re facing in detail, we’re going to be very limited in terms of the actions that various institutions and players can take to address today’s development challenges.”
She appreciates people’s charity efforts, but as with the proverbial fish, “it’s a temporary fix; if we really want to find sustainable solutions that will be pervasive and possibly even preventive, we must be able to do this research.” By providing policy-makers and interested parties with the necessary knowledge, Goldvale is making sure that people instead learn how to fish, and fish effectively. “The end goal is mainly policy recommendations,” says Goldvale.
Goldvale works with Professor Christopher Barrett, Applied Economics and Management, and his team. Her main work is for the Living Standards Measurement Study—Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA). The project, conducted by the World Bank in partnership with relevant national agencies, collects data on agricultural practices and other aspects of Sub-Saharan African households. Then the data is analyzed to ascertain or reject prevailing assumptions that often influence the decision-making of governments, institutions, and private sectors. As part of the team behind LSMS-ISA, Professor Barrett’s team plays a great part in the project; Goldvale herself is helping examine the assumption that Sub-Saharan communities utilize very small amounts of modern inputs in their agricultural activities, such as chemical fertilizers.
Working with Data Sets
Surveys produce data sets, and LSMS-ISA produces what is known as panel data sets. “A data set,” explains Goldvale, “has all the variables of a survey coming from anything between a few hundred to a few million households. A panel, in panel data sets, is for a single round of data-collecting, so if you started the survey in 2009, and then you go back 3 years later to interview the households again, and then again after another 3 years, each of these 3-year rounds corresponds to a panel.” This method allows researchers to study the effect of policies and trends over time on communities.
Goldvale is thrilled with this LSMS-ISA survey, as it is one of the first survey efforts that comprehensively represent households over large periods of time. “What’s really exciting,” says Goldvale, “is that with the current data we are going to be able to create a two-panel data set. We will be able to see what’s happening to people participating in certain government programs or experiencing climate trends over the course of many years.”
“What’s really exciting,” says Goldvale, “is that with the current data we are going to be able to create a two-panel data set. We will be able to see what’s happening to people participating in certain government programs or experiencing climate trends over the course of many years.”
Furthermore, Goldvale extols the amazing scope of the LSMS-ISA: the surveys are conducted at a national scale across the Sub-Saharan countries of Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda. She explains that “the sort of statistical and regressions analyses in these countries have been quite localized, so people have been forced to generalize conclusions. In contrast, this LSMS-ISA is one of the first comprehensive, well-conducted surveys done that are fairly consistent across a large part of Sub-Saharan Africa.”
As a result, researchers can begin to confidently draw conclusions regarding Sub-Saharan communities – conclusions which in turn better inform the public and private sectors. “We get to finally see those trends apply across the board, and if they don’t, we get to stop making generalizations. So either way, we reach valid, important conclusions.” The scope and unprecedented accuracy also allow for greater comparison among countries and paint a more specific picture for each national context.
An Exceptional Opportunity
It is rare to see surveys of the scale achieved by the LSMS-ISA, and to Goldvale, “it’s also very humbling.” She is glad that the people on the research team have been very supportive toward her and her aspirations. More than once she emphasizes her deep gratitude towards Professor Barrett, along with his team. She describes Professor Barrett as “a very significant player” in the field who nevertheless gave her the opportunity to contribute to projects that are eye-opening, “large, and amazing.” She reiterates that, “I’ve learned so much through the projects the team assigns me… it will be incredibly valuable for my future, especially since I’m planning on graduate school, maybe a PhD. I’m really glad that I got involved in this research, and I hope more undergraduates do so.” She also mentions Megan Sheahan, a research support specialist, as one of those people she closely works with, whose assistance enables undergraduates such as Goldvale to navigate difficulties in a complex project. Goldvale is also thankful to Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, the leader of Goldvale’s previous project team, who is “wonderfully supportive of undergraduate students” and who fostered her growing passion in social and economic justice.
Cultivating an Interest in Research
Goldvale’s first assignment with Professor Barrett’s team also greatly boosted her interest in delving deeper into research. She was involved in comparing data collected by the Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP), a program that targets the very poor in Kenya and providing financial support, with data from the Index Based Livestock Insurance (IBLI) that provides protection against livestock death from droughts. “I was involved with the descriptive statistics on the HSNP, someone studied the IBLI data, and everything actually ended up being important because we found discrepancies.” She found the end result surprising given how the research began. “It actually started out with me doing literature review and finding out that these [HSNP] numbers are quite different from the IBLI surveys.” She finds the experience rewarding and it encouraged her to put even more initiative into her work, notwithstanding her being “only” an undergraduate.
A Wealth of Activities
Beyond research, Goldvale’s heart for people and for development flows through her other activities. She was involved as the pioneering class in the Intag Project, a course that seeks to understand and assist the Intag community in Ecuador. This community has been resisting resource extraction in their lands for over 20 years through civil disobedience. She was inspired by the strong will of the people to develop economically on their own terms; the Intag project, as requested by the community members themselves, assisted a coffee farmer cooperative in soil science and in business website design, among other initiatives. Goldvale’s involvement in the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA) also testifies to what she feels strongly as a “moral requirement to try to address the problems around us.” On many recent occasions, COLA has successfully pressured multinational collegiate apparel companies to provide fair treatment of their workers in places such as Honduras and Indonesia, often by means of threatening licensing deals and cutting business ties. She is also active in the Challah for Hunger that supports local food banks through fundraising events.
Seeing Cornell’s Collaborative Spirit, First-Hand
Regardless of the activity, be it research or student activism, Goldvale appreciates the interdisciplinary nature of Cornell, calling it “a common theme” that really amazes her. She takes the example of how Professor Barrett “just” calls up a contact studying insects in order to use insect population as a proxy variable in assessing insecticide use.
Nevertheless, the more pertinent theme to Goldvale is still the harsh inequality that persists in the world. She hopes to continue the work she loves, with her heart on the people and her mind on the numbers.