Science and Practice #6: Learning from policy failures in development economics with Soumya Balasubramanya

This week Dustin speaks with Dr. Soumya Balasubramanya, senior economist at the World Bank based with its global environmental practice. Soumya is trained as a development economist and works on applied research projects at the intersection of environment, poverty and development across Asia and Africa. Before joining the Bank in 2022, Dr. Balasubramanya spent 10 years at the International Water Management Institute, a part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, rising to group leader in economics. Her work has demonstrated extraordinary range and rigour, in her own words focused on “advancing knowledge on understanding the fractal vulnerabilities faced by the poor”. We discuss this sweep of work in three major parts. We start with the spark for becoming a development economist and what it means to think like an economist in terms of evidence and connections to other fields. We continue by exploring why we know so little about key topics in water, agriculture and development. We discuss why it is important to learn from failure, taking a deep dive into India’s groundwater management and the uneven success of policy experiments with energy pricing reforms and solar irrigation. We conclude by discussing the insights for early career researchers seeking to work in development research and what it is like to work at large development organizations in this path. 

Soumya’s website:

Further reading:
Balasubramanya, S., Buisson, M-C. 2022. Positive incentives for managing groundwater in the presence of informal water markets: perspectives from IndiaEnvironmental Research Letters, 17, 101001.

Balasubramanya, S., Brozovic, N., Fishman, R., Lele, S., Wang, Z. 2022. Managing irrigation under increasing water scarcityAgricultural Economics, 53, 976-984. 

Buisson, M-C., Balasubramanya, S., Stifel, D. 2021. Electric pumps, groundwater, agriculture and water buyers: evidence from West Bengal. Journal of Development Studies, 57, 1893-1911.

Balasubramanya, S., Stifel, D. 2020. Water, agriculture and poverty in an era of climate change: why do we know so little? Food Policy, 93.