Yoder working in Africa recently.
PULLMAN, Wash. – A Washington State University economist describes recent trips to Kenya and Tanzania as a “figurative and literal homecoming.”
Literal because Jonathan Yoder, associate professor in the School of Economic Sciences, lived in Tanzania as a child. Figurative because his research for the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health in these developing countries harkens back to why he first became interested in economics.
Yoder is part of a group of WSU researchers studying the economic impact of infectious livestock diseases on the livelihood of farmers in East Africa – particularly the Masai community in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.
Much of the existing research has focused on the direct economic effects of livestock disease, such as the market value of cattle lost to disease or of lost livestock productivity or weight gain. The WSU scientists want to investigate the indirect economic effects.
Flexibility and wealth accumulation
Indirect economic effects follow from the fact that people change their behaviors in response to changing environments. For example, if an effective vaccine were available that allowed more cattle to survive, a herdsman could invest his income in something other than replacement livestock.
He could purchase a motorcycle, which would allow him to work outside the home and bring in more income. Or he could buy additional livestock to increase the herd size.
In addition, he could accumulate assets over time. Focusing on the loss of one year’s income from livestock disease misses the potential for wealth benefits over a longer period.
If a cow were to live longer due to successful vaccination, it might produce more calves that could be sold. The additional income could be used to purchase more livestock, buildings or, in the case of the Masai, more wives – which in turn would affect future household productivity.
Long-term research starts at household level
Studies have been done on the economic effects of livestock disease based on aggregate market data at the regional, national and international levels. But the research pursued by Yoder and his colleagues at the Allen School will start with a household-level analysis.
This approach is difficult, Yoder said, but it has the potential to provide a much richer understanding of the economic impact of livestock disease from the grassroots up.
The type of questions WSU researchers hope to answer include: How do livestock-dependent households respond when faced with a livestock disease or a new treatment opportunity? Is a particular livestock disease intervention economically worth its cost? What kind of national or international policies would be most economically effective? And how do you effect change in a developing country?
Return to childhood haunts
Yoder as a child, with monkey
and rabbits, in Moshi.
Yoder, left, as a child on Mount
Kilimanjaro in Africa.
Yoder was 7 when his uncle, who owned a travel agency and was living in Nairobi, contacted Yoder’s parents about a job at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center in Moshi, Tanzania. Yoder’s father, a dentist, and his mother, who was involved in oral public health, decided to move their family – including four children ages 18 months to 8 years – from northern Indiana.
During the family’s five years in Tanzania, Yoder became fluent in Swahili and attended International School Moshi.
When Yoder traveled with other Allen School faculty members in December 2010 to explore research possibilities in Tanzania and Kenya, it was the first time he had been back to East Africa since his family left in 1978.
Coincidentally, he stayed in a hotel about 300 yards from the house where his family lived. One set of meetings took place in the hospital where his parents worked.
Development interest comes full circle
Yoder earned an undergraduate degree in biology at Indiana University, then began to study development economics on his own. Without ever taking an economics course, he moved to Montana State University, where he received a master’s degree in applied economics.
He earned his doctorate in economics at North Carolina State, where he became interested in environmental and natural resource economics, public policy and the economics of law.
In 2002, he joined the WSU School of Economic Sciences. After discussions with Guy Palmer, director of the Allen School, about integrating economics into livestock infectious disease research, Yoder became affiliate faculty with the Allen School in 2010.
Expertise and experience
Yoder, Palmer and other Allen School faculty Tom Marsh and Terry McElwain traveled to Tanzania and Kenya to explore research possibilities. They visited research facilities and met with researchers from the University of Glasgow, Centers for Disease Control Kenya and Duke University.
Yoder said the intellectual homecoming to his early interest in development economics and the physical homecoming to Tanzania have been “exhilarating and inspirational.” He looks forward to supplementing his professional expertise with his experience in the region.