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Postdoctoral fellow Sara Lowes reflects on her research in the Democratic Republic of Congo

In a Q&A, Sara Lowes reflects on her time spent at the King Center as a 2019 - 2020 postdoctoral fellow and her research in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Government and Institutions

Sara Lowes is a postdoctoral fellow at the King Center and will join the University of California San Diego (UCSD) economics department as an assistant professor in summer 2020.

Lowes' research interests are at the intersection of development economics, political economy, and economic history with many of her on-going projects located in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Before Lowes leaves for UCSD, the center asked her to share a few highlights from her time spent at Stanford, as well as what research projects she's currently working on.

What has been your biggest achievement so far in your research?

Sara Lowes
Sara Lowes

Much of my on-going research is in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where I have been working since 2013. I am really proud of the team of enumerators I work with in DRC. They are local Congolese who work with us to design and implement our surveys and studies. This often involves them spending extended periods of time visiting rural villages to collect data. We get amazing photos of them in their efforts to get to some of the more remote villages; one of my favorites is a photo of them and their motorbikes in a canoe to cross a river. It really highlights the challenges of working in an environment with limited infrastructure. We have developed a great relationship over the past seven years, and my research in Congo wouldn’t be possible without their hard work, diligence, and perspective.

What are some of the opportunities that postdoc at the King Center offers that set it apart from other positions?

I am really grateful for my time at the King Center. I have particularly enjoyed having access to Stanford’s diverse community of scholars. During my time at the King Center I have been able to meet with scholars from economics, political science, FSI, GSB, anthropology, and the Center for African Studies.

Can you share some of the projects you are/were working on during your time here?

I am currently working on a project with Eduardo Montero (University of Michigan), Nathan Nunn (Harvard University), and James Robinson (University of Chicago), in DRC, where we are trying to understand how social structures may improve accountability of local leaders. In particular, we focus on “age sets”, which is a cultural practice in which individuals from the same age group undergo initiation rituals together and form cohesive groups of young men. Anthropologists had hypothesized that having these types of strong horizontal ties among young men may lead to more accountable village chiefs – a hypothesis which we are testing using a randomized controlled trial in 300 villages in northern Congo. We work with an NGO to provide villages with access to health products, and we test whether communities with age sets manage the program better and whether the design of the program itself can leverage these pre-existing social structures.

In other work with Nathan Nunn, we are interested in how traditional belief systems, such as belief in witchcraft, affect pro-social behavior. This is related to a growing interest in economics in how religions, such as Christianity and Islam, affect economic outcomes, and in particular, how religion may increase the scope and extent of cooperation. However, despite that belief in the supernatural and belief in witchcraft are very common globally, and in particular in sub-Saharan Africa, we have little evidence on the effects of these beliefs. In this project we will explore that using lab in the field experiments in DRC.

What do you think is a pressing issue that can be impacted by the research in your field?

A pressing issue, particularly given the spread of Covid-19, is the origins and consequences of mistrust in medicine.  In joint work with Eduardo Montero, we examine how historical experiences shape trust in medicine and engagement with the health sector. The paper studies medical campaigns conducted by the French military during the colonial era in former French Equatorial Africa (present day Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon, Republic of Congo, and Cameroon). In short, we find that these historical medical campaigns – which were characterized by forced treatment for sleeping sickness with medications that often had harmful side effects – are today associated with lower vaccination rates for children and greater mistrust in medicine. Given the importance of public health initiatives to prevent the spread of Covid-19, I think the paper provides evidence on why people may be hesitant to trust and engage with the health sector. It also suggests that there can be harmful unintended consequences of poorly implemented health initiatives. In a subsequent project we hope to explore what can be done to rebuild trust in medicine.

What’s next for you after the postdoctoral fellowship has ended?

In July 2020, I will be joining the economics department at UC San Diego as an Assistant Professor. 

You can read more about Sara’s research, including recent working papers, journal articles, and book chapters, on her personal website. Follow Sara on Twitter @sararlowes.