Wesleyan Student Recognized for Accountability Research in Africa
Rachel Levenson ’12 was recently recognized by The Jewish Daily Forward for her work researching money lending practices in Africa. The Forward requested nominations from their readers for Jews 21-and-under who were making a difference both locally and globally in confronting poverty, violence, injustice, discrimination, and ignorance.
“What impressed me personally was Rachel’s awareness and selflessness in confronting an issue that’s distant in all senses of the word,” wrote Michael Kaminer, author of The Forward article “Ten Young Jews, Making a Difference” in which Levenson was featured, in an email to The Argus. “She also seems very outcome-focused, which made it exciting to be able to highlight her work; it’s clear she’s eager to create positive change through her research and findings.”
The ten people profiled had experience in different aspects of philanthropy all over the world. The article featured three teenagers who were doing work in Africa, including Levenson.
Levenson became active in Jewish youth philanthropy in high school. She worked with teen foundations in the Bay Area that raised money and allocated funds to non-profit organizations. Her interest in Africa stemmed from learning about Senegal.
“I was interested in the history, culture and politics of [Senegal], then I had this separate sphere of my life of philanthropy and allocation of funds, and effective donations,” Levenson said. “Those two merged into this interest that I have now.”
After her sophomore year at Wesleyan, Levenson searched for different organizations involved with African development. She found Innovations for Poverty Action, a Yale-based research organization with a network of researchers in the United States and the U.K. who conduct randomized control trials and development projects.
“They take development intervention, essentially, and do it in half the villages, and see with a control what’s working and what’s not,” Levenson said. “So it’s applying rigorous, almost scientific techniques, to a very unscientific and very complex issue.”
After being selected to work on an informal finance project, Levenson spent three months of the summer between her sophomore and junior year researching in Uganda, with the support of a Wesleyan Davenport Grant. She found that the credit systems in many countries in Africa lack reliable methods of accountability.
“We were looking at a lot of different information about informal money lenders,” Levenson said. “These are individuals who give loans—usually they’re not registered, sometimes they are—but this is sort of a complimentary service to micro-finance. We’re looking at a lower level. We just don’t know anything about [credit markets in developing countries].”
Most former knowledge regarding informal money lending techniques came from Pakistan and India, which had a model of lending that wasn’t comprehensive to all parts of the world. Levenson’s work explored different models of credit markets.
“We want to learn more about their practices across the board, so we can better understand these credit markets, so our microfinance interventions and other types of financial assistance can be more effective,” Levenson said.
The first two summers of the research program were spent gathering data from various lenders. Innovations for Poverty Action created a method of semi-structured interviews and surveys that questioned the loaning process.
“The principal investigators on the project wanted to get more information about the costs of money lending, and the costs incurred by the money lender to understand if the interest rates they’re charging are exorbitantly high, or if they reflect the true costs of money lending,” Levenson explained.
In addition to learning about costs, Levenson was interested in the amount of time lenders would spend doing different activities. To determine this, Levenson helped implement various methods of tracking the lenders. Tracking was conducted through different means, and Levenson’s main work was checking in with lenders through texts and shadowing their work.
“I sat for five days in a row with a lender basically from 6 in the morning to really late in the night and wrote down everything they did,” Levenson said.
She returned to Uganda and Kenya while studying abroad in England and compiled various research techniques. This past summer she used these techniques with six interns all over the world, in places like Peru, the Philippines, and Morocco.
After graduation she hopes to continue in the same line of work and possibly get a job working with Innovations for Poverty Action.
“I definitely want to go back somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, but the country will be very dependent on the job I get,” she said. “I am still interested in this question of accountability and evaluation in aid.”