Duke News & Communications

A Lifetime Quest to Understand the Roots of Poverty

"For several years, this is all I have thought about, dreamt, lived and breathed," Anirudh Krishna says about One Illness Away his expansive new analysis of poverty that draws on his decades of experience in India, Kenya, Uganda, Peru and other countries. [An article describing his research is here.]

"Of course, I engage with the academic literature and tangle with policy debates. Yet, I would feel most successful if I were able to influence what younger people think, for they are more open to new ideas and new ways of thinking."

Krishna became interested in poverty while growing up in New Delhi. "Commuting to my middle-class school, I passed street dwellers, rickshaw pullers and beggars, many of whom were children the same age as me," he recalls. "It seemed a world apart from mine, but I was curiously pulled in: Why were some children poor and others, like me, so much better provided for?"

He began looking for answers while managing development programs in India. The more he worked with the poor in remote villages, the more strongly he came to believe that grand theories were missing the day-to-day realities that affected people most. "I saw clearly that some village communities in India were consistently performing much better than others," he recalls. "Theory and practice did not help me understand or capitalize upon these differences."

By contrast, Krishna learned a great deal from poor people themselves, most of whom lacked formal education. [Some of their stories are excerpted here.] "It was a woman from one of these village communities -- a landless, uneducated, widowed, low-caste woman of about 40 years, called Gyarsi Bai -- who first showed me where to look for useful answers," Krishna says. "Once she had understood what I was seeking to find, she tutored me in the concept of ghanishtha, a Hindi word connoting community bonding and reciprocity.

"Over the years, as I have conducted research in Third World communities, in India but also in Africa and Latin America, I have learned a great deal from the ordinary people I have met. Gyarsi remains a friend and an intellectual sounding board, as do many others in Kenya, Uganda and Peru." 

Eventually, Krishna decided to explore poverty more formally, pursuing graduate work at the Delhi School of Economics and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and then becoming a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at Cornell University in 1993. "I believed that I could make a greater contribution by returning to research and learning," he says.

In 2000, he came to Duke, where he is an associate professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy.  "At that time, only a handful of faculty at Duke dealt with international development issues. But the university administration was very supportive."

As he has expanded his research over the past decade, he has worked with faculty colleagues not only in public policy but also in political science, sociology, anthropology, religion and economics. And he has brought Duke students into his research, such as with a group who studied poverty dynamics in North Carolina and found remarkable similarities with the developing world.

"The people whom we interviewed in North Carolina communities narrated stories of falling into poverty on account of illnesses, high health care expenses, job losses and family breakdowns -- much as people in India and Uganda had narrated earlier. I realized that the overall wealth of a country is only one factor determining how well or how poorly people live in that country," Krishna says.

An undergraduate, Vijay Brihmadesam, assisted Krishna in interviewing workers at three software companies in Bangalore, showing that almost all of them grew up in middle-class homes rather than rising up from poverty. Two other students, Lina Colucci and Jung Yi Yoo, are now studying what happens to migrants who move from rural areas to big cities. In another project, Meri Poghosyan is helping Krishna evaluate a program in Bangladesh that transferred farm animals, rickshaws and other productive assets to the poorest of the poor.

Krishna hopes these students and other young people will embrace his own passion for finding solutions for those in need. "You have to go out there, work within poor communities for a while, identify people’s strengths and shortcomings, available and missing resources, find the most important gaps in people’s lives and help plug these gaps," he says. "There is not and will never be any magic pill."

Even as he mentors others, Krishna remains focused on his lifelong mission, regardless of whether he is in Durham or abroad. "Once I get back to Duke I can take many things for granted, such as personal security, air conditioning, a comfortable bed, 24-hour internet and so on," he says. 

"These seem like distant dreams while I am living in a village in India or Kenya. There I see smart young kids attending third-rate schools and people losing their shirts to pay for a loved one’s medical treatment. But step outside of Duke campus and you will see many of the same things happening right at our doorstep. Being privileged requires us to step beyond. There is no disconnect except in the cocooned worlds we create for ourselves."

One Illness Away

One Illness Away
Why People Become Poor and How They Escape Poverty
Anirudh Krishna
August 2010


Stages of Progress

Stages of Progress
Disaggregating Poverty for Better Policy Impact