Manisha Shah  joined the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs as an assistant professor of Public Policy earlier this year. Shah is a development economist whose primary research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of applied microeconomics, health, and development.
She has written several papers on the economics of sex markets in order to learn how more effective policies and programs can be deployed to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. She has also worked extensively in the area of child health and development. Much of her research involves primary data collection and fieldwork, and she has worked extensively in Mexico, Ecuador, Indonesia, and India.
She answered some questions so the UCLA Luskin community could get to know her better.
Q: You have done research in Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, India and Indonesia – which country left you with the largest impression in the research you gathered?
Oh that’s a tough question! I think every country I work in leaves me with a large impression and this is why I enjoy these visits so much. I have probably spent the most time living, traveling and working in Mexico, and I am always amazed by how diverse all the various regions of the country are in terms of geography, food, and culture. I have been studying Spanish from a young age so improving my language skills is also a fun challenge in Mexico.
In Indonesia, I discovered a new love — tempeh; in Brazil I was made fun of for my grandmotherly bikini; and in India, I have experienced excruciating heat of more than 115F! Seriously though, visiting another country and speaking with government officials and local academics is always an eye-opening educational experience. I find these visits create many positive externalities for my research.
Q: Your bio states your "work investigates the influence of economic incentives on risk behavior choices and health outcomes in developing countries." What have you discovered in your research along those lines?
I am a development economist whose primary research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of applied microeconomics, health, and development. My two main areas of research are related to the economics of risk and sex markets and child health and development.
I have written several papers on the economics of sex markets in Latin America in order to learn how more effective policies and programs can be deployed to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Understanding sex markets is crucial to development economics since infection rates among sex workers are among the highest of any group, especially in developing countries with widely disseminated epidemics. Through my research I have discovered that rates of non-condom use are still high in developing countries despite substantial amounts of money being spent on educational outreach because clients are willing to compensate sex workers for the additional risk of engaging in non-condom sex. These results imply that market forces could curb the self-limiting effect of STI epidemics since sex workers are being compensated for the additional disease risk.
Child health and development is my other area of research. Research shows that early life investments in human capital can explain a great deal of variation in later life educational attainment, as well as earnings and employment. I have written papers on how child development affects maternal labor supply decisions as well as the allocation of resources within a household. Recently I have been working on a project in rural Indonesia trying to understand how improvements in sanitation affect child health and development.
Q: What drew you to your field of expertise?
Growing up we traveled a lot as a family. My parents also used to take us to India to spend summers visiting the extended family. I think all these trips shaped my interests and world view. From an early age I became fascinated with the question of why some countries are rich and others are poor, which is basically the fundamental question of development economics. Then when I was 16, I spent a summer in rural Ecuador building latrines, and I found myself hooked from then on to all topics related to development.
After I graduated from UC Berkeley (as an undergrad) with a BA in Economics and Development Studies, I spent a year working at an NGO in San Francisco with low income residents with HIV/AIDS. Then I started working on topics related to HIV/AIDS in the developing country context, and sex markets became an important area of research given their role in disease transmission.
My newer research focuses on child health and cognitive development and maternal labor supply decisions. I have probably become more interested in these issues from a personal perspective as well since having a child.
Q: You've written a lot about sex workers and the sex market – how large of a problem is this worldwide? In the United States?
Sex markets are not a problem—policies and norms that prevent participants of sex markets (clients and sex workers) from practicing safe sex are the problem. In the developing world, sex workers are an important core group when thinking about disease transmission especially when the majority of new HIV and STI infections are happening in the developing world. My research tries to understand why sex workers engage in non-condom use and risky behavior despite the massive amounts of funding that has been dedicated to educating them to do otherwise. My work attempts to understand how various policies might decrease risky behaviors.
Q: In your research on those topics, what are some of the things that have been most surprising in what you've found?
I enjoy research exactly for that reason—I am always surprised either way—when my research confirms a prior or refutes it. For example, I have been working on a large scale randomized evaluation of a sanitation intervention in rural Indonesia for the past 6 years with the Government of Indonesia. We are finding that even modest improvements in sanitation in rural villages (i.e. latrine construction in a few homes) have relatively large impacts on child health outcomes like diarrhea.
In another study in rural India, I find that in utero drought exposure has long term negative impacts on children’s school test scores and later wages. We know about negative health consequences associated with in utero drought exposure but these longer term impacts on human capital production and wages have been a surprise to me.
Q: You graduated from UC Berkeley and worked at UC Irvine before coming to UCLA. What is it about the UC system that keeps you in it?
I love the UC system. It is exciting to be a part of a system that provides quality education at a relatively low price (though tuition was a lot cheaper when I was an undergrad back in the early 90s!). I appreciate the diverse student population that the UC attracts, and it’s an exciting institution to be a part of both from a research and teaching perspective.
Q: What excites you about teaching at UCLA Luskin?
The fact that the UCLA Luskin students are first rate and come with diverse policy interests is exciting for me. Graduate students are often more focused in their research and professional interests, and I am looking forward to engaging with students around these interests. Also, I am excited not to be teaching Introductory to Microeconomics to 400 freshmen which is something I have done quite a lot coming from an Economics Department.
Q: How do you feel your expertise and teaching can help UCLA Luskin?
Most of my research is motivated by real-world questions that have implications for policy. Students often find economics classes difficult to digest because so much of the teaching focuses around theory and fewer real world applications. One of my strengths is that I apply economic theory to real world problems and that is likely to be of special interest to policy students.
Q: What is the best part of your job as a professor and a researcher?
I don’t know where to begin—I think there is no better job than being a professor. It is a job with a lot of freedom. I get to decide what to spend my time thinking about, writing about, and teaching, and I can’t think of any other job like that.
About the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Founded in 1994 and dedicated in 2011, the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs  is a leading institution for research and scholarship in the areas of public policy, social welfare and urban planning. Based in the global metropolis of Los Angeles, UCLA Luskin develops creative solutions and innovative leaders that confront challenges in immigration, drug policy, prison reform, transportation, the environment, and other areas vital to the continued health and well-being of our global society.