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Scott Rozelle on tackling China's rural development puzzle one piece at a time

Rozelle crouches down to talk to a group Chinese children

Scott Rozelle's most recent project has focused on parenting skills in China.

Aug 2 2016

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Featured Scholars

By Emily Miller

Scott Rozelle’s research encapsulates the multidisciplinary nature of rural development, spanning from agricultural productivity to the nutritional value of school lunches to parenting routines. Focused almost exclusively on China, Rozelle has allowed his research to evolve along with the changing landscape of the world’s second-largest economy.

Two-thirds of the world’s poverty alleviation over the last three decades has been in China, and much of this has been because of changes in the agricultural sector. Rozelle, a SCID Faculty Affiliate, spent the first 20 years of his career focused on ways to improve food security: using improved seeds and fertilizer to increase the size of yields, irrigating fields, and connecting farmers to markets.

“Inch by inch, 450 million of China's 800 million impoverished people were brought above the poverty line,” Rozelle explains.

But to raise incomes in rural areas in the long run, Rozelle knew that farmers needed more than the ability to feed their families. They needed their kids to get a good education.

As Rozelle visited rural boarding schools, he found them well-resourced: lights on, textbooks available, and teachers following the curriculum. Sitting in his office after lunch, the principal pointed to the empty playground and told Rozelle to look out at the kids.

But all he saw was an empty playground. Rather than playing outside, all the students were lying in bed. The reason, he soon realized, was they were malnourished. They had no energy to play or to learn.

Compare that scene to one in a richer area near the provincial capital. “After lunch those kids scream and play and never tire,” the principal explained. Those students are getting daily lunches of meat, vegetables, tofu, soup, and fruit every day, he said.

“What do the kids here eat? Stale bread from home,” he said.

So Rozelle began a program to provide kids a free nutritious lunch and watched math scores shoot up as a result. But it wasn’t immediately clear what the nutritional deficiency was that was hindering the students’ abilities to learn.

From serving eggs to handing out vitamins in schools, Rozelle designed and tested numerous nutrition interventions, eventually finding that kids lacked micronutrients – not calories or protein as the parents expected. Armed with successful results, Rozelle spread a program to provide vitamins to neighboring schools.

Most recently, Rozelle has focused on parenting skills. Many parents in rural China are as likely to talk to their toddlers as they would be to talk to a pet fish, Rozelle says.

His current project teaches parents the importance of reading, singing and playing with their children. “Parenting trainers” were recruited from local bureaus of the government’s Family Planning Commission and make house visits once a week. Armed with a book and two toys, they work with moms on developing healthy parenting habits.

Evaluations of the project have found that 24 one-hour visits by family planning warriors can increase children’s IQ scores by 12 points. And Rozelle is betting those gains will mean a stronger workforce to carry China’s economy.