Job Market Paper

Religious Messaging and Adaptation to Water Scarcity: Evidence from Jordan
George Borts' Prize for Best Economics Dissertation at Brown University

Can religion drive behavioral change? I study this question using a randomized evaluation in the context of water preservation in Jordan. Water preservation is crucial in the face of rising scarcity, yet it is challenging to change behaviors. In an experiment involving women attending religious classes, those in treated classes receive messaging on the sanctity of water in Islam, while the others attend classes on an unrelated religious topic. The treatment fosters prosocial attitudes and conservation efforts regarding water resources. Relative to the control, treated women were 28% more likely to donate to a water charity. More importantly, after three months, they reduced objectively measured water consumption by 17%. Exploring mechanisms, the messages work by instilling religious beliefs about water, especially those firmly rooted in the religious canon. In contrast, I observe a backlash against new practices that have been recently accepted by religious scholars but are not grounded in the tradition. Effective religious leaders emphasize concepts of moral responsibility over ritual practice and adopt an interactive teaching style. My findings provide new evidence on the potential of harnessing religion to change behaviors and the inner workings of such religious interventions.

Published Papers

Unilateral Divorce Rights, Domestic Violence and Women's Agency: Evidence from the Egyptian Khul Reform (with Viola Corradini), Journal of Development Economics, 2023
[Published version

We investigate whether the introduction of the right to unilateral, no-fault, divorce for women has an impact on domestic abuse, investments in children’s human capital, women’s labor force participation, and other proxies of women’s agency in the context of the Egyptian Khul reform of 2000. We employ a difference in differences design, comparing mothers of children older than the age cutoffs used to assign the children’s custody to the mother, to mothers of younger children, before and after the reform. The first group of women is less affected by the legislative change in terms of being able to make credible divorce threats because it faces higher divorce costs, including the loss of alimony and the marital house. Results suggest that the introduction of Khul decreased domestic abuse and increased investments into children’s education while we do not find significant effects on labor force participation

Working Papers

Incorporating Cultural Context into Safe-Water Interventions: Experimental Evidence from Egypt (with Martin Rossi)
[Draft available upon request]

Adoption rates of safe drinking water are low in developing countries. In areas lacking centralized water treatment infrastructure, the conventional policy approach is to expand access to safe water through point-of-use chlorination. Previous research, however, reports a ceiling in adoption rates at 45 percent, even when chlorine is provided for free. We report experimental evidence that a technology (filtered water from water-treatment units) that produces safe water taking into account individuals’ tastes and local culture, leads to higher adoption rates and willingness to pay than usual chlorinated water provision. We document adoption rates (at a zero price) of 91 percent for filtered water (42 percentage points higher than for chlorinated water). Willingness to pay is 61 percent higher for filtered water compared to chlorinated water. Our findings have important policy implications, as they indicate a need for policymakers to redirect their efforts away from the current mainstream approach of subsidized chlorine and instead explore alternative strategies that carefully incorporate the local community’s values, customs, and preferences.

Religious Media, Conversion and its Socio-Economic Consequences: The Rise of Pentecostals in Brazil (with Marcela Mello)

We study the socioeconomic consequences of adherence to the Pentecostal movement, using exposure to a church-affiliated TV channel as a source of quasi-random variation in religiosity. Our empirical strategy exploits the placement of transmitters prior to the channel being religiously affiliated. Results show that exposure to this TV channel leads to an increase of 1 p.p. (+30%) in the share of Pentecostals. This large change in religious adherence allows us to study its socioeconomic consequences. Consistent with the church’s prescriptions, we find that places exposed to this TV channel had higher fertility rate (0.03 child per women on average), lower female labor force participation (0.9 p.p.), lower schooling for young women (1.4 p.p.), and more votes for Pentecostal candidates (0.29 p.p.). We find no effects for male labor force participation and schooling. In an event-study framework, we exploit the expansion of RecordTV over time to show that the effects are not driven by other expansion strategies of the church. We find that the increase in the number of Pentecostal churches occurred as a result of change in content, but did not predate it, ruling out reverse causality.

The Arab Slave Trade and the Diffusion of Islam in Africa
[Draft available upon request]

I study the link between the Arab slave trade and the diffusion of Islam in Africa. In Islamic jurisprudence, lawful enslavement was restricted: a free Muslim could not be enslaved, but conversion to Islam by a non-Muslim slave did not automatically implied freedom. African populations were thus faced with a potential trade-off for preventive conversion, fully ensuring against the risk of enslavement on one side, and losing their cultural identity on the other. I argue that the intensity of the slave trade at the ethnic-group level solved the collective action problem, resulting in group conversion. Moreover, I show that conversion by sword is associated with the emergence, in the Muslim world, of discrimination between Arabs and black Africans: black Muslims were considered worse believers than Muslims of Arab descent. I test if black Muslims adopted stricter religious practices to signal their religious worth. Results show that historical conversion by sword to Islam, as opposed to spontaneous conversion, correlates with more conservative religious beliefs today.

The Long-run Political Effects of the Separation of Church and State: Evidence from the Papal State (with Brian Knight)
[Draft available upon request]

The degree of separation between church and state has potentially significant political and economic consequence. We examine the long-run effects of the separation of church and state in the context of the Papal State, which was governed by the Pope from 756 to 1871. In particular, we conduct a within-Italy border discontinuity design, comparing contemporary political outcomes in municipalities just inside of the historic Papal State boundary to those just outside of the boundary. In terms of political outcomes, we study the rise of the Fratelli d’Italia party (FdI) and the role of Giorgia Meloni, who took over the party in 2014 and, as we document in a text analysis of political manifestos, shifted the party towards pro-Catholic and pro-traditional family positions reflecting values of the former Papal State. Comparing municipal-level 2013 election outcomes, prior to Meloni, to municipal-level 2018 election outcomes, after Meloni took over, we find a statistically significant increase in support for FdI when crossing from just outside of the historic Papal State boundary to just inside. Using survey data, we also find no evidence of an increase in religiosity or support for Catholic instanced across the boundary, such as opposition to abortion or gay marriage, suggesting that our results are driven by the effects of exposure to Theocracy rather than exposure to Catholicism itself.

Selected Work in Progress

Perceived Inequality Across Ethno-Religious Groups: Experimental Evidence from Lebanon, with Lydia Assouad, Augustin Bergeron and Salma Mousa  (funding secured) 

The Gendered Impact of Climate Change: Women and Water Scarcity in Jordan, with Lydia Assouad and Emma Smith (exploratory funding secured)

Gender, Transports and Labor Market Access in Cairo, with Viola Corradini (data secured)

Welcome to the Neighborhood? Evidence from the Refugees' Reception System in Italy, with Valeria Zurla