Dr Paulo Santos


More than 70% of the differences in income or life expectancy across the world are due to circumstances beyond one’s control: the place where we are born or our parent’s wealth. I want to understand why these differences still persist and what can be done to change it.

Research interests

My research interests are at the intersection of economics and sociology and also of economics and natural resource management. I’m especially interested in using insights from these different areas into understanding why poverty is persistent. Because so many of the poor are still farmers, agricultural economics seems to me a good way of looking for the answer to that question.

As most economists, I care about how markets work. I’m particularly interested in understanding how markets are formed, how agents overcome problems of trust and asymmetric information. In my work I have looked at how networks are formed as one way of incorporating the idea of social embeddedness of economic relations, initially developed by sociologists and anthropologists, and how social context shapes transaction costs and allows the economy to function and how does it shape the depth and inclusiveness of markets. One small step from this work, I’m naturally interested in the importance of identity (and discrimination) as an additional explanation for why some people remain poor.

Natural resources and the territory are the other side of my interests, and they most closely reflect my initial training in Agronomy: land use changes and deforestation, water management, technology adoption are all important determinants of the asset base that determines how people participate in the economy and in society of developing countries. They are also important areas of policy intervention, and one where the ability to talk with non-social scientists seems most needed.


Paulo studied Agronomy as an undergraduate in Lisbon, Portugal. After finishing his degree, he worked in a variety of jobs (as a research assistant at a research institute, as an agricultural economist at an irrigation company in the South of the country) and later started a M. Sc. in Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, again in Lisbon, looking at the political economy of agricultural policy (while simultaneously working as policy adviser for the central and regional government – his first and last experience as “amateur anthropologist”).

His interest in development grew out of his interest in agriculture and, having decided that he didn’t know enough to make any difference; in 2001 he enrolled in a PhD in Applied Economics at Cornell University. He started working on water management in Northern Thailand (where his interests in the development process in South East Asia were born) but ended up doing his research on social insurance among nomadic pastoralists in Southern Ethiopia – literally, two worlds apart.

In mid-2007 he joined the University of Sydney where, in addition to teaching (including a unit on Agricultural Development Economics), he is involved in several research projects: the economic impacts of land titling in Laos (with colleagues from NUOL and Wisconsin), water management in the Tonle Sap, Cambodia (with CDRI, RUPP and U Sydney) and the functioning of commodity markets, namely cocoa, in Indonesia (with ODI and CIRAD, as part of a wider program that will cover the functioning of this market in other countries, namely Ghana and Ecuador).

Paulo says that one off the most enjoyable parts of his work at the University is the opportunity to work with postgraduate and honors students. Most of them work in topics related to development economics and, whenever possible, he encourages them to do fieldwork and/or to spend periods abroad. Ongoing projects and proposals include the role of contacts in the transition to the job market in South Africa, the functioning of livestock banks in Laos, the nutritional impacts of input distribution programs in Malawi, the formation and management of marine protected areas in Indonesia, the importance of market concentration on the dynamics of innovation and the decomposition of productivity in the Ghanaian cocoa sector.

Recent publications

  • Paulo Santos and Christopher B. Barrett (2010), Interest, identity and information search in a dynamic rural economy, World Development, 38 (12), 1788-1796.
  • Paulo Santos and Christopher B. Barrett (forthcoming), Informal credit and persistent poverty, Journal of Development Economics.
  • Manuscripts in progress:
    Elizabeth Nolan and Paulo Santos (2010), Patents and innovation: genetic modification of corn in the USA, 1990-2009 (under review).
  • Paulo Santos and Christopher B. Barrett (2010), Heterogeneous wealth dynamics: the roles of risk and ability.
  • Nicholas Ross, Paulo Santos and Tim Capon (2010), Risk, ambiguity and the adoption of new technologies: experimental evidence from a developing country.
  • Marissa Ward and Paulo Santos (2010), Looking beyond the plot: the nutritional impact of a fertilizer subsidy.
  • Michael Begg and Paulo Santos (2010), Asset transfers and food security.
  • Joshua Johnson and Paulo Santos (2009), Can the free distribution of fertilizer stimulate its future demand? A regression discontinuity analysis of Malawi's Targeted Input Program