The Jameel Observatory for Food Systems Early Warning is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Nathan Jensen as Jameel Observatory Research lead based at the University of Edinburgh’s Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems.  Nathan is an applied economist working to reduce poverty and to mitigate its negative impacts. He holds a BA in Physics from Luther College in Iowa, an MSc in Agriculture and Applied Economics from the University of Missouri, and a PhD in Applied Economics and Management from Cornell University. Much of his research has taken place among pastoralists in the Horn of Africa, focusing on resilience to shocks, the role of social protection and financial tools for building resilience and economic growth, and innovative approaches to data collection. Here, he introduces himself and some of his ideas for the Observatory.

Tell us about your experience and education 

I have been doing research for development in a pastoral context for over ten years.  Much of this time has been spent working to better understand welfare dynamics with particular focus on the role social protection and insurance in securing livelihoods in the face of shocks. I was formally trained as an applied economist at the University of Missouri-Columbia and then at Cornell University.

What motivated you join the Observatory and where do you see the Observatory making most difference?  

There continues to be a tremendous need for progress in our understanding of how to most cost-effectively mitigate the negative impacts of climate shocks.  This research requires coordination and experimentation across the full spectrum of interventions, from longer-term development programming to humanitarian relief in response to acute humanitarian disasters. The Observatory and its partners form a unique consortium of organizations that are actively working across this spectrum and that have long experience in both research and implementation, both of which are critical for learning in this space.

For me, the Observatory offers an opportunity to work with a diverse group of like-minded and skilled folks to solve important and policy-relevant problems. The fact that a major humanitarian organization—Save the Children—is a core partner will ensure that our research focuses on questions that are immediately relevant to the humanitarian space, while partners at ILRI, J-PAL, and the University of Edinburgh bring to the table considerable scientific resources and vast experience in research design and implementation in these contexts. The partnership and policy engagement opportunities offered by Community Jameel are key to disseminating our findings and making a difference

One starting point for the Observatory is data and its potential to guide decisions and investment. Where do you see the greatest opportunities and challenges in this area? 

Data collection in pastoral regions is extremely difficult and expensive which has meant that there are very few representative and publicly available datasets in the region. The result is that our understanding (i.e., models) of pastoral production and how households respond to weather shocks, to changes in access to institutions and services, or to conflict are rudimentary at best. For example, while we know that drought can reduce milk production, increase livestock losses, and cause malnutrition, we know little about the actual length or severity of drought required to do so. This is not to mention how local social and natural environments can influence those dynamics or the duration of good rains required to return households and their herds to predrought conditions.

In such scenarios, it is challenging to identify the mix of development programming and humanitarian relief that could be most effective in securing pastoral livelihoods in the face of recurring droughts.

I believe that by partnering with local organizations and pastoralists themselves, we can develop much lower-cost approaches to data collection that can inform on the environment and dynamics within the household. The micro-tasking and sentinel zones work led by ILRI is an example of an innovative approach to data collection that holds a great deal of potential, not only for monitoring environmental and household conditions, but also for modelling household dynamics and testing the impacts of interventions.

The Observatory has an emphasis on action research … how do you see this translating into changes and outcomes at policy and community levels in this space? 

Action research allows us to shift our focus and research designs in response to learnings and feedback from the field and from speaking with stakeholders. Such flexibility ensures that we are putting our efforts towards demand driven (i.e., identified by our stakeholders) problems and that the solutions that we propose to study are relevant. As an example of the importance and value of action research, the Observatory recently shifted its focus from developing a more accurate forecast model towards improving the effectiveness of existing early warning systems. This shift was in response to feedback by stakeholders on their needs. This shift will improve the value of the research that the Observatory invests in while generating buy-in from our stakeholders.

The Observatory brings together a mix of partners from research, academia, evaluation, and humanitarian action. What opportunities do you see this collaboration offering us?  

I believe it is quite rare for a collaboration to include the amount of context-specific research and programmatic fire-power that the Observatory has brought together. My hope is that through the Observatory, partners are able to coordinate on a research agenda that can start to answer “big questions” related to improving food security and securing the livelihoods of pastoralists. I believe that coordinating with our partners to learn about the benefits and costs of layering development, anticipatory and response activities, through rigorous research designs is one such “big question”. In some cases, layering could simply mean coordination across existing activities while in other cases it could be testing new, unproven, interventions.  In all cases, learning, and the testing required to do so, requires coordination and commitment from several different actors, which is often a massive challenge to arrange but is, in effect, what the Observatory offers.


Follow Nathan on Twitter: @nd_jensen

Visit his personal website

See his publications on ORCID  and on Google Scholar

His recent publications include:

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