The Numbers Man in Africa

Nagraj Rao ’08
Major: Math and economics
Research Analyst, World Bank, Tanzania

Nagraj Rao crunches numbers for a living, but to him these are not just figures on a spread sheet. They represent thousands of little stories from which emerges a human narrative, one that describes the day-to-day circumstances of individual people, and, when considered collectively, of an entire country.

Rao, a research analyst with the World Bank, manages data collection on families in the African country of Tanzania, overseeing the teams who conduct interviews in remote villages and bustling cities. Working through grants from the Gates Foundation and other donors, Rao helps design survey models and deploys interviewers to gather information that will give the government hard numbers on such issues as poverty, housing, agriculture, water and sanitation, and consumer price index. These and other key indicators help determine Tanzania’s social and economic health, and are meant to supply the basis for informed decision-making about the nation’s future.

Rao, a native of New Delhi, India, earned his bachelor’s degree at Clark in math and economics, then obtained a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Maryland. The job, he says, is the perfect amalgam of the skills he learned in both disciplines.

The surveys are a multi-year process (Rao came on board during the second year). His teams follow up with families who were interviewed last year, then enter the data via computer software, which will tell Rao the types of changes that have occurred. He spends about 50 percent of his time traveling the country to ensure the surveys are being conducted properly.

“We’re looking at trends,” he says. “Obviously there is quite a bit of movement — people get new jobs, get married, move away. Tracing the same people [who were previously interviewed] is the hard part, and we have to devise strategies to reach them.”

Once the data are collected, Rao and his colleagues in Washington pore over the information to check its legitimacy, a process that takes two to three months. When the government has given its approval, the data are publicly posted.

Rao describes his job as “perfectly symbiotic” for the way it meshes his twin passions of statistical analysis and international development. He’s also done work in Ethiopia, which helped hone his ability to work and negotiate with various entities that include the government, international organizations and donors.

This spring he’s off to Liberia to conduct a major survey there with the Ministry of Statistics.

“The country is dynamic, it’s changing, but there’s no data for the last thirty or forty years — nothing on poverty or consumption,” he says. “We’ll be setting up the survey for them and build the statistical capacity for the country. It’s exciting to be part of things as they change in Liberia — it’s on the verge of becoming a great nation.”