Five in five with Lisa Cameron

Development Economist Professor Lisa Cameron has investigated a range of issues from the effects of China's one child policy to domestic violence in the Asia-Pacific region. New to the Melbourne Institute, Applied Economics, Professor Cameron is set to explore development issues in Australia.

You’ve recently joined the Melbourne Institute, can you tell us about your role?

I’m a Professorial Research Fellow, and I’m currently continuing the research I began while at Monash University on developing countries like Indonesia and China, and doing research for policy makers.

I do quite a bit of work for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) on Indonesia. We just got a grant from them to look at the effect of cash transfers on violence against women in the Asia Pacific region .

Most of the Institute’s focus is on Australian policy, so I am also hoping to develop a research agenda around population health and disadvantaged groups in Australia – which are like some of the issues I’ve been looking at in relation to poverty in Indonesia and China. One example is work I have been doing on how the health and welfare of sex-workers in Indonesia is affected by different government policy. This is something I’m interested to explore in an Australian context as well.

You have been commissioned by DFAT to explore the issue of domestic violence in developing countries, how will that work?

Professor Lisa Cameron while working in Indonesia.

I’m leading a team of people at the University of Melbourne and a researcher in Indonesia. We’re looking at how cash payments given to women in these developing countries impacts on rates of domestic violence.

Through government development programs, cash transfers are often given to the woman in the household as a tool to decrease poverty, by helping their children attend school, and funding health checks and immunisation. However, previous concerns have been raised that if the money is going directly to the mother, that this could create friction in the household about sharing resources, and that could lead to domestic violence. On the other hand, maybe it relieves economic pressures in the household, so there could be less stress, and a decrease in domestic violence.

There are studies which show both sides are possible, so DFAT has asked us to look at this in the Asia Pacific region.

Our plan is to go to places with high levels of domestic violence and run surveys and conduct interviews, and see if we can discern differences in the level or the type of violence, or the quality of relationships.

Your research on the impacts of the one child policy in China had some interesting results…

In China, there is a great deal of concern about the ‘one child generation’ being selfish, and not looking after their parents. So, my co-researchers and I thought let’s try and think about how we could test this, and we started running experiments with people born just before and just after the one-child policy was implemented.

We recruited people for the study in Beijing and ran various experiments to measure how altruistic, how trusting, how trustworthy, how competitive and so forth the people were, and then we looked at the differences between generations.

We found that people who were born during the one child policy were less altruistic, less trusting, less trustworthy, less competitive, more risk averse, more pessimistic, less conscientious and more neurotic. Professor Lisa Cameron

Professor Lisa Cameron has researched whether or not the 'one child generation' in China is selfish.

How did your interest in development economics, particularly in Indonesia and China, come about?

A lot of people go into development economics because they want to improve the world, but I went into it out of curiosity, and because I like travelling.

I like learning languages, I like learning about other places and cultures and I thought, well, if I could do that for a job, then that would be fun!

When I was doing my PhD at Princeton University there was an opportunity to apply for funding to go and spend several months in a country of my choice.

I already suspected I wanted to return to Australia after studying in the US so I thought I’d apply to go somewhere that’s relevant to Australia – and Indonesia was an obvious place. I also wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been before.

Then I kept working on Indonesia, I learnt the language and I built up knowledge about the institutions, and the economy. When I first went to Indonesia it was 1994 – so I’ve been working on Indonesian economics for a long time.

With China, partly it was because my kids were going to a school that was bilingual in Mandarin. I was going on sabbatical, and chose Peking University.

When you’re not delving into some of the world’s most pressing development economics issues, what do you like to do in your free time?

I do a lot of reading, I’m in a book group which is great fun. I have a very needy greyhound who is quite anxious, and he seems to have adopted me as his sole carer, so I walk him a lot.

I’m also learning violin! I started when my son starting learning violin when he was in Grade One. I was on sabbatical in Cambridge at the time and I thought, oh I’ve got a bit of time, learning violin would be kind of fun.

So now my son and I have been learning together for six years. I’m better at practicing than my son! I’d never done much music when I was younger, so I thought, learning violin as an adult, I’ll never be any good.

But I can hear things I couldn’t hear before, and I can hear if something’s not in-tune, to put it back in tune. So, I feel quite proud of my achievements on the violin.

Professor Lisa Cameron practicing violin with her son.