Professor Lisa Cameron appointed James Riady Chair in Asian Economics and Business

The Faculty of Business and Economics is delighted to announce the appointment of Professor Lisa Cameron as the James Riady Chair in Asian Economics and Business.

Professor Lisa Cameron’s experience in the Asia Pacific spans decades, with extensive research conducted in Indonesia, China and Laos, amongst other neighbouring nations of Australia.

The James Riady Chair is central to strengthening the University of Melbourne’s reputation as a world leader in business and economics research in Asia, and Prof Cameron’s expertise on policy evaluation, predominantly in Indonesia and China, make her the perfect candidate for this role.

Professor Cameron is particularly concerned with the welfare of disadvantaged and marginalised groups and the socio-economic determinants of health, which much of her research to date has focused on. She has looked at the varied implications of China’s One-Child Policy, and in Indonesia: the prevalence and consequences of child marriage, the criminalisation of sex work, and childhood stunting and cognitive disadvantage as a result of  poor access to water and sanitation. She has also measured the efficacy of cash transfer programs that aim to keep new mothers attending antenatal appointments, and young children in school. The breadth of her research has facilitated extensive collaboration with development agencies such as the World Bank and AusAID (DFAT).

Woman smiling in front of bookcase
Professor Lisa Cameron pictured in her office at the Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research.

Prof Cameron received her PhD from Princeton University in 1996, where she won a fellowship that allowed her to travel to learn about a developing economy. With the prospect of returning to Australia firmly in mind, she decided to travel to Indonesia, which she knew very little about at the time. Having picked up courses in demographics and labour economics, Indonesia was an interesting choice with a bourgeoning economy at the end of the 20th century.

Her academic supervisor at Princeton, Angus Deaton, went on to win the Nobel Prize for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare, and one of her other supervisors, Christina Paxson, is now the President of Brown University. It’s safe to say Prof Cameron was in good company at Princeton; however, it was the everyday people of Indonesia on her first-ever fieldwork trip that motivated this young academic to pursue a life and career in research.

“I actually didn't know anything about [Indonesia] at the time. It's such a large country, population wise, and it's so important on the world stage. It's very diverse, making for very interesting research,” she explains. “When I came home, I got my first job here at the University of Melbourne in the Department of Economics, and they paid for me to do a graduate diploma in modern languages. So, I did a three-year-degree in Indonesian whilst working and teaching. It was inspiring.”

“I encourage as many people as possible to go to Indonesia because I think it's very different to how it’s perceived by many people here. It's a very welcoming culture.”

Professor Arief Budiman was appointed a professor in Indonesian Studies at the University in 1997, the same year Prof Cameron joined the faculty, becoming one of several academics who contributed to a very active and interesting group of Indonesianists on campus, she remembers.

Soon enough, Prof Cameron’s research took her on sabbatical to Peking University in Beijing, where she did an intensive in Mandarin language and looked at the consequences of a number of historical policies. "Over the years China has implemented a large number of policies and programmes which are very interesting from a research perspective," she said, "In terms of identifying their impacts on human behaviour, well-being, the economy and society."

“My work focuses on human capital and education,
broadly defined.”

Currently, Prof Cameron is working on a project that analyses gender norms in the Indonesian work force. As a whole, she has found the Indonesian government very open to collaborating. “We've had a number of projects where we've collaborated in one form or another with Indonesian government departments, such as the National Planning Agency. And what's great about the Indonesian civil service is there are a lot of women in senior positions. Research shows very strongly that tertiary educated women tend to stay in the labour force in Indonesia. Tertiary educated women  have a high labour force participation rate, as do women with very low levels of education, but for a different reason, as more lowly educated women can't afford not to work. It’s in the middle that you see many women with a secondary education who drop out of the labour force when they have kids.” Prof Cameron’s work has also looked at why Indonesia’s wealth hasn’t translated into jobs for women.

As an affiliated professor of JPAL Southeast Asia, a Poverty Action Lab centred at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Prof Cameron’s work has often led her back to the experiences of society’s most vulnerable people. Through JPAL, she’s been able to work with  an impressive team of people in-country, who help researchers like herself liaise with government agencies and NGOs to accelerate policy relevant research. This has been especially helpful throughout the pandemic, while fieldwork hasn’t been possible.

An interest that she hopes to pursue over the next three years in her position as James Riady Chair is to conduct a comparative study of China and Indonesia. “Not so much in terms of the macroeconomics, because I feel like that's well understood,” Prof Cameron says. “But in terms of social policy and the the human development of the populace, to get an understanding of the differences across the two countries which have such vastly different cultures and policy settings.”

“This role allows me to step aside from some of the daily responsibilities of my university role and to actually think about what it is I'm the most interested in and where I can make the greatest contribution. I’d also like to tie together lots of the disparate strands of my research.”

There is one other big project Prof Cameron is undertaking; in Timor Leste, looking at child directed speech. “Basically, we’re running a randomised control trial, providing families with information on how important it is to speak directly to children when they are very young (below the age of four). Research has shown that the more you speak to children at that age, even though maybe they're not speaking yet, they're taking it all in and their brains are developing. So we’re looking at the impact of providing this information on children’s communication and other skills.”

There is a lot keeping Prof Cameron busy over the next three years, with many positive research outcomes on the horizon.