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For children living in the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, playing an innocent game of tag in the street often entails something distinctly unpleasant — dodging puddles of raw sewage. In this crowded city perched on the western tip of the African coastline, millions of people have no access to the modern sanitation systems that most Americans take for granted. Dakar’s youngest residents are particularly vulnerable, as contaminated water can lead to diarrhea, the second-most common cause of infant death worldwide.

Laura Schechter aims to change that.

During a field visit, Professor Laura Schechter (right) and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) project coordinator Ahmadou Kandji review a satellite image of the neighborhood they’re visiting in the Senegalese capital of Dakar. Photo: Madelyn Bagby

A UW–Madison associate professor of agricultural and applied economics and a rising star in the field of behavioral economics, Schechter is crafting meticulous mathematical models that explore economic decision-making through the lens of human trust, reciprocity, and altruism. Her work is transforming the way that neighborhoods in the underserved outskirts of Dakar dispose of their sewage.

With no underground infrastructure to whisk waste away, a family with a pit toilet that has filled to the brim has two choices: paying someone to climb down inside the pit and empty the contents, bucket by bucket, somewhere within easy carrying distance; or hiring a sanitation truck to remove the sludge and transport it to one of the city’s treatment facilities.

“We are looking at how we can harness reciprocity and altruism to get individuals to choose more sanitary techniques,” says Schechter. “For example, if you choose the usual, unsanitary way of desludging, you are dumping on the streets where kids play, and it’s bad for the whole neighborhood. How can we convince people to choose the sanitary option, not just for themselves, but out of respect for their neighbors? In the context of a developing country where there is no unemployment insurance or Medicaid, it’s especially important to understand how interpersonal aspects affect economic decisions.”

Schechter is collaborating with Molly Lipscomb at the University of Virginia and Jean-François Houde at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania on this multidimensional study, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with grant management by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), an American nonprofit dedicated to researching better ways to help the world’s poor. The project goal is getting as many families as possible to choose mechanized desludging, which will help to reduce early childhood mortality in Dakar and other developing communities.

“Getting people to convince their neighbors to use mechanical desludging would be huge,” says Lipscomb. “We are really lucky that Laura has agreed to work with us on this. … She is one of the principal researchers working on social networks in developing countries.”

Quick to give credit to others, Schechter says that fellow Badger and IPA staffer Sarah Nehrling ’06 has served as project supervisor for the desludging initiative in Dakar and “is absolutely amazing at juggling all the many moving parts of this project.”

Continue reading this story in the Spring 2015 issue of On Wisconsin Magazine.