Kim Sarnoff and Shotaro Nakamura at work in the research office

Negotiating a better future

The impact of teaching negotiation skills on girls' health and educational outcomes.

Professor Nava Ashraf


Professor Nava Ashraf

Marshall Institute and Department of Economics

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, families are more likely to invest in the education of boys than in that of girls; in Zambia, for example, girls drop out at a rate three times as much as boys in the transition to secondary school. Low educational attainment can have many negative consequences later in life, not only in terms of financial status, but also in terms of health. Indeed, uneducated women may rely on older partners for resources, making themselves vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy and HIV.

Many governments and NGOs try to address these issues by providing material support that can loosen resource constraints, such as free uniforms and scholarships. However, resources alone cannot explain the different life outcomes of individuals: a substantial economics literature has found that holding resources and observable characteristics constant, there is still enormous variation in individuals' lifetime earnings.

A recent branch of economics pioneered by James Heckman has posited differences in non-cognitive skills as one reason for this variation. Non-cognitive skills, which are often formed in early childhood, are difficult to measure, and are particularly difficult to shift. However, neuroscience research shows that inter-personal skills develop during adolescence, and therefore, may be particularly powerful to teach in school. 

Negotiating a better future Negotiating a better future

We study whether inter-personal skills can help young girls in Zambia overcome the constraints they face. Working together with 20 young women who grew up in low income compounds in Lusaka and eventually attended the University of Zambia (our "Negotiation Coaches"), we developed a curriculum that built on the Harvard Negotiation project’s pedagogy of teaching how to achieve joint gains from negotiation.

This 2-week afterschool intervention was randomized across 2,400 grade 8 girls in 29 schools in Lusaka and had a significant positive impact on an index of health and education outcomes, including school fee payment, enrollment, attendance, national exam scores, and reduction in pregnancy. This led the Ministry of Education in Zambia to incorporate this way of teaching negotiations training into the life skills curriculum across middle schools in Zambia.

GN NPR piece title

Learn how 15-year old Madalitso Mulando used the negotiation skills she was taught in the programme to fundraise $150 in tuition fees so she could stay in school even when her parents couldn’t pay her tuition. Listen to the National Public Radio (NPR) piece here.

You can download the curriculum used in the project here

Researchers: Professor Nava Ashraf (LSE and the Marshall Institute), Dr. Natalie Bau (University of Toronto),  Dr. Corinne Low (University of Pennsylvania), and Professor Kathleen McGinn (Harvard University).