The irrelevancy of development economists

Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame appeared on radio today with Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. She spoke about surging food prices and famine around the world.

On his blog, Dubner recounts a last poignant question to Robinson:

I asked her if, say, a well-regarded development economist from, say, Harvard or M.I.T. were to issue a paper on some important aspect of food supply or famine (like some of these, perhaps): would the folks in Robinson’s circle pay attention?

She smiled kindly as she said “I’m afraid not.” Which only further reinforced my belief that this is one person at least who traffics in reality.

That’s a sad, if unsurprising, state of affairs.

It brings me to ask: why do development economists write papers on important issues? One answer is that we care (in which case we ought to do a better job at reaching the policy crowd).

The other answer is that we do it to interest and impress our colleagues. We pick a current issue because it raises a pulse in our audience, and then dress it up in theory and econometrics to impress.

I think both are probably true, but we’re miserable at turing caring into action. As academics, moreover, we have no incentives, no skills, and no resources to do the outreach right. On the contrary–as a junior faculty member, I practically conceal the fact that I write policy briefs out of my otherwise impenetrable econometric work on ex-combatants. (Oops, now I’m outed.)

If you walk into a think tank, they have oodles of staff translating hard research into policy briefs, organizing events with Congress, bombarding reporters with e-mails. Surely this isn’t that hard to develop? Surely it pays itself back in grants and publicity and prestige?

Might academic departments think about moving even five percent in that direction? J-PAL and IPA have been moving in that admirable direction. Why not NBER? Or our departments themselves. Comments invited.

12 thoughts on “The irrelevancy of development economists

  1. I’m a grad student in Econ in Europe, originally from South Africa (undergrad and Masters there). My perception is that there is a lot more hands on work by economists in developing countries by (predominantly UK, US, EU qualified) development economists than there ‘seems’ to be in the realm of academia here in Europe. Purely anecdotal, but possibly the case. Maybe if you are an economist in a developing country you have less of an excuse not to get your hands dirty. I would welcome being incorrect on this.

  2. Daron Acemoglu says: “It is also not necessary (and in fact often not even productive) for international organizations in general, and the World Bank in particular, to look at the most current research to decide their day-to-day business. Academic research progresses slowly and according to its own dynamics, which often reward ideas that are contrarian even if they have little empirical relevance. Only ideas that have withstood the test of time will one day become relevant for the policy sphere.”

  3. More on the policy angle…
    on the policy angle…I was talking about this very idea over burritos in the Mission District last night with my friend Tim Wu:
    who is a master at presenting complicated ideas in policy-acceptable form.

    We were talking about how VERY HARD it is to hit that sweet spot in between simplicity and making your (public or policy) audience feel nuanced.

    Unexpectedly, working on behalf of Google with African tech policy makers, I’ve found that industry research is often more compelling than econometric research for getting those good one liners that seem to be meaningful for policy makers.

    hope your summer is going well!

  4. I am a Nigerian grad student in Europe, and I understand Simon’s feeling. I was in a graduate class once in Uppsala when there was a division between students from developing countries and those from developed countries. The reason: Does applied social science research deserve to be described as scientific? I cant imagine that discussion taking place in a Nigerian grad class.

  5. Thanks Chris, I’ve often wondered the same. I’ve worked with some development economists who had policy-relevant and implementable findings, but were hesitant to promote them to policy-makers themselves because they didn’t want to lose the perception that they were impartial in an academic sense. Their argument was, I think, that the impact of their research would be diminished if they were perceived to be jumping the gun on a particular line of research and pushing something that hadn’t been fully vetted academically. I was often frustrated by this stance, and I’m not sure if it’s the correct one.

  6. Rarely do economists/policy makers find a magic bullet, so one paper on anything is likely to be ignored. I’m not sure to what extent, but development economists have in part through their research promoted, conditional cash transfers, micro-credit, and land tittling.

    At a non-R1 school like the one I teach at researching can improve your teaching. When I teach econ development I can talk about the work i have done on conditional cash transfers and present some insights.

    That and having a motivating issue for yourself, makes you more willing to put the paper through the 8 million revisions needed to publish.

  7. Very good point, Chris. I completely agree (I’m an econ undergrad at McGill hoping to go to graduate school in economics or law in the US or UK/EU).

    An additional complaint I would have is the following: many development economists are somewhat detached from reality. I may be wrong, but I have the feeling that creating incentives (don’t ask me how, though) for development academics to actually live in a developing country for a substantial amount of time — either before or during their academic career — would be hugely beneficial to the development community as a whole. Their research would likely be much more operational, facts-based and relevant, as a result of such an experience. Ideally, a new approach in academia would spill over to IFIs, most of which sorely need a change in attitude and policies. The obsession at the World Bank, IMF, etc., during the 1980s, with promoting reforms aimed at “getting the prices right” and implementing market-supporting institutions (PR, rule of law, democratic governance), proved to be “a cote de la plaque” as they say in French — i.e., largely irrelevant/useless/wrong.

    A more reality-based approach to academic research might lead to higher-quality and more operational academic papers and policy briefs as well as increased incentives for academics to actually influence policy makers.

  8. I think you see that disconnect in a lot of fields. My background is in public health, and it takes a long, long time for academic research, however sound, to affect practice.

  9. These are all great comments. i think the idea that new and fresh research should receive a lower weight is an important one. But this does not imply (to me at least) that new papers should receive zero weight. This would be like expecting doctors to ignore what is in the latest New England Journal of Medicine. Also, I don’t see too many development economists running around helpfully summarizing their more established findings. Rather, when they do interact with policy makers, I think you can argue that they are just as likely to emphasize the new and tenuous findings as the established ones. Ordinarily, translating important research into important action seems to be very low on the to do list.

  10. I can talk about the work i have done on conditional cash transfers and present some insights.

  11. Chris,

    I couldn’t agree more with your suggestion. It really pains me to see so much robust research collecting dust in the halls of universities (including the Kennedy School, from where I just graduated). Having experienced CGD’s great work in translating impenetrable academic volumes into quick, punchy, digestible and relevant briefs, I have launched my own mini-campaign to change attitudes on this, much like the sentiment in your blog post. For instance, I recently sent a pitch to the MPA/ID program at Harvard to encourage students to translate their second year theses into a short policy brief that policy makers can actually use, and then to disseminate these briefs. My classmate and thesis co-author, Emily Stanger, and I did just this, using CGD’s briefs as our model to turn our Liberia-focused thesis into a succinct 4 page policy brief. (See An academic might cringe at our boiling down nuanced paragraphs into short bullet points. Yet any loss of academic perfection is easily outweighed by the value of policy relevance and the opportunity to actually have impact. In our case, this meant President Sirleaf not only reading our brief (as opposed to the 70 page thesis) but also requesting 500 copies to disseminate in Liberia. Imagine the kind of impact development economists could have if they all committed to make their work accessible.

    My solution: clone Lawrence MacDonald and send him to universities the world over.

    Best wishes,
    Molly Kinder