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.