Chris Blattman

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Why is Latin America more popular than Africa?

In response to Stefan’s Wordle, Tyler Cowen muses:

I wonder sometimes why Latin America is overstudied in development economics and similarly, why World Bank employees are often keen to work in that region.  How much is a) absence of jet lag from the U.S., b) relative ease of learning Spanish and Portuguese, and c) lower population densities than Asia, which in some ways make visits more pleasant, or d) income inequality, which means that life is quite good for visitors?  Are there other factors?

Less jet lag I can get behind, but I’d be shocked if it explained the gap. Language and cultural affinity could explain much of the gap between Latin America and Asia, but not the research gap between Latin America and Africa. Researchers operate in English and French across Africa, and it’s hard to find lower population densities or greater income inequality.

One possibility: there are many more Latin American economists than African ones. I don’t have figures, but I bet if you tallied all the PhD students in the top 20 econ programs, 10 or even 20 percent would be from Latin America. I would be surprised if you found more than a handful of Africans. This is partly because Africa and its universities are poorer, and have poorer links to their American cousins, but also because I seldom see an interest in the study of economics in Africa. A relative absence of role models?

But the biggest reason we see fewer economic studies in Africa: less data. Latin American countries are an order of magnitude richer (or more) and tend to have well-developed statistical agencies and national survey data.Virtually no panels exist in Africa, and data is harder to access.

All the same, I bet when Stefan runs the same exercise for 2010-15, we may see Africa outpolling Latin America, largely thanks to people like Michael Kremer.

P.S. Bill Easterly has a worthy idea.

P.P.S. There is room for hope.

Other ideas?

13 Responses

  1. Hope and change, and Yes We Can were all slogans by worker rights protester Cesar Chavez even Obama gave him thanks and said he was inspired by him look it up before you say stuff you obviously know nothing about Lee.

  2. Another possibility is political instability. For any project the WB needs a local counterpart, agreement from the government, and so on and so forth. It is very difficult to engage in 3 to 5 year projects if you don’t know if the next government will give it continuity and who your counterpart is going to be going forward. And I don’t only mean infrastructure projects. For example, if you were to implement a capacity building project, helping government staff implement best international practices in topic X (say, procurement), you encounter the following problems:
    (1) Next government will kick out every single person
    (2) Staff is worried in short-term management, and there are no incentives to plan 5 years ahead
    (3) Staff retention: best staff gets training by the World Bank, and then they are able to find better jobs in the private sector, or in multilateral agencies. Public sector can’t compete and has a lot of adverse selection.

  3. I like latino girls, are sweet, good housewives, have wihte girls hair and blacks girls ass, it’s perfect.

  4. My hunch is that a lot of this effect can be explained by the fact that it’s a lot more pleasant to live in Buenos Aires than in Addis. That was even more true before the last decade of development in African cities.

  5. 1. Is the Journal of Development Economics representative? How many development economics journals are there in US, vs Europe vs Asia? I would be surprised if Africa wasn’t over-represented in European journals, and Asia in Asian journals. Main point – geography as well as data. 2. World Bank – the internal reputation is that Africa has the least sophisticated economists, and that Latin America/Eastern Europe/East Asia have the best – and yes, data is a big part of this but also the obstacles to development in Africa are “obvious”, whereas those in the other regions are harder to crack. If you work in Africa, it’s then harder to find a job in other regions. And it’s not just within the WB. Policy-makers in (say) Turkey are less impressed by experience in Tanzania than experience in Mexico. What are the global good practices relevant for Turkey from Tanzania they ask? Disclaimer – I disagree with this perspective but I see where it’s coming from.

  6. Chris, I just posted this in Tyler´s blog:

    I think that the reason why Latin America is overstudied in development economics is that the subject was born in a time (1940s-1960´s) when the region was a very important reference to it. There was also the political fear of another Cuban Revolution and the US government desire to promote an alternative development/reform agenda.

    Those were the days where the work of the United Nations´ Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL, in the Spanish acronym) was influencing the thinking and public policy of developing countries all over the world. Economists like Raúl Prebisch (Argentina), Celso Furtado (Brazil), Aníbal Pinto and Oswaldo Sunkel (Chile) were read and discussed everywhere. And Latin America was researched by great scholars like Albert Hirschmann and Albert Fishlow.

    So, there is more than a bit of “path dependence” here. Since Latin America was very important at the beggining of development economics, other scholars in the discipline continued to do research on the region, even if the most promising development policies were those of East Asian countries

    all the best,

  7. I think you’re right, there is room for hope. Another interesting trend is the emergence of health economics and funding for it in Africa. The World Bank funded these looks into the cost/benefits of providing contraception in Ethiopia and Uganda and more work is under way looking at the return on investing in preventative medicine in other countries.

    Development funding in general is shifting away from Latin America. The US has “graduated” or is in the process of ending programs in several Latin American countries, and some wealthier European governments have reshifted their development focus from Latin America to places closer to home like Eastern Europe. Meanwhile large US foundations are putting a lot of funding, energy and resources into Africa.

  8. This is actually why, as an economist, I’ve decided that all development study is completely wasted.

    It seems to me that if one were serious about trying to understand Africa or any other country, and one had the resources of an institution like the World Bank, the very first thing one would do is take a bunch of local smart people, train them in statistics, and start a statistical bureau. It is of course completely reasonable that the local government would not view this as a priority, so the World Bank could simply fund the statistical bureau. Given the extremely low expense of doing this compared to the average World Bank intervention, this would be the obvious first thing to do in every country forever. Long term, you’re enabling a generation of statisticians and economically literate folks to live and work in their homes.

    Of course, this happens in no country, because the point of this business isn’t to help these countries make good decisions for themselves.

    We actually had a bureau chief for the World Bank come by my econ program whilst I was a grad student, and I actually asked him if there were any plans to address the many data issues he brought up in his presentation. He looked at me like I was a crazy person.

    1. Actually, my impression is that this is exactly what the World Bank does. I see it all the time. It’s why we have LSMS and DHS surveys in many African countries. These did not exist 20 years ago for the most part. It will be another generation before stats agencies have the sophistication of Latin American ones. Institutional development takes time, and cannot come solely from without. Good institutions (in this case good data) need internal stakeholders who hold them accountable. A donor can only do so much.

  9. how about availability of data – if you look at the countries that get studied a lot – apart from Mexico and Brazil which are obvious Argentina and Columbia stand out – they are the ones with good statistical agencies, especially quite high quality household panels. Chile is missing in that, but they might just not be “developing” enough…

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