Chris Blattman

Is development research running in the wrong direction?

We can now see that aid and development are two distinct topics that should each have their own separate debates. If today’s development economists talk only about what can be tested with a small randomized experiment, they confine themselves to the small aid conversation and leave the big development discussion to others, too often the types of advocates who appeal to anecdotes, prejudice, and partisanship. It would be much better to confront the big issues, such as the role of political and economic freedom in achieving development.

That is Bill Easterly writing in reason. While I agree, I’m going to push back at my friend Bill. I don’t worry so much about the state of development research for a few reasons.

If you dig a trench next to a river, and knock a hole between the two, the water will come pouring in until one reaches the level of the other. A few years ago, the “macro” research on development was the river, and solid “micro” research was the trench, dug by our many wise elders in the 1980s and 1990s. I wouldn’t mistake a torrent now for the long run flow.

Also, I’m skeptical that development economists talk only about what can be tested with small randomized experiments. If you took the members of BREAD or IGC, and tallied their major papers in the last five years, I would be surprised if more than 10% related to an experiment, and if more than 50% were “small” in their focus. Those numbers shrink further if you include political science. Plus academic books on “big” development still number and outsell the books on “small” development by a mile.

Overall, I’d say one of the best things that could happen to the big study of development are better micro data, new facts, and some systematic puzzles happening in many places and projects.

2 Responses

  1. Would you say that Banerjee and Duflo’s Poor Economics is an exception to academic books on “big” development outselling the books on “small” development by a mile? (I am assuming that Poor Economics counts as academic rather than “general-reader” and that is should be categorized as “small” despite the large range of RCTs they cite.)

  2. I would also add that it’s not clear that economists are leaving the big questions to those ‘who appeal to anecdotes, prejudice, and partisanship’ or rather whether it’s the other way around: that’s what you become when you start trying to address those questions, no matter where you started from.

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