A Commentary on Research Priorities in Development Economics

Over at the Bank’s Future Development blog, Princeton Economist Jeffrey Hammer writes:

The Chief Minister posed serious questions that have traditionally been the bread and butter of the economics profession. Unfortunately, we are not even trying to answer them any more. The specific question was “Should I put more money into transport? Infrastructure (power, roads, water)? Law and order? Social services? Or what? And where am I going to get the money?” What questions could be more solidly part of the core of economics than these? Unfortunately none of these were even remotely the focus of the “evidence-based” policy making discussed.

Almost all of the cases analyzed were  single, simple policy “tweaks” that were, first of all, isolated from the broader market context in which they occurred and, second, had no conception of opportunity cost – what we would have to give up to pursue these things? We had an answer to “how to improve a public food distribution system” but even with a precise answer (to whether a tweak would work) we had no idea whether the substantial amount of money funding such a system is a good idea. Maybe the Chief Minister would be better off improving education or road networks or police or rural electricity. Some of these alternative policies could have more impact on food consumption than food distribution if we thought about how the world worked. Getting food to market securely (roads, better cold storage, trustworthy police and safe roads – this is Pakistan, which no one seemed to notice) may increase food availability much more than any tunnel-visioned food program Or not – maybe the food distribution system is better. We just don’t know. And none of us “experts” are trying to find out.

When someone says “we should have more “X” because we have evidence that it works”, the response should be “compared to what?” What should we cut in order to promote your particular interest? My hobby horse these days is more sanitation in South Asia. I should have to defend it against (at least) a few alternatives.

What’s your justification for your latest hobby horse?

My take on the gap highlighted by Hammer is that what is good for reviewers is seldom useful to policymakers. The incentive for academics is to publish. And this will always be reflected in the design and implementation of interventions headed by academics. This is not necessarily a bad thing [For obvious reasons we should firewall academic research from the actual process of policymaking. The latter should be the political process that it is, albeit informed by the former]. I think the widespread acceptance of rigorous evidence-based policymaking has been a net benefit for the developing world. What it means though, is that the “public sector” development research community — i.e. the IMF, the World Bank, & host country research institutes — should do more to ensure that funding for hyper-targeted interventions do not detract from broader macro research (like, when and why did the rain start beating Ghana?)

However, in the long run, developing countries will be better served by having more and more of their own/country-based politically relevant macroeconomists.

This is because answering the types of questions posed by Hammer requires one to also take a political stand (on account of a lack of consensus among economists). Economists who can’t do this will invariably resort to “technical” solutions that can be perceived as “apolitical” by both host governments and the sponsoring foreign development agencies. Again not necessarily a bad thing, just a reflection of the politics of knowledge production.

H/T William Easterly.

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2 thoughts on “A Commentary on Research Priorities in Development Economics

  1. Pingback: Alex De Walle on the African Academy « An Africanist Perspective

  2. Pingback: Alex de Waal on the African Academy « An Africanist Perspective

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