Voices missing from development economics


Arvind Subramanian and Devesh Kapur,

NEW DELHI – The lack of representation of marginalized groups in the corridors of power – political, financial and cultural – is a growing source of global concern. Knowledge confers power, so who creates it matters.

As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson said, “I don’t care who drafts a nation’s laws … if I can write its textbooks.”

Development economics focuses on improving the well-being of billions of people in low-income countries, but southern countries are seriously under-represented in this area.

Unfortunately, a small number of institutions in rich countries have appropriated it, with serious consequences. And the problem seems to be getting worse.

Take into account Development economics journal, a leading outlet for research articles in the field. Neither the journal’s editor nor any of its ten co-editors are based in a developing country.

Only two of its 69 associate editors are, Africa and Asia being totally unrepresented.

Then there is the prestigious World Bank Annual Conference on Development Economics (ABCDE). The 2019 event celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Bretton Woods conference that created the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but none of the 77 attendees were from an institution located in a developing country.

And our analysis of ABCDE’s thirty-year history shows that only 7% of conference paper authors come from institutions in developing countries.

The long-standing problem of under-representation is amplified by the increasing use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to test the effectiveness of specific poverty reduction interventions in low-income countries.

While the RCT movement deserves immense credit for highlighting the need for rigor of evidence in development economics, it has had exclusionary consequences.

Due to their well-deserved academic reputation, RCT-oriented economists now work in the world’s most prestigious universities and research institutes and sit on the editorial boards of top economic journals.

This crucial gatekeeper role empowers them to set the agenda. Twenty years ago, for example, there were hardly any articles based on RCTs in development economics; in 2020, according to our analysis, they represented around 40% of articles in major journals.

And exclusion characterizes the RCT movement itself. At the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), the world’s most influential center for RCT-related development research, about 5% of the nearly 225 affiliated professors are based in developing countries, with no representation from academic institutions. ‘East Asia.

In addition, conducting RCTs is expensive, which means that research on poverty reduction – and its funding – is increasingly concentrated in the wealthier universities (J-PAL was created at MIT) .

Indeed, the cost of performing RCTs can reach millions of dollars per article, making it difficult for researchers in developing countries to study their own country without bowing to the academic orthodoxies of wealthy institutions.

If these researchers cannot do studies based on RCTs, they are unlikely to be published in leading journals and risk being relegated to second class.

Even on a generous interpretation of authorship, our analysis suggests that institutions in developing countries accounted for less than 10% of RCT-based articles in the six major economic journals in 2020.

A more subtle cost relates to the prioritization of research. There is an inherent power imbalance between the governments of relatively weak developing countries and well-known and financially powerful researchers, as well as a tension between what policymakers in low-income economies consider important and what academics deem worthy. to be published in the best journals.

These factors certainly favor research that yields high private returns to researchers based in rich countries but poor public returns to policymakers in developing countries.

Certainly, academics from developing countries in these elite institutions make important contributions to development economics. But the incentives and priorities of the institutional cultures they inhabit play a powerful role.

The final cost relates to the type of knowledge that is ignored. Several very prosperous economies – including South Korea, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Mauritius and Botswana – have not relied on RCTs to change their destinies and lift their vast populations out of poverty.

Yet academics from these countries typically do not sit on the editorial boards of major journals or actively participate in development economist conferences and seminars – a particularly telling omission in the case of China, with its historically economic transformation. unprecedented.

It is as if the development successes of these countries have no lessons to offer.

Pre-empting the Global North’s monopoly on knowledge creation in development economics requires, first, to recognize that the Global South has ceded as much domination as the elite institutions of the North have appropriated.

Many developing countries have seriously undermined their own universities and knowledge production systems both through lack of funding and through political interference, the latter being particularly pernicious in the social sciences.

If they do not remedy this, they will continue to suffer the consequences of the global imbalance.

We must also take into account the 2017 Nobel Lecture by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, in which he urged an expansion of “our common literary world to include many more voices beyond our comfort zones of the elite cultures of the first. world “.

This means seeking “more energetically to discover the gems of what remains today of unknown literary cultures, whether the writers live in faraway lands or within our own communities,” while taking “great care not to set any deadlines. too narrow or conservative our definitions of what constitutes good literature.

Replace “development economics” with “literature,” and Ishiguro’s injunction produces a constructive program of remedial action for intellectuals in the Global North.

It also suggests that diversity and a wider representation are the best guarantees against intellectual narrowness resulting from capture by the elite.

Arvind Subramanian, former chief economic adviser to the Indian government, is the author of Eclipse: living in the shadow of China’s economic domination. Devesh Kapur, professor of South Asian studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is the co-author of The World Bank: its first half-century.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.


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