A narrow vision of development economics

In: Uncategorized

2 Jan 2009

A survey by the Economist of the “international bright young things” of economics, based on canvassing leading authorities in the field, shows how narrow the study of development has become. It seems that the leading young thinkers are focusing on relatively narrow micro questions rather than the big picture:

“Esther Duflo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) received more recommendations than any other economist. Some who didn’t nominate her thought she was too established to count as “new”.

“With her colleague, Abhijit Banerjee, Ms Duflo and Mr Kremer have remade development economics, nudging it away from its concern with policies, towards a preoccupation with projects. They study economic development as seen from the field, clinic or school, rather than the finance ministry. They might be called the “peace corps” of economists, bringing the blessing of their investigative technique to the neglected villages of India or the denuded farms of western Kenya.

“Ms Duflo has made her name carrying out randomised trials of development projects, such as fertiliser subsidies and school recruitment. In these trials, people are randomly assigned to a “treatment” group, which benefits from the project, and a “control” group, which does not. By comparing the average outcome of each group, she can establish whether the project worked and precisely how well.

“In one study, Ms Duflo and her colleagues showed that mothers in the Indian state of Rajasthan are three times as likely to have their children vaccinated if they are rewarded with a kilogram of daal (lentils) at the immunisation camp. The result is useful to aid workers, but puzzling to economists: why should such a modest incentive (worth less than 50 cents) make such a big difference? Immunisation can save a child’s life; a bag of lentils should not sway the mother’s decision either way.”

Academic economics is evidently narrow and technocratic rather than asking the big political questions about inequality and slow development.

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