March 27, 2021

The Absent Voices of Development Economics

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Development economics focuses on improving the well-being of billions of people in low-income countries, but the Global South is severely underrepresented in the field. A small number of rich-country institutions dominate, and their growing use of randomized controlled trials in research is entrenching the imbalance.

GORDIL, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC – DECEMBER 12: A woman carries water to her home in a rebel held town December 12, 2007 in Gordil in the northern Central African Republic. Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the world?s poorest and most neglected countries with an average life expectancy of 39 years. Years of fighting various rebel factions in the north of the country have resulted in hundreds of deaths and over 200,000 internally displaced people. Outside of the capital Bangui there is no electricity or paved roads and banditry is extensive. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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 the Nobel laureate economist Paul Samuelson famously said, “I don’t care who writes 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 the Global South is severely underrepresented in the field. Unfortunately, a small number of rich-country institutions have appropriated it, with serious consequences. And the problem appears to be getting worse.

Consider the Journal of Development Economics, a leading outlet for research papers in the field. Neither the journal’s editor nor any of its ten co-editors are based in a developing country. Just two of its 69 associate editors are, with Africa and Asia completely unrepresented.

Then there is the World Bank’s prestigious Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics (ABCDE). The 2019 event celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Bretton Woods conference that established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but none of the 77 participants were from an institution located in a developing country. And our analysis of the ABCDE’s three-decade history shows that just 7% of those authoring conference papers have been from developing-world institutions.

The long-standing problem of underrepresentation is being amplified by the growing use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to test the effectiveness of specific poverty-reduction interventions in low-income countries. Although the RCT movement deserves immense credit for highlighting the need for evidentiary rigor in development economics, it has had exclusionary consequences.

By virtue of their well-deserved academic reputations, RCT-oriented economists now work at the world’s most prestigious universities and research institutions and serve on the editorial boards of top economics journals. This crucial gatekeeping role gives them agenda-setting power. Two decades ago, for example, there were virtually no RCT-based papers in development economics; in 2020, according to our analysis, they accounted for about 40% of the articles in the leading journals.

And exclusion characterizes the RCT movement itself. At the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), the most influential global center for development-related RCT research, about 5% of the nearly 225 affiliated professors are based in developing countries, with no representation from institutions in East Asia. Moreover, conducting RCTs is expensive, which means that poverty-reduction research – and funding for it – is increasingly concentrated in the richest universities (J-PAL was established at MIT).

Indeed, the cost of carrying out RCTs can run into millions of dollars per paper, making it difficult for developing-country researchers to study their own countries without genuflecting to wealthy institutions’ academic orthodoxies. If these researchers cannot do RCT-based studies, they have little chance of getting published in leading journals, and risk being consigned to second-class status. Even on a generous interpretation of authorship, our analysis suggests that developing-country institutions accounted for less than 10% of RCT-based papers in the top six economics journals in 2020.

A subtler cost concerns prioritization of research. There is an inherent power imbalance between relatively weak developing-country governments and reputationally and financially powerful researchers, as well as tension between what policymakers in lower-income economies consider important and what academics deem worthy of publication in top journals. These factors surely privilege research that yields high private returns to researchers based in rich countries but meager public returns to developing-country decision-makers.

True, scholars 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 highly successful economies – including South Korea, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Mauritius, and Botswana – did not rely on RCTs to change their destinies and lift their large populations out of poverty. Yet, academics from these countries generally do not sit on the editorial boards of major journals or participate prominently in development economists’ conferences and seminars – an omission that is particularly telling in the case of China, with its historically unprecedented economic transformation. It is as if these countries’ development successes have no lessons to offer.

To preempt the Global North’s monopoly of knowledge creation in development economics requires, first, recognizing that the Global South has ceded dominance as much as the North’s elite institutions have appropriated it. Many developing countries have severely undermined their own universities and knowledge-production systems both through lack of funding and political interference, with the latter being especially pernicious in the social sciences. Unless they remedy this, they will continue to suffer the consequences of the global imbalance.

We also must heed the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2017 Nobel lecture, in which he urged a broadening of “our common literary world to include many more voices from beyond our comfort zones of the elite first-world cultures.” That means searching “more energetically to discover the gems from what remain today unknown literary cultures, whether the writers live in far-away countries or within our own communities,” while taking “great care not to set too narrowly or conservatively our definitions of what constitutes good literature.”

Substitute “development economics” for “literature,” and Ishiguro’s injunction yields a constructive agenda of corrective action for intellectuals in the Global North. It also suggests that diversity and broader representation are the best safeguards against intellectual narrowness resulting from elite capture.

Arvind Subramanian, a former chief economic adviser to the government of India, is the author of Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance.

The text has been adapted from Project Syndicate website

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