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5 Things (Development) Economists Do That Will Surprise You!



In a recent Conversation piece, Peter Siminski laid out 6 reasons Australians don’t trust economists. I think there’s a seventh reason worth adding to his list: most people don’t really know what economists do!


To give you an idea of what I mean, I’d like to share some highlights from the recent CDES Sustainable Development Conference, held at Monash’s gorgeous Prato Centre. The studies presented had a common theme: a focus on how various facets of life—educational, economic, social, psychological, and even spiritual—intersect and contribute to the complex process of development. Surprised? I thought you might be. Without further ado, let me present 5 things that (development) economists do that may surprise you.


1. Place people at the centre of their work


From papers that aim to understand teacher pedagogies, to studies addressing mental health, to studies of voter turnout and ethnic inequalities, many of the conference presentations focused on the human element of development economics.


For example, Kate Orkin presented evidence from a meta-analysis of mental health RCTs, bringing to the forefront the relationship between mental health and economic prosperity. Quoc-Anh Do told the audience about Tu Vi, an ancient belief system in Vietnam that offers predictions about future events, such as a couple’s match quality, or auspiciousness. By studying how auspiciousness influences married couples’ outcomes, the paper clearly places humans, their prejudices, and their aspirations at the heart of their analysis.


Overall, the papers presented in Prato show how development economists put a strong focus on human experiences, well-being, and behavior—indeed, on placing humans at the centre of economic development.


2. Tackle issues of inclusivity and equity


Several papers at the conference tackled topics related to equitable access and opportunities, across the fields of education, health, and income redistribution. Notably, Menno Pradhan’s presentation shed light on the complex effects of broad-based education reform in Indonesia. The study uncovered both winners and losers from an initiative meant to increase equal opportunity in access to top-tier education.


Abhijeet Singh’s presentation highlighted the challenge of addressing de facto segregation in the Indian school system. This paper examined the impact of quota-based admission policies to private schools, finding limited evidence of dramatic improvements in educational opportunities for disadvantaged students.


These research papers all underline the authors’ concerns about equity and inclusivity, reflected not only in their choice of topics but also in the implications their findings have for shaping more equitable socio-economic systems.


3. Use interdisciplinary approaches


The conference sessions spanned a wide range of topics, including education, health, migration, trade, mental well-being, political economy, and even religious beliefs. Indeed, modern development economics tends to integrate multiple dimensions—social, biological, psychological, and cultural—rarely focusing on unidimensional topics or simple metrics.


Most obviously interdisciplinary was Gabriella Conti’s presentation, in which she shared insights from a study that combines DNA data with longitudinal surveys with the goal of shedding light on gene-by-environment interactions (GxE) in the context of early childhood interventions. Meanwhile, Rigissa Megalokonomou explored the effects that same-gender top performers in the classroom have on girls’ performance in STEM subjects, underscoring how important it can be to view education research through a gender lens.


4. Care about practical solutions and real-world policy


Many of the papers at the conference aimed to address challenges at a large scale and/or across a range of contexts. Examples of this include “Improving Teachers’ Pedagogical Skills and Student Learning at Scale in Peru,” in which Paul Glewwe and co-authors study a large-scale teacher coaching program and “Building Resilient Education Systems: Evidence from Large-Scale Randomized Trials in Five Countries,” in which Noam Angrist and his collaborators put scalable models of remote instruction to the test in a wide range of contexts. Indeed, the overarching discussion at the Prato conference often returned to how to move towards solutions that are practical, scalable, and have broad applicability.


5. Pay attention to complexity and nuance


Finally, several papers explicitly acknowledged the complexity of development challenges, rather than proposing one-size-fits-all solutions. Papers focus on topics such as ‘heterogeneity,’ ‘biased beliefs,’ ‘liquidity constraints,’ and other factors that add nuance to the discussions.


For instance, Gabriella Conti presented work that leverages genome data to disentangle how the impacts of an early childhood intervention vary with child and maternal genetic endowments. Further, the presentation by Marieke Kleemans and Emilia Tjernstrom highlighted a new methodological approach to modeling the complexities of migration decisions in “Selection and Heterogeneity in the Returns to Migration.” Finally, Denni Tommasi tackled the difficult problem of food safety in urban street food markets, a common source of foodborne illnesses in developing countries. Despite finding that consumers are willing to pay for safer street food, a complex combination of social norms, costly infrastructure, and consumers' inability to detect contaminants.


These papers, among others, illuminate the multifaceted scenarios economists delve into, underscoring the importance of nuanced approaches for potential solutions to complex development issues.


For more examples of What Economists Really Do, check out the dedicated hashtag!


Emilia Tjernstrom

8 September 2023

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