Development Beyond Economics

By Linh Nguyen - June 25, 2018 - -
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Interview with Pascaline Dupas (Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Stanford University, Senior Fellow, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research). Read more on her passion for Development Economics research, her views on the role of women in academia, and her advice on placement.

For the Tinbergen Institute Economics Lectures 2018, Professor Dupas will give lectures on Development Economics. The three-day course taking place from June 27 to 29 will review current knowledge about the causes of persistent underdevelopment by investigating the roles of geography and institutions. The course also discusses the types of policies that are effective at alleviating poverty.   

Professor Dupas, thanks so much for coming to Amsterdam to give the Tinbergen Lectures. We are very happy to hear about your research and your views on the field of Development Economics in general. On behalf of TI students, we have a few questions for you that we hope you can spare some minutes to answer. They are short and general questions for TI students to get to know you before your lectures start in June.

As a preview of the lectures, could you tell us about the main take-away message that you would like to convey? Why should graduate students in Economics attend the lectures?

There are a lot of important and interesting scientific and practical questions concerning households, firms and governments in lower-income countries, but not enough researchers studying them. I hope the lectures encourage students to go into the field of Development Economics, or at least to consider using the tools they learn in other fields to help answer questions relevant for developing countries. Because the more people work on these questions, the faster our toolkit will become powerful enough, if not to end poverty then at least to fight it better.

Professor, could you share with us how it all started for you? What triggered your interest in Economics, and Development Economics in particular? And how have you been keeping yourself inspired in everyday work from graduate school till now?

My interest in Economics came because of an amazing professor I had at the ENS in France, Daniel Cohen. He made economics look like the most useful and at the same time the most fun thing to do. That was how I came to Economics. Once in Economics, the jump to Development Economics was so straightforward that I don’t quite remember how it happened. Something like falling in love. What I do remember, though, was the sense that I had found a field that took in all of economics, and the sense that whatever the size and quality of the contribution I could make, I’d be fulfilled making it. Now of course, like all love, soon came the hard work of actually making it work. My master’s thesis was on health issues in Indonesia, and I have no recollection of how that got started. After that, I really wanted to get a chance to work in sub-Saharan Africa, but I couldn’t find a job. I did, however, get an opportunity to go to Harvard on an exchange program. I got there in August, and by December I had gotten the opportunity I was looking for — I had gotten hired as a field research assistant for a series of research projects Michael Kremer was doing in rural Kenya with Esther Duflo and Ted Miguel. It was in January 2001 that my development economics training truly began.  I learned not only how to manage research work on a day to day basis, I also learned how to think through the realities I could see on the ground through the lens of economics, and how to generate research questions.

Nowadays, staying inspired is easy. I learn so much from each and every one of my research projects, from the interactions with respondents, colleagues, and students, the back and forth within the academic and policy community. I am reminded almost every day of how lucky I am to have a job in which I can both help others learn and learn new stuff all the time.

As graduate students in Economics, we are working hard each day to prepare for job placement in the future. We find your story particularly inspirational for those of us who aim at placement in the United States. How was your career movement from Ph.D at EHESS & PSE – DELTA in Europe to Stanford – a top 10 university in the United States?

I started at Dartmouth College, then moved to UCLA, then to Stanford. The toughest part was getting the first job, at Dartmouth, because I didn’t have much on my CV at the time. I was just very lucky that they took a bet on me, and then gave me great resources to accomplish a lot in my two years there. Getting that Dartmouth job was just the best and luckiest thing that ever happened to me.

Working hard every day, as you say you are doing, is the right way to do it. But try not to be too strategic, in the sense of reading and gaming the market. Instead focus on doing work that you find meaningful, on building a research agenda around work that will make you want to do more and more of it.

How do you see Development Economics growing as a field? What will be the future of randomized controlled trials and what do you think the new research trend will be?

As data availability from developing countries increase (thanks to the IT revolution), I believe that Development Economics will permeate every field. We already have now a lot of the public finance folks using data from developing countries. More and more in Trade. Soon it will be IO. So I am really hopeful that more and more researchers from other fields will take an interest in development once they realize that the research questions and methods they specialize in can now be answered/applied to more contexts.

As for RCTs,they are only a tool. And we continue using tools as long as they serve. So as long as RCTs serve to answer important questions then they will have their place in the toolkit.

We know that most of your work focuses on (western) Kenya. To what degree can your findings be translated to other contexts?

A: It’s true my early work was mostly in Kenya; as I said earlier it’s where I got my start as a research assistant 17 years ago. But now 12 years after getting my PhD, I have done work in many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Currently I work in Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi. And in India, even.

I think the question of external validity depends on what the question is. If you test a specific hypothesis that goes against standard theory, then finding that it holds in at least one place in the world may be enough to warrant rethinking the standard theory. If you test whether a specific type of intervention affects people’s lives, then it is more likely to be context specific. This is why I do a lot of replication – I have been doing replications of my own studies in different contexts, and I find it fascinating and instructive.

As a Development economist, your work is closely linked to the World Bank. What are your views on the interplay between the academic world and World Bank? Furthermore, what are some of the things that you have noticed at the Bank that could be improved in order to better target the poor in developing countries?

I consider in your question that the World Bank is a stand-in for the policy world in general, a world that includes NGOs, governments, private firms and foundations. I see the policy world as both collaborator and intended audience of my research. We benefit by grounding our work in theirs and they benefit from the findings that come out of academic work, both for conceptualizing their work and for nuancing the design of programmatic interventions. They can also help generate additional evidence: say researchers do a small efficacy trial, then the Bank can do an at-scale effectiveness trial. Both are important. As for the “operations” side of the World Bank, I cannot comment too much because I have never worked in that, and what’s more I have not followed how they operate very closely.

For our final question, we would like to hear your views on the role of women in Economics and in academia in general. Have you encountered moments when you felt this route is not an easy one for women? What do you think could be changed so that more women can participate and progress in their career equally with men?

It is tough for women for many reasons that are too long to get into in a short piece. But let me bring up one aspect that is not discussed enough. I believe women are hurt by the fact that economics is tech-biased in a stupid way. That is, unless a paper has some hard math in it, or some hard estimation, economists think less of it. This attitude comes from an assumption that those who do non-technical work are not smart enough to do technical work, that they couldn’t do it if they tried (and so they do “fluffy” stuff). Yet very many important and policy relevant questions e.g. in health, education, don’t need any hard math or hard estimation. They instead need careful data collection, careful experimental designs. Those are very hard to do well too, but not as valued. And since so far women have been more likely to choose these important policy relevant questions, they have been less likely to display their technical side. As a result women are associated with “inferior” topics and methods. I hope that your generation will shed this stupid attitude and make the environment much more supportive of everyone.

Professor, thank you very much for your answers. We appreciate that you spend time for the TI Times and look forward to meeting you in person in Amsterdam this June!

Learn more about Tinbergen Institute’s Lectures here.

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