What are the under-researched topics in development according to young faculty?


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Berk (who is on vacation this week) and I have recently been surveying assistant professors, graduate students, and World Bank economists to learn how they find out about new research and the role of blogs in this process. We’ll be sharing results once we have finished this, but to start with, I thought I’d share this chart below on what junior faculty who work on development think are the under-researched topics.

These responses come from approximately 50 assistant professors in the U.S. and at international universities who do development research. They were identified through a range of criteria, including presenting at the NEUDC development conference last year, and/or being a faculty member at a top university who publishes in development. One of the first people to answer the survey suggested that we attempt to take the “pulse” of the profession by getting their views on what topics they think are under-researched or that they would be particularly interested in seeing more research in. Here are the responses:

(you can download a bigger version of the chart here)

These responses fit my priors reasonably well (or maybe I’m just being self-serving given that I’m working on topics like SMEs, migration and management). But if you were to look at a standard graduate development economics course syllabus, it is typically heavy on health, education, risk and insurance, and household bargaining models, and very light on coverage of some of the topics identified as under-researched here. I think this ranking also fits reasonably well with where the existing evidence from impact evaluations has been (and thus the topic coverage in books like More than Good Intentions and Poor Economics).

What do you think? Are there any other big topics out there that people are simply just not looking at enough?


David McKenzie

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

Join the Conversation

Andres Marroquin
June 15, 2011

At first sight, the results make sense. A lot of research is being done in the area of micro-finance. I wonder: if one separates the opinion of US based economists from those of international economists (especially those living in developing countries), does one find a different set of under-researched topics?

Besides, It looks like the categories are not well defined. For example, conceptually, "poverty" overlaps with "micro-finance," which overlaps with "small and medium enterprises."

The idea of listing under-researched topics is great, I just have some concerns with the definition of the categories above.

David McKenzie
June 15, 2011

Thanks Andres. I took a second quick look at the data, and the responses for those in the U.S. look very similar to the overall, suggesting not a big difference geographically. However, our "Rest of the World" is mostly researchers in other developed countries like the UK, Ireland, France, Belgium, Germany, Japan and Australia.

I'm sure people will want to quibble a lot with the topic categories - there was a trade-off between number of topics and not wanting to give people too long a list to look through. We also gave an "other topic" option, but only 10% of respondents said there was an other topic that is under-researched (examples were environmental work, collective action, and transportation), and there was no "other topic" that was listed by more than 1 researcher.

June 15, 2011

I find your prelim results very interesting I thank you for sharing them with the public. I'm just a couple months away from starting a research degree in African Studies in the UK (I'm from the US) and when I was writing my research proposal, I kept asking myself "in what ways can my research be useful?" and "what issues could benefit from continued (more) research?" I'm relieved to see that my research topics most closely align with topics that appear to be somewhat less researched-governance, the pol economy, and education. I'm anxious to read the final results when you post them!

June 15, 2011

Hi David and Andres.
We are junior researcher in a Brazilian development research institute in Rio de Janeiro. We were debating and agree that the data you presented holds true for Brazil too. The most researched topics (poverty, microfinance, behavioral economics - not so much health) are the most investigated here as well. Even though migration is a subject much discussed, there is still an evident lack of development research focused on small and median enterprises and the functioning of markets. Considering Brazil's recent advances in terms of poverty reduction, this is a very serious deficit.

It would be interesting to see if this is a global trend. If the same areas of development are under-researched, and therefore "under-debated", on a global scale, then there is a important lag in terms of innovative thinking and project implementation. Moreover, does it point to a new direction in development thinking?

Tatiana Amaral & Lara Espirito Santo

Antonio Capillo
June 15, 2011

Hi David,

Thank you for the really interesting and useful post.

What is meant here by 'rural production'? I'm working as impact evaluator of educational projects in a coffee plantation region in Nicaragua. Indeed, I'm really interested in researches assessing the impact of different coffee estates' models of management on the workers' productivity and the working conditions.

Can anyone suggest me readings dealing with this issue.

Thank you,

June 16, 2011

I am surprised that Environment and Climate Change are not on the list here. I assume that most of these Asst. Profs are from economics.

David McKenzie
June 16, 2011

Shailesh, all, or at least almost all, of the respondents were assitant professors in economics departments. One of them listed environment and climate change as a topic of interest under the "other", but since it was not given to them as an option, this is surely an underestimate of the interest in this topic. My personal opinion is that from the development economics side, there still isn't much I've seen in this area of environment and climate change, so it will certainly be interesting to see more.

June 18, 2011

When first looking at the chart I relised that, and this is my personal view, that the importance of reseach field depends on region studied i.e most of reserchers who live in developing countries deal with subjects that are in relation to their contries situation and this is why corruption and governance get more attention in reserch. in other word, the more the economy is developed and sophisticated the deep reserches are.
to see that clearly, just group reserches by region.

June 19, 2011

It is surprising that Environmental issues are not mentioned. Can Africa survive without the environment? Don't we need to understand the environmental problems facing Africa?

Paudyal, Dhruba P.
June 19, 2011

I fully agree with the statement that some of the pertinent sectors are really left behind in research activities. Though, it is quite country-specific (e.g. micro-finance in Bangladesh has done a lot), some of the areas are very demanding from future perspective than the rest. For example, for Nepal Micro-finance is flourishing without much research on the future scopes, outreach, sustainability. Exploring the market and designing the products has much meaning in Micro-finance which is as if non-existent. Research does not mean that what was succeeded in Bancosol shall be replicated in rest of the countries and gain the same momentum. Every countries has different culture and deal idiosyncratically get immunity differently from culture. Finding specific issues relevant are what i understand the scope of research in this industry. It can be fruitful for the entire micro-finance community too.
I understand that it is the financial service that encourage people to establish enterprises and become more entrepreneurial from the learning though it may even be from failure too. In modern and more democratic societies than ever before creating employment through innovation and research is more than engaging more people in Government supported public sectors. There shall be a remarkable contribution towards poverty reduction once more and more people are engaged in self employed businesses. More competition than ever before for quality and improvement.

June 21, 2011

The areas listed in the response certainly stand to reason however I wonder if the lack of any that address the behaviours of participants in development is an oversight or if there is a belief that there is enough research in these areas.

I'm referring to participants in this case as Development NGOs, civil society generally and other institutions, as well as 'classes' of individuals such as academics, corporates and Development 'professionals' and volunteers. I'm not thinking just of the well addressed areas of accountability and transparency, effectiveness and quality but also of how the form and function of these institutions et al are changing over time and what their respective futures in Development might be.

There is of course the over-arching theme in research of these areas that accounts for globalisation as well as influence of 'the market' on development practitioners and policy makers. Maybe the respondents considered the study of the motivations and behaviours of participants/actors/players/stakeholders implicit across the areas that were recorded in the responses.

Paul Osatohanmwen Obasuyi
June 11, 2019

Although, microfinance is on the list but I think there's need for more research in the 'challenging role of HR in the microfinance sector.