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The Economists are Coming…

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The Annual Bank Conference on Development Economists (ABCDE) took place last week here at the World Bank (May 7-8, 2012). I registered and attended key sessions because of the unusual focus of the conference: Accountability and Transparency for Development.  I say unusual because it is still unusual for economists focusing on international development to take those topics seriously. The impression one had was that topics of that kind were not ‘hard’ enough, and were on the ‘soft’, touchy-feely, tree-hugging side of development. The impression was confirmed in the course of the conference itself as speaker after speaker referred to research being done on these topics as part of the ‘cutting edge’ of development economics. 

The keynote speaker on Day 1 was Hernando de Soto. He presented a unique interpretation of the Arab Spring. Apparently, all those disgruntled businessmen in the informal sector provided the motor for the revolution. His views were presaged in a piece in the Financial Times that can be found here.  The keynote speaker on Day 2 was Timothy Besley, the London School of Economists Professor. He addressed the topic: Transparency and Accountability -Interpreting the Evidence. He was one of the reasons I attended the conference because of the pioneering work that he and his LSE colleague, Robin Burgess, had done over the years on the impact of media on accountability, work that I had relied on in the past. Burgess was also at the conference. He presented a paper on the political economy of deforestation in the tropics. In the course of the two days, there were fascinating sessions on, among others:

  • Democracy and community participation
  • Political Accountability, Politicians’ Rents and Scorecards
  • The impact of media and information technology on the provision of public services.

I found the sessions stimulating and papers can be found here.  Not only was it interesting to see development economists struggle with topics that other disciplines had been working on for decades, it was good to see that pioneers and veterans like Besley, Burgess, and the World Bank’s own Phil Keefer and Stuthi Khemani, were joined by a posse of bright young scholars from some of the best universities in the world.

Now, let’s talk about the invasion of space. Well, when economists decide to pick up an issue that you have been working on and thinking about for a good while, it can feel like an invasion of intellectual or professional space.  For instance, most of the topics discussed at the ABCDE are normally the province of ‘governance’ specialists – a contested concept, to be sure. Not only that, they are usually the province of those who work on the so-called demand side of the governance agenda, that is those who worry about the institutions and processes that make governments accountable to their citizens. These topics are also the province of distinct global policy networks: civil society strengthening, right to information/access to information, media development, democracy promotion and so on.  I belong to some of these global policy networks, and I can assure you that the way they study, think and write about transparency and accountability is very different from what I experienced last week. 

Two differences stand out for me. First, as the ABCDE confirmed, economists are relentless instrumentalists.  In the policy networks I belong to, there is an intrinsic claim at the basis of the push for either transparency, or accountability, or freedom of expression, or independent media, or democracy and so on. Then, in addition, there is the claim that these things improve governance, and, hence, development.  You get an uncomfortable feeling when people speak as though if we could not prove a direct contribution to the eradication of poverty in a rigorous manner, well, maybe these things (transparency, accountability etc.)  don’t matter at all or that much. 

The second difference is the relentless, almost brutal quantification, particularly the promiscuous use of econometric analysis. Now, it is clear that for some purposes (like making sure trains run on time?) econometric analysis is great, but should it be employed to investigate virtually every problem? For instance, can political behavior and the design of systems of accountability be usefully studied using mainly econometric analysis? There were moments in the conference when I felt that a lot of energy had been deployed (months, years even, of data collection and analysis) to make an obvious or trivial point. And then the ensuing discussion would focus on methodology. You could almost hear the ghost of Keynes denouncing ‘arid mathematical formalism’

Having said these things, I believe nonetheless that if you feel that economists are invading your ‘space’ you have to resist the temptation to hostility. I say this for two reasons.  First, it is indeed the case that work on transparency and accountability and the contribution that these things can make to improving governance can benefit from a lot more rigor. Evidence based on rigorous evaluations can be particularly useful. If the intervention of economists can drive that up – and it is clear that it can – then these approaches to development can only benefit, thereby improving development results.  Second, let’s face it; the professional discipline in power in the international development industry is economics. Most senior officials in development are economists. No matter how beneficial they are, approaches to development don’t become mainstream --- and attract much-needed funding ---until the economists bless those approaches. So, on the evidence of the ABCDE 2012 it looks like transparency and accountability can be considered approaches that are well on their way to the very heart of development.

The rest of us will simply have to get used to all those interminable linear regressions!

Photo Credit: Bob Jagendorf

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Submitted by Kin Lane on
Sounds like I have to get on the long road to help economists understand the democratizing, access, regulatory, and transformative powers of APIs. If I can get them on board understanding what APIs can do for accountability and transparency, maybe we can get somewhere meaningful. Great post...thanks.

Submitted by Folake Soetan on
Great post! I love the reference to invasion of territory. While it may be ages, if ever, before we accept that no one space belongs to any one disciple, we will go a long way by encouraging interdisciplinary work. It can be frustrating at times listening to an economist's perspective when you're a public health or development practitioner, but the contributions in the end are usually more valuable than harmful so no complaints! Two or three disciplines are indeed better than one. Thanks!

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