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The (gradual) democratization of development economics

Adam Wagstaff's picture

We’ve read a good deal recently about the democratization of research. UNESCO’s Science Report 2010 showed a growth in the developing-country share of science research. As UNESCO Director General Irina Bokovo put it in her Foreword:


“The distribution of research and development (R&D) efforts between North and South has changed with the emergence of new players in the global economy. A bipolar world in which science and technology (S&T) were dominated by the Triad made up of the European Union, Japan and the USA is gradually giving way to a multi-polar world, with an increasing number of public and private research hubs spreading across North and South.”

In its coverage of the report, The Economist also noted the increasing international collaboration in research: according to The Economist, the share of journal articles written collaboratively increased from 25% in 1995 to 35% in 2010. In a second article in this week’s issue, The Economist notes Brazil’s growing success in producing top-notch research and its efforts to lure foreign scientists.

The UNESCO report shows that the process of democratizing the “pure” sciences has already begun. But what about the social sciences, and economics and development economics in particular? In a speech in September 2010 , the World Bank’s president Robert Zoellick spoke of the need to “democratize development economics” and said he dreamt of a world where “where developing economies have as much to share as developed”. How much progress has there been so far toward Mr Zoellick’s dream?

Figs 1 and 2 compare the periods 1985-90 and 2005-2010 and show the distribution across World Bank regions (ranked by per capita income) of “economics articles” and “development and planning” articles. The country designation here is the country of the author’s institutional affiliation, not the country being studied; apparently (I verified this is true), multi-author articles involving international collaboration get allocated to all countries (just once in the case of several collaborators in one of the countries). Economics has seen an increase in the number of articles overall. The good news for the “democratizers” is that developing-country articles have risen both in absolute terms and as a share of the global total. A different picture emerges for “development and planning” articles which have fallen globally, although the reduction has been concentrated entirely in the North. 

  Fig 1: Economics articles---the world.

  Fig 2: development and planning articles—the world.

What Figs 1 and 2 mask are the interesting changes within the developing world that appear when the high-income countries are removed from the charts—see Figs 3 and 4. The growth in economics articles has come almost entirely from just three of the Bank’s six regions—Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and Central Asia, and East Asia and the Pacific (China dominates the growth in this group). South Asia has actually seen a decline in the number of economics articles over the period. The same three regions that have seen a growth in economics articles have also seen (a more modest) growth in “development and planning” articles. Again, South Asia has seen a reduction—in this case a spectacular one.

 Fig 3: Economics articles---the developing world.

 Fig 4: development and planning articles—the developing world

Mixed news, then, for the “development economics democratizers”. The good news is that the developing world’s total and share of economics articles have risen over the last quarter century. The bad news is threefold: the increase is due almost entirely to growth in just three of the six Bank regions; the developing world has not seen any increase in “development and planning” articles; and one large region—South Asia—has seen a reduction in the number of economics and “development and planning” articles.

What to make of these numbers? The growth of economics articles globally and the even faster growth in the developing world is clearly good news. It is less clear whether we should be worried about the decline in “development and planning” articles globally, the lack of growth in this field in the developing world, and the collapse of this field in South Asia. The trends likely reflect in part the demise of central planning. But they may also be due in part to the growth of articles on development in economics journals combined with ISI Web of Science’s rather unhelpful practice of counting papers in mainstream economics journals (and indeed the JDE) simply as “economics”, rather than as “economics” and “development and planning” (as happens with EDCC and WBER, as well as—more surprisingly—JDS). What does seem worrisome is the almost total concentration of developing-country growth in Latin America, Europe and Central Asia, and East Asia.


Submitted by Anonymous on
What are the totals in the two periods? Are there more articles in 2005-10 than 1985-90? Just looking at percentage figures gives an incomplete picture; in particular it would make "What does seem worrisome is the almost total concentration of developing-country growth in Latin America, Europe and Central Asia, and East Asia." misleading, if it is merely the case that the other regions are rising at roughly the same rate as the OECD.

Thanks. The y-axis measures total publications in all charts. Figs 1 and 2 also show the percentages for the OECD country group.