kirstyevidence

Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Nerds without borders – Justin Sandefur

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It’s the last in the series of Nerds without Borders but don’t worry, it’s a good one… it’s only the Centre for Global Development’s JUSTIN SANDEFUR! Find him on twitter as @JustinSandefur

I'm not trying to start rumours*, but has anyone ever seen these two men in the same room??

I’m not trying to start rumours*, but has anyone ever seen these two men in the same room??

1. What flavour of nerdy scientist/researcher are you?I”m an economist.  I’m usually reluctant to call myself a scientist, as I have mixed feelings about the physics-envy that infects a lot of the social sciences.  But for the purposes of your blog series on nerds, I’m happy to play the part.  To play up the nerdy part, I guess you could call me an applied micro-econometrician.  I live amongst the sub-species of economists obsessed with teasing out causation from correlations in statistical data.  In the simplest cases (conceptually, not logistically), that means running randomized evaluations of development projects.

By way of education, I spent far too many years studying economics: masters, doctorate, and then the academic purgatory known as a post-doc.  But my training was pretty hands on, which is what made it bearable.  Throughout grad school I worked at Oxford’s Centre for the Study of African Economies, running field projects in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone on a wide range of topics — from education to land rights to poverty measurement.

 2. What do you do now?

I’m a research fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington, D.C.  CGD is a smallish policy think tank.  If most of development economics can be characterized (perhaps unfairly) as giving poor countries unsolicited and often unwelcome policy advice, CGD tries to turn that lens back around on rich countries and analyze their development policies in areas like trade, climate, immigration, security, and of course aid.

But getting to your question about what I actually do on a day to day basis: a lot of my work looks similar to academic research.  The unofficial CGD slogan on the company t-shirts used to be “ending global poverty, one regression at a time.”  So I still  spend a good chunk of my time in front of Stata running regressions and writing papers.

3. What has research got to do with international development?

That’s a question we spend a lot of time wrestling with at CGD.  Observing my colleagues, I can see a few different models at work, and I’m not sure I’d come down in favor of one over the others.

The first is the “solutionism” model, to use a less-than-charitable name.  I think this is the mental model of how research should inform policy that an increasing number of development economists adhere to.  Researchers come up with new ideas and test promising policy proposals to figure out what will work and what won’t.  Once they have a solution, they disseminate those findings to policymakers who will hopefully adopt their solutions.  Rarely is the world so linear in practice, but it’s a great model in theory.

The second approach is much more indirect, but maybe more plausible.  I’ll call it a framing model for lack of a better term. Research provides the big picture narrative and interpretive framework in which development policymakers make decisions.  Dani Rodrik has a fascinating new paper where he makes the argument that research — “the ideas of some long-dead economist”, as Keynes put it — often trumps vested interests by influencing policymakers’ preferences, shaping their view of how the world works and thus the constraints they feel they face, and altering the set of policy options that their advisers offer them.

My third model of what research has to do with development policymaking is borderline cynical: let’s call it a vetting model.  The result of your narrow little research project rarely provides the answer to any actual policy question.  But research builds expertise, and the peer review publication process establishes the credibility of independent scientific experts in a given field.  And that — rather than specific research results — is often what policymakers are looking for, in development and elsewhere.  Someone who knows what they’re talking about, and is well versed in the literature, and whose credentials are beyond dispute, who can come in and provide expert advice.

I moved to DC as a firm believer in the first model.  CGD gradually pulled me toward the second model.  But when I observe the interface between research and development policymaking in this town, I feel like the third model probably has the most empirical support.

4. What have you been up to recently?

Too many things, but let me pick just one.

This week I’m trying to finally finish up a long overdue paper on the role of development aid during the war in Afghanistan, together with my colleagues Charles Kenny and Sarah Dykstra.  We measure changes over time in aid to various Afghan districts, and look for effects on economic development, public opinion (in favor of the Karzai government and/or the Taliban), and ultimately the level of violence as measured by civilian and military casualties.  To make a long story short: we find some modest bust statistically significant economic return to the billions of dollars spent in aid — even though it was targeted to the most violent, least poor areas.  But we see no effects on either public opinion or violence.

Interestingly, changes over time in public opinion and violence move together quite significantly, in line with some of the basic tenets of counterinsurgency warfare.  But as far as we can measure in Afghanistan, development aid has proven fairly ineffective, on average, at affecting those non-economic outcomes.  Even where households are getting richer and are more satisfied with government services, we see no significant change in support for insurgent groups let alone any decline in violence.

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?

People will tell you to get some practical experience, to broaden your interests, to develop your non-research skill set, and so on.  Ignore all that.  Development doesn’t need more smooth-talking development policy experts; development needs world-class experts in specific and often very technical fields.  Follow your research interests and immerse yourself in the content.  If you know what you’re talking about, the rest will fall into place.

 6. Tell us something to make us smile?

I don’t think I believe the advice I just offered under the previous question.  Nor have I really followed it.  But I want to believe it, so hopefully that counts for something.

Thanks Justin – and indeed all my wonderful nerds. It’s been so interesting to hear about everyone’s different career paths and views on research and international development. See the rest of them here: part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

*I am

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4 thoughts on “Nerds without borders – Justin Sandefur

  1. Many thanks Justin – this is really interesting. And I completely agree with the third model you mention – I am increasingly feeling that one of the major benefits of research is that it is a kind of ‘training ground’ for ‘experts’ who then go on to have (hopefully) useful impacts on policy. A colleague of mine here in DFID wrote a paper recently looking at the types of impacts which a long-term DFID funded research programme on poverty had – and that was one of the messages that seemed to come out. I’ll share the paper once it’s published.

  2. Pingback: Nerds without borders! | kirstyevidence

  3. So the working hypothesis, then, is that poor countries are poor because their leaders don’t know what economic policies they ought to pursue. Is that true? Or are poor countries poor for some other set of reasons? If at least some countries are poor for other reasons–say, because the entire economy has been captured by a patrimonial elite governing within a complex web of patron-client relations–then what? Shouldn’t we be attempting to disaggregate those situations in which our recommendations might prove useful from those in which they are largely irrelevant? Is there not a sufficient body of historical experience that we cannot run some useful regression analysis on the utility of development economists?

  4. Pingback: Impact via infiltration | kirstyevidence

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