Data, Research, and Economics

“Beware the analysis of economists” is pretty much always good advice. It’s advice that I’ve held close whenever I encounter scholarship, especially on the developing world, because I find the reliance on “data” and “numbers” to be somehow more reliable than people to be a farce. Data is, after all, recorded and analyzed and interpreted by people.

That’s why I was intrigued when I saw that Kim Yi Dionne and Laura Seay wrote a short review of Morten Jerven’s new book, Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong. Here’s an excerpt from their review:

Jerven argues that economists have fundamentally misunderstood the trajectory of economic growth in Africa because they mistakenly emphasized the poor patterns of growth in the 1970s and 1980s and ignored the incredible growth in African economies that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. While economists focused on “a chronic failure of growth,” Jerven notes that this phenomenon is “something that never actually happened.” Furthermore, many economists treated Africa as more-or-less a coherent whole, looking to explain differences between African states and those elsewhere in the world rather than comparing African states to one another, furthering the narrative that “Africa” wasn’t growing while ignoring relative growth among African states.

Out of the desire to explain non-growth (even though it was a faulty premise), economists started to focus on income gaps with other parts of the world, which led to studies of other factors that came along with low income. These findings led to neoliberal economic policies mandated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the 1970s and 1980s, which had negative consequences for African economies and people’s livelihoods. In short, poorly done economic research led to devastating policies.

I’ll definitely be taking a look at Jerven’s book, for what looks like worthwhile analysis of how economics has treated the continent. This review also reminded me of my usual go-to-economics-critique, a brilliant book review from Mike McGovern that I first encountered a few years ago. While technically a book review of Paul Collier’s work, McGovern’s “An Anthropologist among the Mandarins” is a thorough look at a genre, or even a field, that includes points such as:

By insisting on the credo of “just the facts, ma’am,” the books introduce many of their key analytical moves on the sly, or via anecdote. What an anthropological approach to these same questions would insist on is the attempt to see the dynamics of bottom billion politics and economics through the actors’ points of view. This attempt has the positivist objective of fact checking both one’s facts and one’s categories of analysis, so as to be sure that there is some semblance of fit between the motives, incentives, and rationales attributed to actors and those they may actually be using. Collier expresses disdain for such attempts as a kind of misplaced humanism that is easily manipulated by greedy dictators in search of “useful idiots.” However, it is precisely the epistemological solipsism of his morality tale that exposes its greatest analytical weaknesses at the same time that it best explains why it appeals to a broad audience that has genuine interest in understanding suffering in poor countries even while it has little interest in having its sense of its own well-merited success questioned. This is one explanation of how he comes to the point of effectively arguing for an international regime that would chastise undemocratic leaders by inviting their armies to oust them—a proposal that overestimates the virtuousness of rich countries (and poor countries’ armies) while it ignores many other potential sources of political change.


The other

is that the self-assuredness of economists such as Collier may be a part of the problem and not, as they suppose, a part of the solution. For an outsider, the strangest thing about the field of economics is the fact that although it appears to be wrong much of the time, rather than becoming chastened and introverted, most of its practitioners seem to become bolder, drawing strength from their failures as the mythological Antaeus did by touching the ground. Though Collier as iconoclast writes as if prior development policies have been mired in preconceived notions and misplaced sympathy, the advocates of those same policies also thought that they were acting on the basis of sound data that did away with the misrecognitions that had mystified their predecessors. Looked at over the fifty-year span since the publication of W. W. Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, development economics as a field looks far more like literary criticism than like those natural sciences it emulates… The difference between poets and economists, however, is that for poets, as for literary critics, there are rivalries and certainly individual claims to preeminence, but as a general rule, there is an acceptance that there are many ways to write a great poem, just as there are many enlightening ways to read any great poem. Bound as it is to the model of the natural sciences, economics cannot accept that there might be two incommensurable but equally valuable ways of explaining a given group of data points.

Rachel Strohm deserves a hat-tip for finding an open access link to McGovern’s article, the lack of which is the main reason I hadn’t written about it here earlier. In her post, she highlights McGovern’s call to bring ethnography back into policy-writing, another useful argument in the piece.

As economics continues to train its eye on developing countries, it runs the risk of such myopia. And as political science does the same, it has also been taking an increasingly quantitative bent which can encounter the same risks. As Dionne and Seay state, the rise of large data-sets in Africanist political science could require Jerven’s warning that such data is not perfect, and can lead academics astray. This is where I say I’ll try to stick to qualitative research, and when I use numbers, I’ll remember that they’re not guaranteed to be any more right than people’s anecdotes.


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