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June 04, 2007



I wish I'd learned the practice of econometrics. rather than the theory. The theory should be taught intuitively. All the matrix inversions I learned for nothing, now when I use econometrics I either run a program or I think in terms of univariate linear models that my teachers were embarrassed to teach us. I wish we had been FORCED to program in at the very least 1) maple/mathematica 2) matlab, 3) stata/sas, 4) gauss. I had to do all this learning as a PhD by myself with no guidance.


I think the biggest asset of a development economist is his/her knowledge of economic history-- to know that there are "no" universal laws of development and that policies that each country follow should reflect its domestic circumstances. Economic theory has its merits, but I feel that it is like a strong alcohol and therefore should be administered with care!

Mauricio Santoro

Dear prof. Rodrik,

I am a great fan of your work and I am sure that I speak for many people in Brazil. Your concern with development and social issues are very close to the best traditions in our civil service and at the university world.

I work in the NGO Instituto Brasileiro de Análises Sociais e Econômicas, mostly with international cooperation in Latin America and Africa. I am also finishing a PhD in Political Science at IUPERJ and I am usually surprised by the huge gap between the discussions in my work and at the university.

I think there is a deficit in post-graduations courses on development in the issues related to international organizations and treaties. I feel that if I had a better knowledge about the working of these political and juridical systems, I would perform better at my job. I am sure that the UN agencies, the World Bank or even the WTO offer much more possibilities for partnerships than the ones I deal with.

Best regards


Without a doubt the single most useful professional tool is the capacity to explain complex situations to busy (sometimes politically appointed) decision-makers in a way that is neither pedantic, nor over their heads. I have seen people err in both ways at my development agency, but I have rarely seen them given an opportunity to err twice.


From what I can gather Development Studies courses are pretty different in New Zealand than on the East coast of the states. Here, there's the post-modern take on development (post-development) is common if not prevalent. Personally I think that this is a very misguided critique, but your students might find some use in engaging with it at least. More important though, I think, would be - if you don't have it already - some space devoted to pragmatic non-economists' takes on improving development assistance (Robert Chambers being the best place to start).

For me, on the other hand, engaging with economics (and political theory) was the best part of my graduate degree, in part because it was all new to me. I just wish I had had time to do more.


Can you suggest some books and papers for non-economists like me just enough to understand some of these discussions? Thanks.


As noted, in terms of the core Econ courses, I would suggest more public finance/economics. Students with sectoral interests -- who are probably in the majority -- would benefit from some rigor on this. So much of development discourse is on "what governments should do". The current balance between public econ (currently two weeks, maybe, in the micro sequence) and macro (currently two semesters) seems skewed. Macro is soooo 1980s/1990s...


I work in development, and I would encourage teaching your students how to think like economists. To me this mainly conists of four things:

1. Thinking on the margins
2. Always asking what the incentives are
3. Assessing risks rationally
4. Looking for tradeoffs and never expecting $20 bills to be lying on the sidewalk

For students, learning how to think this way is only weakly correlated with learning technical material- you don't get this stuff by learning how to take first order conditions or manipulate matrices. In fact, I've met several PhD economists who aren't very good at thinking like economists. Similarly I've met people with no economics background at all who can think like economists very well.

In terms of how to teach this intuition in a curriculum, my suggestion would be to beat your students over the head with the simple lessons of economic theory, and then have them practice bringing those lessons to bear on real world problems. Learning complicated economic theory is far less important than having a good intuition for applying simple economic theory to complicated situations.


From my experience of the last three years working in a trade ministry in uganda and the finance ministry in Nigeria.

on the practical side you need:

the ability to produce briefs and speeches on a range of topics usually completely unrelated to work you have been doing.

the ability to work with inaccuarate and incomplete datasets

A real understanding of economics from first principles enabling individuals to influence policy makers with clear and straight forward communication

the abiliy to work and get stuff done without paper or internet connection sometimes no electricity and to have no fear when driving on the "safe" roads (now I am complaining)


My experience is based on working for the Swedish government on development issues for the last four years.

My first comment would be that I think the skills you need vary considerably between different institutions and environments. Working "hands-on" as a practiotioner in the field requires quite different skills from those needed to work in an positions where you have more of a direct connection with politically appointed decision makers (my personal experience comes entirely from working in the latter function).

With this said, I would say that the most valuable lesson comes close to what was mentioned by Ben. In short taking a "scientific" approach to evaluating the different problems you are confronted with. What I miss most is something that is probably rather difficult to teach: the political game - negotiations, bargaining and so forth.

Lastly I would also like to support what was said by Mauricio Santoro regarding institutional knowledge of international organisations.


"I think the biggest asset of a development economist is his/her knowledge of economic history-- to know that there are "no" universal laws of development and that policies that each country follow should reflect its domestic circumstances."

Economic history for sure, but **local economic history** much harder to get your hands on, buried in hard to find primary sources with some areas, like rent-seeking, only available through anecdotal oral evidence or inference (rearing its head only momentarily to disappear below the waves), investigative reporting in much of the world is too deadly profession.


I think a "practical" approach to economics is needed. Specifically, students need to know how to apply economic reasoning and be able to apply basic statistical methods. It is not clear to me that using phd-level grad texts is an appropriate way to learn that material. I just don't think that when one is working at a job some place, trying to solve real problems with limited amount of data, that one will reach for those grad texts. Pindyck's micro book and his metrics book may be enough (or that level of analysis).


Dear Professor,
I also admire very much your work. My small comment is that there is not such thing as a development expert. I believe it is absolutely necessary to follow all courses relating to economic growth, political development in the vein of the books by Easterly, Sachs or Collier and the like, economic history, etc. But ultimately, what employers require are experts in specific topics, be it water management, human development, governance or fiscal policy.
The general picture is a "must" by all means. But it is the specialisation what matters. Luckily the MPAID is a two year degree.
Cheers, Jose

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