Waylaid Dialectic

March 14, 2012

Beyond Economics

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:10 am

Discussing potential improvements to the World Bank, Lawrence Haddad writes:

But for me the most transformative thing the Bank could do is to reduce its reliance on economists.

Don’t get me wrong, economists are wonderful (I am one, hence the bias), but so too are political scientists, sociologists and anthropologists. Economics was severely damaged by the global financial crisis (“truth versus beauty” and all that). It is good that Justin Lin, the Bank’s chief economist, is reflecting so actively on economic assumptions and the role of the state, but other disciplines also have a lot to offer to better ground economics in reality and to offer new realities.

There needs to be a better disciplinary balance throughout the Bank—in research and operations. The policy environment needed to incentivise “growth that we want rather than the growth we get”, for example, is not going to be achieved by an exclusive reliance on economists. We need to understand how the rules of the growth game are set and modified if we want growth that better reduces poverty, growth that includes those on the margins of society, growth that better avoids environmental externalities and growth that disincentivises corruption. These rules of the game are rooted in norms, culture, history and many “noneconomic” (i.e. human) behaviours and are best understood and evolved by coalitions of disciplines working together.

It’s always kind of amazed me, given how good governance has been a development pre-occupation for a long time, that political scientists and, given the importance of informal institutions, possibly sociologists too, haven’t started to play a much greater intellectual role in development debates.

Perhaps it’s because there’s no real equivalent in pol-sci to development economics? A specialised sub-discipline doing practical development related work, with its own journals and conventions and the like? There is Political Development but often it seems so macro as to be of limited practical use (which is not to dismiss it, but rather to point out that I can see why it isn’t stalking the halls of aid agencies, where work lives or die with the next evaluation).

Obviously, as a Pol-Sci PhD, I’ve got a bit of a vested interest here, but I definitely agree with Haddad’s suggestion.



  1. What about history? Even, or especially, economic history? What I find odd about the development policies imposed by the multilateral institutions is that they’re often built on ahistorical theories with limited reference to what happened historically in ‘developed’ countries. For example, industrial policy might have gone rapidly out of fashion because of identified flaws, but it never stopped being what countries acutally did when they industrialised.

    Comment by Simon — March 15, 2012 @ 8:17 am

  2. Thanks Simon – excellent point. Something I keep pondering with regards to Solomons politics too. Wondering whether I need to delve back into the history of political development in Europe asking why some polities, at least cohered round stable political parties, and what’s missing (quite probably industrialisation) here in Sols…

    Comment by terence — March 15, 2012 @ 9:17 am

  3. Robert Delorme’s Deep Complexity and the Social Sciences offers a fairly convincing explanation for why social sciences are excluded from economic policy. Would interested in your thoughts on his, if you get the chance to have a read.

    Comment by Tom — March 15, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

  4. Hi Tom,

    Sounds interesting, I’ll add it to the pile (which is alas big and growing steadily, where does one get the time to read these days? I guess less internet would help)…

    Comment by terence — March 17, 2012 @ 7:50 am

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