REVISED 6 April 2011, 11:35am

Esther Duflo responded in a comment below – you should read it.  She is completely reasonable, and lays out a clearer understanding of the discipline and her place in it than did the article I am critiquing here. I have edited the post below to reflect what I think is a more fair reading of what went wrong in the article


Esther Duflo is a fairly impressive person.  So why does she, and the Guardian, feel the need to inflate her resume?

Doing her PhD at MIT, she was one of the first doctoral students to apply economics to development, linking the two, at a time when there were few university faculties devoted to the subject.

“It was not considered a fancy area of study,” she says. “There was a generation of people who had started looking at development from other fields. They had their own theories and only a few were economists. What I contributed to doing was to start going into detail. But I did have some advisers and mentors.”

Er, no.  Development economics as a formal field had been around since the early 1980s (Note: Marc Bellemare and Duflo have both pointed out that the real roots of this discipline go back to the 1940s), and economists had been working on development issues since . . . colonialism, actually.  I imagine there are a lot of senior Ph.D. economists at the IMF, World Bank and various other organizations who will be amused to hear that they were beaten to their degrees by Duflo. She was not at all one of the first doctoral students to work on this, and there are/were plenty of faculties that look at development economics.

I suspect that this might have something to do with what Mark Blaug was talking about in his article “No History of Ideas, Please, We’re Economists.” In short, one of Blaug’s arguments is that disciplinary history has largely disappeared from doctoral programs in economics, with the predictable effect of dooming the discipline to repeat its errors.  I would extend Blaug’s point to many who work in the larger field of development – we have a lot of technical specialists out there with excellent training and experience, but relatively few of them understand development as a discipline with a history and a philosophy.  As a result, we see “new” projects proposed and programmed despite their odd resemblance to previous efforts that failed.

There is a hint of this in the article – after all, Duflo is correct in noting that she emerged as an academic at a time when other social science fields were on the ascendancy, but she the Guardian fails to ask why this was the trend at the time – especially after economics’ dominance of the field for so long. A little disciplinary history  here would have helped – these other fields rose to prominence in the aftermath of the collapse of development economics as a formal field in the late 1980s…

So, Guardian, anyone over there actually schooled in development? Or interested in fact-checking?