In Conversation with Stefan Dercon, Director of the Center for the Study of African Economies

Stefan Dercon is the former Chief Economist of the Department for International Development in the UK. Currently he is a Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Oxford and the Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies. R:Ed sat down to talk with him at the Oxford Forum for International Development about his work on development economics in Africa, and about global approaches to development.

R:Ed: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?

I’m a development economist and I’ve worked as a researcher for 30 years. The last 10-15 years have been focused on the policy side, including working with the Department for International Development as Chief Economist.

R:Ed: We’re here at the Oxford Forum for International Development 2020 and the theme is ‘Beyond Pledges’. Can you tell us a bit about how Africa has benefited from the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the last five years and where you see the next 10 years taking the continent?

The Sustainable Development Goals are by no means being met, with progress often being restricted to the poverty, health and education targets in particular areas of the world. Progress is scarily slow, with the exception of a small number of countries. But in fact, it’s unhelpful these days to talk about progress in the SDGs overall and instead you have to start digging into what different countries are doing. In some countries there’s a lot of hope; progress is being made in Ethiopia and Ghana for example, but in others the picture feels very bleak, such as in the DRC, Madagascar, Malawi, and Nigeria.

R:Ed: In your opening speech to the conference, you spoke about some of the challenges to development that relate to governance: for instance, in Malawi, it’s a lot harder to implement policies than in other developing countries. As someone who works in this field as a development practitioner what can you do about these governance-related challenges?

I try to avoid the word ‘governance’ because it sometimes reduces the question to a set of technical things. People speak about having an anti-corruption commission, having an independent judiciary or elections as if governance is just about having institutions like those. There are countries where we’ve actually seen the advent of free and fair elections, but on their own they actually often don’t change anything. We should be careful not to reduce success and development to just a few token institutions or reforms that sound right but don’t work in isolation. Instead we need to get countries to have a successful shared political bargain for development. For this we need to definite politics broadly, not just in terms of electoral politics, but in terms of people that have power and influence. Those people need to have a clear commitment to development. Outsiders can help a bit and nudge this process along, but the idea that they can do it isn’t correct; in the end, you need local commitment to development.

R:Ed: Over the course of your career you’ve travelled to dozens of countries across Africa. Can you think of a specific visit that reshaped your understanding of international development?

What made me change my mind has actually been visits to China. Strangely enough relative to most other development practitioners of my generation, I didn’t start my career in India. Nor did I ever go to China until fairly recently – a decade ago or so, despite everybody saying that China is achieving great success because they opened up the economy, industrialized and had a strong state. But when I went to China, I realized there was nothing to copy. The Chinese development model is unique to China, and simply thinking that we can then go to Malawi and copy what China did is impossible. Examples are China’s scale or its thousands of years of centralised government – hardly something you can quickly export. What China does have in common with Bangladesh and to some extent, with Rwanda and Ethiopia and Ghana, is that the elite is in their own way committed to development. This isn’t about having a strong state, but a shared commitment to development among those with power. Too many African development experts hope to copy China’s experience. But why not learn from Bangladesh, a rather successful state in terms of development in the last few decades, despite being rather messy as a state, with much corruption and at times questionable politics.  Henry Kissinger, the most senior foreign policy advisor under President Nixon in the 1970s, said that Bangladesh was a basket case. But actually, that example shows that as a country you can be less than perfectly organized and still achieve quite a lot in terms of development. For that, all you need is a state and a political elite that is fundamentally supportive of development, even if hardly perfectly so.

R:Ed: You’re currently working on research that relates to the psychological challenges of poverty and the ways of overcoming them. This is still a work in progress, but do you have any preliminary findings that you can share?

We have to be very careful when we try to fight poverty. We cannot reduce the poor people’s lives and the development experience to a set of indicators. We should understand that the state of poverty is not just about material states. There is a mental health component to this, and it’s also about poor people giving up hope and failing to imagine that things could change. When we implement a project, one of the problems we have is we may give poor people the assets or money or an education, but if we don’t tackle poverty as a state of mind as well, progress is often observed to be difficult. So what we try to do in this research is help them improve their material status as well as see whether we can tackle the psychological state of poverty as well, and doing this at the same time may be far more effective. The Bangladeshi NGO BRAC for example is well-known for rather successful programmes to reach the ultra-poor out of this most extreme state of poverty through transferring skills and assets, like cows. They actually have the intuition that that this psychological dimension is central to what’s happening with their programs; that coaching and mentoring are actually a form of psychological support that is essential for the success of their programmes of transferring assets and skills. Listening to people and their problems may be just as important as just giving the cash or cow or goat. And the results of our research in this look really promising so far!

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