10 top thinkers on Development, summarized in 700 words by Stefan Dercon

One of the treats of my role at LSE is luring in some great development thinkers to lecture on Friday afternoons, andStefan Dercon then sitting in to enjoy the show. Stefan Dercon came in just before the Christmas break and was typically brilliant, witty and waspish. Particularly enjoyable from an outgoing DFID chief economist (as well as Prof at the Blavatnik School of Government and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies).

Stefan gave us a tour of the ‘Big Ideals, Big Egos and Big Thinkers in development’. Here they are, points for recognizing them. For the answers, go to the bottom of this post and see their books – extra point if you have read them all. He celebrated the quality of the books, the way they have brought development ideas to a mass audience, the impact they have had on the ‘public conversation’ around the way the world works. And then came a wonderful ‘digested read’ summary:

Dercon 1Jeff Sachs: ‘we know what works and it is just a problem of resources’. Or, in a formula: SDGs = a  * AID. institutions are not the problem, it is just poverty, and aid can fix it.

Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee: Maybe SDG = a * AID is true, but we don’t know ‘a’ – more research needed (always). Everything has to be inductive, experimental. Lots of little solutions will move us forward. They have no big theory of what causes low growth, no big questions, just ‘a technocratic agenda of fixing small market failures’. Getting institutions right is not crucial – we can do lots of bad policies in good institutional settings, and lots of good policies in bad institutional settings.

Amartya Sen: as long as you have the right ‘concept’ of poverty, all will be well. It’s a very Indian way of talking about development – no country in the world is more obsessed with the poverty line – but it’s not terribly helpful if you’re trying to do much about poverty.

The other big names spend their time explaining why development hasn’t happened yet, which they link to government and/or market failures.

And then there is a subset (Bill Easterly, Dambisa Moyo and Angus Deaton), who are particularly exercised by what they see as the failings of aid: ‘Aid should withdraw/disengage and somehow things will just happen. We have no idea how to create development and we are the problem. Whatever we try in countries, we’re doomed!’

As for Joe Stiglitz, ‘Stiglitz is still traumatized by his fights with the IMF during the Asian Financial Crisis. For him the problems come from outside countries – it’s all the fault of the international system. Answer? Aid + reform of the international system.’

Moving on to Paul Collier ‘he has more mud on his boots than many of the others. He’s rather convinced he has the answer. He’s big on cycles e.g. on conflict. His line is ‘institutions can be fixed (and I know how)’. He’s a darling of the politicians because he always says ‘these are the three things you can do’. It doesn’t matter if they are feasible – you see the pens starting to go.’

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson became the favourite book in Whitehall because Britain comes out well. D+J  didn’t like the human capital argument (education → development), and much of their Why Nations Fail agenda was their response. The trouble is their definition of institutions is very imprecise, is it democracy, property rights? What’s their theory of change for development? Since it’s all history – their policy advice is just ‘buy yourself a better history/don’t start from here’. Not very useful for aid.

As a quick, funny and accessible intro to many of the big debates in development, this is hard to beat. He based it on Dercon 2a tutorial he was asked to give Justine Greening when she started as the last UK Secretary of State but one. Stefan should probably take some credit for persuading her to abandon her initial views (when told about her new job, she reportedly shouted at David Cameron, ‘I didn’t come into politics to distribute money to people in the Third World!’) and become rather a good Development Minister. Hope his successor as Chief Econ, Rachel Glennester, carries on where Stefan has left off.

As for Stefan, he is writing up these ideas and more into his own book, which should become the next development blockbuster. Can’t wait.

And over to you – who’s he missed out? Can there really be so few women or people from the South among the top tier? Criteria is a focus on the nature of development and aid, and authors of something approaching bestsellers.

And because he’s an open source kind of guy, he said it was fine for me to upload his slides: Download here.

Update: getting lots of comments on twitter on the male bias in the selection. Opinions seem to differ over whether influential books by women are already out there, with an impact equivalent to those on this list, but are being ignored by Stefan/others, or whether the idea of ‘big books on everything’ has an implicit male bias. Hoping to convince Alice Evans to write an alternative top ten to demonstrate the former!


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28 Responses to “10 top thinkers on Development, summarized in 700 words by Stefan Dercon”
  1. Great list of development thinkers. I have read 7/8 books pictured and even a few not pictured (Dead Aid for instance). Not easy to identify someone who has been missed but may be Ben Ramalingam could be in that group. For his invaluable contribution to systems thinking and complexity.

  2. Francisco Robles

    It’s a quite interesting list. But it should be named as “Great Male Thinkers”. Maybe that is also a problem when we address development issues, that we just have a “male perspective”. I would love to read your 10 Female Great Thinkers

    • Duncan Green

      Quite so, but the criterion of ‘must have written a more or less popular book that has broken out of the academic ghetto’ is quite a barrier here. Would love to include Kate Raworth, but ‘Doughnut Economics’ is not about development. Yuen Yuen Ang’s book on China and poverty is great, but country specific. Ditto Naila Kabeer’s ‘Power to Choose’. I love Ros Eyben’s ‘International Aid and the Making of a Better World’ but it didn’t cut through like these books. Alice Amsden wrote brilliantly about the ‘Rise of the Rest’ but confined herself to industrial policy. I loved No Logo, but that was about brands in the North. Maybe on development, only men have so far had the arrogance to write ‘books about everything’?!

      • Alex Martins

        But isn’t that criteria unnecessarily limiting? How about: thinkers with “a focus on the nature of development and aid”, and either a) a public profile or b) featured regularly on publicly-available lists of ‘key development books/papers’ to read. The following stand out to me, in no particular order:
        1. Sabine Alkire
        2. Alison Evans
        3. Dambisa Moyo (mentioned, but didn’t make the top 10 list above)
        4. Ester Boserup
        5. Mariz Tadros
        6. Melissa Leach
        7. Diane Elson
        8. Susan George
        9. Gayle Smith

  3. Kartik

    Their book was freely available (so the second criterion doesn’t quite apply), but Andrews, Pritchett, and Woolcock I think belong in this debate. They offer yet another theory re: institutions and development–that success breeds effective institutions and state capability, not the other way around.

  4. Kevin Cook

    How about adding Naomi Klein to the list. She might not be immediately be labelled a ‘development’ big thinker by many but her book ‘The Shock Doctrine’ certainly may be think.

  5. Heather Marquette

    It’s not just about writing the big book but also publicising it. I think it’s probably a similar set of issues to the one you’ve explored before on why most of the influential development bloggers are men.

  6. James Stevenson

    This insight into how DFID briefs new ministers is very interesting – something I’ve often wondered about. The male bias jumps off the page, but Stefan is a development economist and all of the people featured are economists. Economics remains a very male-dominated field and I think Stefan’s list accurately captures the zeitgeist. Furthermore, willingness to speculate about grand unified theories of development is a rather gendered trait as well, in my experience…

    Rachel Glennerster has a track record of working with some of the very best economists out there who happen to be female (e.g. Tavneet Suri, Esther Duflo) and is a committed randomista, so expect a greater role from: a) the incrementalist Duflo-Banerjee school of thought, and b) female economists.

    Big boots to fill – from everything I’ve heard, Stefan has done a terrific job.

  7. Jennifer Precht

    Generally, the list full of people who write books but not necessarily thinking about the practice. Maybe top ten popular thinkers would be better
    Deaton and Easterly my favourites

  8. Wentling Mark

    I am still stuck on P.T. Bauer, especially his statement about how if a country needs external assistance to develop, it probably can’t develop. Also, there are Radelet, Munk, L. Harrison and Chambers, among others.

  9. Priyanthi

    So happy that the male bias in this list has been extensively discussed, and also that the criteria for selection was questioned. I would also question why the written word is privileged over action, formal knowledge over indigenous knowledge , English over other languages, global north over global south… exposes the fact that “development’ is still driven by a privileged elite, of anglo-saxon men, despite the rhetoric of working with, respecting and listening to communities.

  10. Now that today’s post has redressed the balance in particular in terms of women’s scholarship I’ll add a couple of non-economist white northern guys who certainly fit the bill in terms of books, influence and teaching on development: Robert Chambers and Paul Farmer.

  11. A quick slightly cynical reflection on why this list might be male dominated. The kind of thing that gets you noticed for such a list might be:
    1. Come up with a big idea about development, preferably slightly controversial or counter-intuitive
    2. Explain how if the idea was taken more seriously it could end poverty or at least change the development paradigm
    3. Selectively collect evidence and anecdotes that support the theme of the book
    4. Spin out a simple idea to be a full length book
    5. Aggressively promote the idea and be prepared to “battle it out” with other leading thinkers to prove who has the best take in order to promote your idea and book
    Maybe this is something men are more inclined towards on average than women 🙂
    Mot seriously, there are lots of other thinkers, women and men who have done important work on advancing development thinking and practice – but they might not have gotten the same level of visibility or notoriety as those on this list. While its good for people to “know the classics”, I wonder if it is not better to be aware of some of the established and emerging ideas rather than focus on the individuals who they are associated with. I did find the deliberately oversimplified characterizations quite amusing however – a bit like the “two cows” explanation of different political systems, so thanks for that.

    • I don’t think that’s at all cynical. Some decades ago I wrote a short book https://nomadron.blogspot.ro/2016/09/the-search-for-democracy.html to try to demystify the way a new local government system worked. That made me realise how few books were in fact written to help public understanding!
      https://nomadron.blogspot.ro/2011/04/writing.html Most books are written to make a profit or an academic reputation.
      The first requires you to take a few simple and generally well-known ideas but parcel them in a new way – the second to choose a very tiny area of experience and write about it in a very complicated way. After that experience, I realised how true is the saying that “If you want to understand a subject, write a book about it”!! Failing that, at least an article – this will certainly help you identify the gaps in your knowledge – and give you the specific questions which then make sure you get the most out of your reading. This is a point I try to get across as aften as I can in my own writing and blogging……

  12. Rather misleading to title this post the “ten top development thinkers”. “Fifty Key Development Thinkers” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/244175139_Fifty_Key_Thinkers_on_Development
    may be a bit outdated but captures some of the important names – not least AO Hirschmann. And Robert Chambers has made a much bigger contribution to thinking than some of the names on this “top ten” list – which clearly bears a rather old-fashioned economistic stamp.

    I would suggest people go back to Sach’s (Wolfgang) “The Development Dictionary” (2010) http://shifter-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/wolfgang-sachs-the-development-dictionary-n-a-guide-to-knowledge-as-power-2nd-ed-2010-1.pdf and “Deconstructing Development Buzzwords” (2010)

    I’m actually in the world of “institutional development” and working, since 1991, in central Europe and central Asia. The “modernisation” effort there could benefit from some of the insights from the “development” field – as I point out in this little book “Reforming the State”

  13. fred

    Totally agree on male bias and delighted Alice Evans wrote a response. Two more names to throw in to the debate: Prof Susan Woodward on aid and militarisation (the “fragile states” agenda) and Mihaela Papa on BRICS.

    Wonderful if someone could write a similar one on northern bias. Nalini Visvanathan, Ali Cheema, Abhijit Banerjee … (I only really know South Asia and not an economist so there’s many more names that could be added by someone more knowledgeable)

    White guys: Richard Jolly on the importance of global strategy, ie SDG implementation. Is Alan Whaites still read? Thought his stuff on civil society was pretty important – old now but still relevant to current debates.

  14. Claire

    I found this post so depressing. Not just the male bias – but the idea that these people really matter at all. If Paul Collier has ‘more mud on his boots’ than most that tells you something about their knowledge of the actual realities of development. The main risk is that these pale, male and stale people do in fact have an influence over how donors do their work when their ideas are best restricted to their natural environment of the dinner party. I am no fan and no Tory, but as for Justine Greening being graciously shepherded towards the path of righteousness – that’s a bit patronising. You don’t get to senior levels of the Tory party as a gay woman without considerable gumption and you could argue that her focus on women and girls has (hopefully) had way more impact on the priorities of the development community than these beard scratchers.

  15. If the first list illuminates the predominance of male development theorists (which is a great effort, so thanks Alison), the second list misses out on female scholars from the global south. Much of Alison’s list is based on female scholars based in the west. But what about the great contributions from the global south, where ‘we’ and those who have contributed are actually part of the development process and live the post colonial moment/processes. So lets counter Alison’s ethnocentrism by adding; Bina Agarwal (A Filed Of One’s Own), Vandana Shiva, Gita Sen and many others. Lets make women part of the development thinking success story and lets us decolonize development. Frankly the first list is a male club and friends of the club and that coming from a lecture at the LSE is just not on.

  16. Alice Evans

    Hi Shalini,

    I absolutely agree on the importance of learning from scholarship in the global south. When you referred to Alison, did you mean my blog on the Perils of Male Bias?

    I explicitly highlighted:

    “Naila Kabeer; Rina Sen Gupta’s powerful critique of microfinance; Ania Loomba on Postcolonialism; and Bina Agarwal on “Gender and Land Rights in South Asia… Atreyee Sen’s “Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum…Sonia Alvarez (“Engendering Democracy in Brazil”); Deborah Yashar (“Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: The Rise of Indigenous Movements”); Nancy Postero (“Now We are Citizens”); Pun Ngai (“Made inEngendering Democracy China”); Ching Kwan Lee (“Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt”)”.

    Then the blog ended with this paragraph:

    Decolonising Development
    This must be a priority for us all: to end these normative visions of ‘good governance’; to stop pretending we (white, educated folk in the Global North) know best; and start learning from more diverse perspectives.

    With 17,220 citations, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” is the pioneering work here. See also Lila Abu-Lughod (“Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving”).

    Apologies if I misunderstood and you were referring to a totally different blog.

  17. Fernando Centeno

    I view “development experts” as somewhat old school because of their focus upon inputs rather than outputs, focusing on programs, projects, initiatives, “innovations”, and activities on the front end but little to nothing on the back end. What about a focus on policy design, assessment, monitoring, & metrics re: outcomes & impacts? Especially at the local level, not regional? Let’s focus on actual results, rather than on aspirations & goal setting. Let’s get real buy-in from all the stakeholders by which to move forward from building blocks; we always seem to start from phase one.

    We also need a focus on greater transparency & accountability from public actors. We desperately need a Glossary of Terms, as no two key “development” terms mean the same thing, even within the same public entity. My favorite example is “economic development”, which is typically confused with business development; these two terms do not mean the same thing. Lastly, we need to replace the conventional “urban planning” model where “success” is measured in business terms to a socioeconomic framework, to focus on human capital “success”. I much prefer practitioners over development “experts”.