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

January 10, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Stefan Dercon

One of the treats of my role at LSE is luring in some great development thinkers to lecture on Friday afternoons, and 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:


Jeff 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.

More development books

As a quick, funny and accessible intro to many of the big debates in development, this is hard to beat. He based it on a 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!