Friday, March 14, 2008

Skills required to be an economist in International Development Agencies

Interesting article by A.W. Coats, The Role of Economists in Government and International Agencies: A Fresh Look at the Field;

Limitations of space obviously preclude a comprehensive account of economists’ work in international agencies and I shall therefore concentrate on some of the revealing and perceptive observations in the extended Report of Discussion at a Washington conference on this subject in 1983 (Coats 1986). For example in an initial statement by George Baldwin, a senior and highly experienced World Bank official, he commented (among other things) on the differences between international agency work and academia. In the latter sphere, he said,

there is a premium on independent originality . . . One tries to ‘make a name for oneself’ to a degree totally alien to a bureaucratic environment . . . where there is a premium on being a good team member . . . one who works effectively with non-economists, one who does not awe others with brilliance but who is nevertheless persuasive and flexible in reaching policy positions or project judgements. . . . The publish or perish imperative of academic life is very real and a maker or breaker of academic careers. It counts for very little in the World Bank. . . . In academic life there are opposing pulls in the direction of research and teaching. Each tends to be the opportunity costs of the other . . . [whereas] in the Bank, another pull replaces it . . . the need to decide whether to go for promotion into a managerial job or to remain ‘an economist’. This is not a daily pressure on Bank economists as the research/teaching is for academic economists; but it confronts many of the good economists at some point in their bank careers. (ibid., pp. 116- 7; sentence order modified).

Another important desideratum for a Bank economist that does not apply in academia

is the premium on achieving ‘closure’, i.e. on making up one’s mind and placing one’s bets’ about what ought to be done, is a proposed project a sound one? . . . [Unfortunately] situations are seldom crystal clear, the evidence is never enough, and the time for giving the Bank’s advice always has deadlines. Bank economists have to move in much closer to government decisions than academic economists normally do. (ibid.)

Communication skills are important for any economist, but they differ according to the type of institution: there is a premium on using jargon-free language that can be understood by senior policy makers in governments, language that is specific enough to leave government leaders room for manoeuvre in choosing policy options. The oral skills required are . . . those of the good bureaucrat who must participate in meetings to achieve consensus, and of the good diplomat who must win and hold the confidence of the host government officials during field missions. (ibid., p. 117).

I have cited Baldwin’s remarks at length because he opened the discussion and his views were endorsed by the other conferees. His observations on the data problems encountered in field missions abroad were also perceptive.

Another, and final example, of the skills required by a successful international economist was provided by Stephen Morris, a long-time senior economist in OECD, who emphasized the importance of the economist’s ‘selling job’, or persuasion:

At a rough guess, from the middle grades up, an economist working in an international organization spends only half of the time using professional skills to decide upon the right answer to a problem, the other half will be devoted to trying to find the best way to persuade people that it is the right answer. And as the individual rises in the hierarchy, the art of persuasion becomes steadily more important. Economists’ training does not necessarily fit them well for this selling job. Good academic writing . . . is too long and pedantic for the busy policy maker.

Econometrics is even worse. Historical or country examples are likely to be much more telling. Numbers should be used sparingly, tables should be kept small, charts should tell a story. Intellectual qualms and professional conscience must, at least on occasions, be overruled so as to permit oversimplification in order to advance what is hopefully a good cause. Anyone who is not prepared to spend a good deal of their working life drafting, redrafting, and reredrafting - and then trying to sell the product to national officials - should not make a career in an international organization. (in Coats 1986, p 103).

Morris warns of the dangers in an international organization of relying exclusively upon career economists (though he himself actually worked in OECD for twenty seven years!):

Working for a long time at two or three removes from actual decision making, people working in international organizations can easily get out of touch with political reality and become over impressed by their own supposed omniscience. At the same time, because they do not have the power of a national government behind them, and can never be sure what real influence they have, they can become overly sensitive, defensive, or defensively aggressive
. (ibid., p. 110)

To Economists at World Bank, IMF and UN, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Does the following comment of Easterly still apply?

Second, many readers have asked if my statement in the original prologue that “my employer ...the World Bank... encourages gadflies like me to exercise intellectual freedom" was really accurate. Well almost. It should be modified slightly to "the World Bank ..encourages gadflies like me to find another job."

Economists in Government by A. W. Coats

Classical Economists and Economic Policy (Debates in economic history)
by A.W. Coats

The Society of Government Economists

Which is for you: MPA, MPA/ID, or PhD?

Why Visiting Economists Fail
Dudley Seers

Economists in Government: An International Comparative Study-A. W. Coats
-book review

The Place of the Economist in Government
Robert Hall

No comments: