John Hoddinott is the H.E. Babcock Professor of Food & Nutrition Economics and Policy and Chris Barrett is the Stephen B. & Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management and an International Professor of Agriculture in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, a Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics, and a Fellow in the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University.
As co-chairs of NEUDC 2018, one of the longest running and largest development economics conferences in the world, we have had the unique opportunity of reviewing more than 600 papers submitted this year. While this is not a representative sample of all the work currently taking place in development economics, it does provide a window through which we can consider the state of the field. Aided in part by 65 reviewers, who generously provided assessments of these papers, we think four patterns merit discussion.
- The first, and most striking, observation is the volume and relatively high quality of the submissions.
We received 616 submissions, significantly more than the 2017 conference at Tufts and not far behind the 2016 conference at MIT, despite the relatively greater complexity and cost of traveling to and from Ithaca. Take out the (notional) location fixed effects, and we think that this response signals continued growing interest in development economics research.
Most importantly, the quality of the work is remarkably high. There were few truly bad papers, many good ones and some that were outstanding. Even after desk rejecting 111 of the 616 submissions, the average reviewer score on a scale of 1 (terrible) to 10 (outstanding) was >6, based on two reviews by readers without a conflict of interest. Unfortunately, we could only accept 27% of submissions. Without time and budget constraints, we would have happily accommodated easily twice that number. The high quality standard is very good news for development economics as a whole, but no doubt presents challenges for researchers seeking to publish their work or secure tenure track faculty positions.
- The second pattern concerns the distribution of topics. Of the 31 Areas to which researchers could associate their submissions, by far the largest shares were in education and political economy – each >10% of total submissions – followed by health, gender, agriculture, labor, and firms – each 5-10% of submissions. We are especially struck by the surge of good work on the closely allied themes of political economy, institutions, and corruption – almost 15% of submissions. Those fields also exhibited the greatest dispersion in reviewer ratings, representing one-quarter of the submissions with at least one score each ≥8 and <7, with a difference ≥3. Work in education, health, nutrition, and agriculture, all longstanding core sub-themes in development, continues to excel, with above-average acceptance rates.
There is suggestive evidence of an evolution in the field away from certain topics. There were virtually no “pure theory” papers, although the best papers often contained a short theoretical or conceptual model to motivate the empirical work. There were few submissions in macroeconomics. This last is striking given that, for an older generation of development economists, macro issues (the Washington consensus; structural adjustment, etc.) dominated development discourse and research for years. Likewise, there was surprisingly little on trade even though trade is widely seen as an engine of development. As is well known, the distributional consequences of trade are a major topic in the United States and other developed economies, but there were few submissions on this topic. Even though developing countries are rapidly urbanizing, there were few submissions on either the economic drivers of urbanization or how it changes economic activity, or on issues specific to urban localities (such as housing). Despite the profound long-term effects of climate change on developing countries, we received relatively few submissions on this topic. And the competitiveness of papers in long-popular sub-themes such as finance and labor/migration was notably below average.
- Development economists’ energies are increasingly concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. There were few papers on Latin America, the Caribbean, north Africa, the Middle East, or Oceania. A generation ago, it was not uncommon for development economists to undertake primary data collection in central and south America but the regional focus seems to have shifted.
- On methods, predictably, many papers use RCTs or natural experiments; but these were less numerous than we expected. Lots of accepted papers use difference-in-differences and regression discontinuity designs. Very few use more traditional IV methods; and it appears that matching methods have fallen deeply out of fashion. A modest number of papers use machine learning methods, but fewer than we had expected given the excitement surrounding big data work.
NEUDC2018 takes place at Cornell University, starting with an art museum reception Friday evening, October 26, with sessions running all day Saturday and through midday Sunday, October 28. Register, or get more information, at http://www.cvent.com/d/tgq0ww.