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Yuan’s Interview with Dimitri Stoelinga of Laterite (Development Economics Research - http://www.laterite.com/), Kigali, Rwanda
“Economics is still in its early stages of development. When you go into an economics course, you should go in with a sense that this is a discipline that will change a lot in the next few years. Be anti-disciplinary. Do not let intellectual boundaries confine you.”
- Dimitri Stoelinga, Laterite
May 27th 2014 – Beijing, China and Kigali, Rwanda
Tell us a little about yourself – where did you grow up? What brought you to the path of studying economics?
I’m half-Greek, half-Dutch, and my parents always moved around. I chose to move around too, living in France, India, Angola, the US, Kenya, Rwanda, Malawi …I studied economics because I lived for a long time in Africa, and I really wanted to move back. I wanted to be involved in economic development.
I went to the Kennedy School to do the MPA in International Development. After that, I worked for the World Bank in Washington, and then in Kenya. I was getting frustrated with the whole set-up - I didn’t think it was the right place for a young person to be.
Why did you feel the World Bank was not the right place to be?
From a personal perspective, it was the work model itself. I felt the projects we were doing were not designed to fit the needs of the country itself. Economists from Washington would fly in and design a research project. Then they’d sell it to the local government. So we ended up with very large, very technical projects, based on little local context, and for which there was not much local ownership.
In Africa, the consultancy you get tends to be like that: fly-in, fly-out. We wanted to replace that model, and start research companies immersed in developing countries, which is why we started Laterite in Rwanda.
You mentioned that there was a “mismatch of people and projects.” What do you mean by this?
The World Bank has fantastic people - very committed, hard-working, who believe in what they're doing. But for operational roles – managing, let's say, a couple of large scale projects – they have economics PhDs with little operational and practical work experience outside the World Bank or academia.
So the mismatch comes from not understanding the local context, and thus focusing on tasks that exercise the skills one has, rather than tasks that exercise the skills the local project needs?
I think so, yes. What the World Bankers bring is logical design. On paper it makes sense - but in practice things are different, and what the country needs might be different.
To me this sounds like one of the general problems with economics teaching: on paper it all looks coherent, but in practice we may need very different tools!
For yourself personally, what were the highs and lows of your Economics education?
One of the highs was definitely discovering all the possibilities of statistics and data analysis. I had a great professor, Alberto Abadie, who tries out all sorts of new program evaluation techniques and has come up with some fantastic ideas and tools – to give you one example, "synthetic controls". Another prof, Cesar Hidalgo, was looking into how to use network analysis and applying it to economics through exports networks.
All of this innovative data analysis fascinates me – and goes much beyond the linear regression framework that bugs economics research today.
The low? Definitely theory. So long as you understand the basic dynamics of a system, it felt very unhelpful for anyone’s career to study the amount of theory we did at Harvard. It felt both disconnected from reality and also at times misleading.
In what way do you think it was misleading?
A lot of what’s out there right now is very interesting – RCTs, Duflo and Banerjee’s work – but just applying, say, game theory, or some microeconomic models, will never really work in a local context. We barely use any theoretical models learnt from economic theory in our work.
What is the alternative – what do you use instead?
Data and empirical evidence. A lot of the tools we have are for post-event analysis: RCTs and evaluations after the fact. There are very few tools that have been developed for pre-event analysis or project design. We need to find better ways of testing why certain types of interventions are likely to work or not ahead of time, and do that in a very rigorous way. This could be through games or specially designed surveys, that happen on a large scale before projects and policies are rolled out.
This reminds me of the “participatory econometrics” movement – see http://www.cultureandpublicaction.org/bijupdf/EPW_ParticipatoryEconmetrics.pdf
Economists have tried to make economics a scientific discipline, with formulae and models, but at the end of the day, we know that few of these models really work, and they have very little evidence-base or real-world application. So I applaud the movement to Rethink!
Inspiration. What two thinkers, artists, creators, come to mind when you think of those who have inspired you or helped you along your way?
My top two are two professors: Cesar Hidalgo, at MIT. He’s a physicist by profession, and through studying physics became a master of network analysis – from natural, biological networks, to mobile phone networks, export goods networks. He’s been doing all this with tools completely unknown to the economics profession. What I admire is how anti-disciplinary he is; how he rejects disciplinary boundaries, and takes things from various fields. (http://chidalgo.com/ - https://twitter.com/cesifoti)
And very personally, Alberto Abadie. He helped me a lot along the way, giving me advice. I took from him the idea that you don’t need to work with real data, per se; you can work with synthetic data, with as much predictive value as real data.
Recommend one book we should read in the next half-year.
I’m very inspired by network theory, and how to apply it to economics. The book that introduced me to this was Linked, by Albert-László Barabási.
And one piece of music to listen to.
I spent five years of my life in Mali, which is the place I’ve stayed the longest. I absolutely love Malian music – it’s a world in itself. I’d recommend the song Amana Quai, by Vieux Farka Touré (the son of Ali Farka Touré):http://www.last.fm/music/Vieux+Farka+Tour%C3%A9/_/Amana+Quai
If you could have a wish-list of 3 items, or 3 words, for the future of your project, what would they be, and why?
Grounded – in the local context. It affects how you ask questions, how you communicate, how you contribute without duplicating existing effort.
Anti-disciplinary – meaning, beyond disciplines. Not being stuck to one discipline, and working with people from many disciplines.
Human – principled in what we think is right. Sticking to what we believe in. Doing good.
What advice would you give to other young economists, and Rethinkers in general, starting out on their journey?
My sense is that economics is still in its early stages of development. When you go into an economics course, you should go in with a sense that this is a discipline that will change a lot in the next few years. I think this change will be brought by changes in data: new visualisations, big data analysis, new methods borrowed from other disciplines. And also, don’t neglect network theory – learn about it and how it might apply to some of the problems you want to solve.
Go in open-minded, and embrace all the new techniques! Try and master data. The empirics will make a huge difference to the discipline.
We’ve up the Laterite Lab, where our team members do research together, and eventually, we want to develop this into a more sort of formal lab, where we have people from different disciplines trying out new tools. We are currently recruiting new researchers: please get in contact via http://www.laterite.com/.