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Global Challenges Initiative

The Cambridge Strategic Research Initiative for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

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Surprising new findings in development economics research

last modified Nov 23, 2017 10:35 AM
Over the course of the last two months, several unexpected findings have challenged standards and views in the field of development economics.

Perhaps the most provocative paper of the past two months has been on whether it is more important for an organization to have good individual statistics or to be a good team player in development, authored by Lant Pritchett, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. The paper simultaneously dismisses sectoral advocacy (“we must spend more on [fill in the blank]”) and the donor community’s quest for a direct link between inputs and outputs. The discussion around the paper has been equally interesting, with Justin Sandefur, also a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, summarizing it as, “Invest in think tanks, not girls’ education.”

Three other papers have recently gained attention for their use of rigorous analysis to arrive at seemingly surprising (but ultimately reasonable) results:

  • From the Department of Economics at MIT, Alonso Bucarey’s job market paper shows that free college tuition crowded out chances for poor students to enroll in selective programs for which they would otherwise have qualified.
  • World Bank economists Harun Onder, Apurva Sanghi, and others find, using night light data, that the net economic effect of Somali and South-Sudanese refugees in Kakuma, Kenya was largely positive.
  • Researchers Quy-Toan Do, Mohamed Jelil, Jacob Shapiro, and others used satellite images of gas flaring to determine that the Islamic State was making considerably less money from oil sales than previously believed.

Finally, two papers shed new light on the way in which transparent information influences citizens’ behaviour:

  • Nathan Fiala, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, and Patrick Premand, senior economist at the World Bank, show that training citizens on how to complain to government, and then providing them with data, has an effect on accountability, but simply providing the data does not.
  • Yuyu Chen of Peking University and David Yang of Stanford University find that providing Chinese students with access to an uncensored internet does not, by itself, lead them to acquire uncensored information. However, when given incentives to acquire this information, students not only seek it, but it also influences their behaviour and actions.


For further details on these new findings, please see the original article here.

The Global Challenges Initiative is a Strategic Research Initiative of the University of Cambridge that aims to enhance the contribution of its research towards addressing global challenges and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.


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