'Most research is about rich countries. We must question this.'
An interview with Dina Pomeranz, UBS Foundation Assistant Professor of Applied Economics, University of Zurich.
The Bookworm by Carl Spitweg, 1850.
1. 'Most research is about rich countries, even though 76% of the world's population live in middle-income and 9% in low-income countries. This imbalance has important consequences for what tools, products and policies are available to decision-makers in the South.' Let's begin with your tweet above. Could you elaborate on what these consequences are? When a lot of research focuses on the situation in rich countries, the insights that will be gained and the tools and ideas that emerge will be most appropriate for those countries. In many cases, the needs and situations will be different in low- and middle-income countries. The results from the research about other countries will therefore have limited applicability. In order for all countries to thrive, it would be important for the focus of research project – across disciplines – to be distributed more equitably across the globe. 2. There would naturally be a material reason for this imbalance (less money is available in low-income countries) but there is also a normative imbalance (what works or does not work in the rich world has usually been taken as the norm for a long time)? Also, are there historical reasons for this imbalance - the colonial legacy, for instance comes to mind, as does the creation of a latent hierarchy in the Enlightenment project - do these matter, could they have contributed to this imbalance? I’m not an expert on these issues. However, it would seem to be the case that due to historical factors, there are larger pre-existing literatures focusing on issues regarding richer countries. So there is less formal academic research for scholars focusing on low- and middle-income countries to build on. There is very little exposure for people in rich countries to information and images about the reality in lower-income countries, as reflected in the media, books, etc. This also reduces the access to and interest in research topics relevant to these parts of the world. Few people are aware that high-income countries only make up only 15% of the world’s population. It seems very plausible that the history of colonialism and racism plays a role in that. 3. Do you think even today there is a mental block, as it were, in the rich world about learning from the experiences of the poorer parts of the globe? From working with students both in the US and in Switzerland, my sense is that there is a very strong interest by young people to learn more about the poorer parts of the globe and work on issues relevant to poverty alleviation and human development. However, there is often a lack of opportunities. When it comes to research conducted by the private sector, the fact that there are often lower economic returns to innovations focused on lower-income countries (such as in the case of medicine for tropical disease), means that they have a much weaker incentive to invest in such innovations. In addition, my sense is that due to lack of information and familiarity, many companies also overestimate the risk involved and underestimate the opportunities. 4. If the answer is yes to the earlier question, what can be done to embed and promote a more equitable system of research and solution-seeking? That is an important question that all of us working in research should ask ourselves. On my end, I try to focus my teaching and research on issues relevant to developing countries. In my field of study, economics, research on about developing countries has gained a lot of importance in recent years, and there have been two Nobel Prizes awarded in the area of development economics. However, we have a huge problem of under-representation of economists from low-income countries within the community of economics researchers. This is very detrimental to our profession, both for equity reasons and for the quality of research. One project we started recently with a few former students of mine is called Graduate Applications International Network (GAIN). It supports students from low-income countries, particularly from Africa, in applying to graduate school in economics or related fields. My sense is that strong representation of scholars from low-income countries is one key ingredient in remedying the imbalance. But there are of course many other constraints such as funding, access to networks, information, etc. 5. Do you believe that the Covid-19 pandemic, where many relatively less prosperous country seems to be faring much better than many rich nation, would be the trigger for change? It seems very hard to predict at this point how the Covid-19 pandemic will impact the globe in the long-term. We are certainly living through a period of big changes. I hope we take this opportunity to reflect and take action for more equity and global representation in the research communities across all disciplines. One potential opportunity arises from the fact that there is much more online communication happening now, with online teaching, seminars and conferences. This has the potential to create more connections across international boundaries, e.g. through co-teaching with experts from lower-income countries, research collaborations, and conferences with speakers and participants from a wider range of countries. (Dina Pomeranz's research focuses on public policies in developing countries, in particular in the areas of taxation and public procurement. She aims to contribute to the movement towards more evidence-based policy making, both in developing and economically more developed countries. Prior to joining the University of Zurich, she was an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, where she taught entrepreneurship for MBA students, and a Post-Doctoral Fellow at MIT's Poverty Action Lab.)