2021: Not Quite the Best of Times. Not Quite the Worst of Times

December 20, 2021

As the year draws to a close, the temptation to claim wisdom from adversity and experience becomes irresistible. We did it last year, by exploring what we learnt while the world burned around us. 2021 was perhaps a marginal improvement: not quite the best of times, but not quite the worst of times, either. But for us here in London, it’s ending just about where it started, with a new variant and a holiday season imperilled by the shadow of Coronavirus. While we anxiously wait for the latest lateral flow test to pass its sentence, we reflect on the good and bad of the year.

Things that made us happy

As we move in and out of states of lockdown and freedom, it sometimes feels like life will never be the same again. But, despite the rollercoaster of the year we’ve all had, there were some things that genuinely made us smile.

CGD turned 20! This wonderful place we both work at has made it through two whole decades. As relative newbies to the organization (we clock up a mere five years between us) we can only look back with pride at the amazing research our colleagues have produced. More than 600 world-changing, policy-influencing, World Bank-annoying papers later and we’re still going strong; still generating new ideas, starting new arguments, making new friends. Watch this space for a Dave Evans’ one-sentence summary of every single one, coming soon in 2022.

CGD prides itself on being propositional; the most common feedback inked in red on our drafts is “how do we fix it?” But sometimes the only answer is “just blow it up.” This year, after much name-calling, our colleague Justin Sandefur became the human manifestation of the Elmo-as-the-world-burns meme, as the World Bank’s Doing Business Index was axed after a truly spectacular internal investigation. Justin has been railing against the index’s ideologically-motivated construction, arbitrary (and dubious) methodological updates for years.  What brought the index down was not, in the end, its internal contradictions or its one-eyed take on the possible benefits of regulation, but accusations of data tampering. And even that may not be enough to prevent its resurrection: the Bank plan to revive the indicators in 2022. We don’t want to compare Justin to Frasier Crane, but it recalls his monologue in the very first episode of Frasier: “My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating.” We look forward to Justin resuming relations with the Index next year.

We love school meals. And we couldn’t put it better than CGD’s Non Resident Fellow Ken Opalo—let’s feed all the kids and the world will be a better place. In the UK, Marcus Rashford—the Manchester United forward (you can’t have everything) has emerged as an incredible champion for school feeding. And this year, new research has demonstrated why it’s an education investment almost like no other: with intergenerational (yes, that’s intergenerational) benefits in India and impressive results—more schooling, more learning—from a national Randomised Control Trial in Ghana. For all those looking for what works in education: take note. This works.

To save Ranil’s blushes, I’ll make it clear that this entry is from Susannah and Susannah only. A new podcast shot straight to the top of my must-listen list this year, and you must all check it out.  Paper Round—hosted by two of our favourite nerds—Ranil and Matt Collin—is a cool way to hear about development and economics papers, with some diversions. My favourite so far is 12 Angry Men, where Matt and Ranil are joined by Kate Orkin to discuss Gender and the Dynamics of Economics Seminars by Pascaline Dupas et al. (more on this below). I’m looking forward to future episodes, when (ahem) Matt gets round to editing them.

2021 was—despite all that demonstrated the depths to which we can plumb—was also an advertisement for the sheer power of human ingenuity. Faster than anyone (except maybe Michael Kremer) had predicted, we developed not one but at least five effective vaccines against Coronavirus. After two years in which “fun” was—at times—rationed to 30 minutes outside the house a day, nothing beat the joy of queuing for an injection in an improvised warehouse in North London or a lower league football stadium in South London. It felt like a shot of pure hope…

Things that made us sad

…which quickly dissipated in December, when news of a new, more infectious variant with a name like a Decepticon emerged. We don’t know where Omicron originated, just that South African scientists were the first to discover it, and sound the alarm. But since the beginning of the vaccination drive in the West, we have been calling and calling and calling for vaccine equity. It’s the right thing to do, which should be enough; but it’s also in our interest. Until we vaccinate the world, the virus will circulate and mutate and continue to pose a threat to the world. In the UK, we’re now getting boosted. According to Our World in Data, only  13 percent of Africans have received their first shot of the vaccine, motivating the deep ambivalence CGD’s founding president Nancy Birdsall felt about her booster. If 2021 was a test of our values, it failed to detect them.

Speaking of values, which would struggle to be identified by an electron microscope: 2021 was the year in which Rishi Sunak took more slashes at the aid budget than Edward Scissorhands trying to kiss his girlfriend. Though announced in November 2020, it was only this year that we truly got a sense of just how bad they would be. Devex’s Will Worley kept track of the cuts as they were announced, providing a huge public good to all UK aid watchers; and we did our best to try and work out where the remaining money would go, and what the damage done would be. Ultimately, regardless of the details, the cumulated depredations against the UK’s aid portfolio risk turning a superpower into a minnow.

We can hear you yawning and yeah, we know you’ve heard it all before. But sometimes, you gotta keep saying it. Economics has a gender problem. The first systematic attempt to measure gender dynamics in econ-seminar culture showed that women are exposed to more questions, more hostility and are routinely patronised. And when national newspapers publish things like this (figure 1) we know we have a long way to go.

Oh, and it’s not just a gender problem. There’s a race problem and a class problem. More than half of Black economists experience racism or discrimination. According to the Sadie Collective, in 2018 just five out of 1,198 doctoral degrees in economics were awarded to Black women. That’s less than half a percent. A US-born economics PhD graduate is five times as likely as their same-age peers to have a graduate parent and just one-fifth as likely to be a first generation college graduate. We can all do better. Having more diversity in economics benefits us all.

Things that that made us think

This hasn’t been a banner year for reading. We’ve both got small children who were apparently competing to incubate the most viruses in their little bodies, which made time for relaxing with any book longer than The Boris Johnson Guide to Honesty near-impossible. But a couple of things stood out: Amartya Sen’s autobiography, Home in the World, was a rare combination of humane, funny, intellectually challenging and surprising. A life of friendships that took in such diverse figures as Maurice Dobbs, Dennis Robertson, Lal Jayawardene, and Kenneth Arrow is brought to life. But beyond the intellectual squabbles, he somehow keeps the fundamental subject of economics at the heart of every page: how to make the world a better place.

This phenomenal Pulitzer Prize-winning essay was shared in Samantha Williams’ newsletter after the conviction of the murderers of Black teenager Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery was killed by three white men in February 2020 while he was running in Georgia. It’s an incredible account of Arbery’s life and his killing, told through the lens of Arbery as a runner. As avid runners, we take regular, calculated risks about safety. This piece blew us away because it opened our eyes to the different, acute danger of “running while Black.”

It seems appropriate to end on this note. 2021 (like so many years before it) was starkly defined by inequality: in access to vaccines, financial support, even the very basic necessities of life. And, like every year, it’s our responsibility to try and make things better, even modestly, in 2022.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.