The Best of 2020: What We Read While the World Burned Around Us (Research Edition)

December 18, 2020


Even Dr. Pangloss would struggle to put a positive spin on 2020, a historic dumpster fire of a year in which a global pandemic, the deaths of a whole string of superheroes (Chadwick Boseman, Diana Rigg, Diego Maradona, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg start the list), and [*deep breath*] Beirut ammonium nitrate explosions, the costliest cyclone ever (Amphan), the Tehran plane crash, and California and Australia burning down. Kobe’s gone too. And Gerard Houillier. It’s been tough, and that’s without the ever-constant “I think you’re on mute” Zoom meetings. 

But Candide’s alternative to Pangloss’s mindless optimism (after an even worse turn of events, if you can imagine that) serves as an inspiration: we must cultivate our garden. In that spirit, we’ve picked our favourite papers and articles about development of the year, picking pieces that help us understand the problems we’re working on better and how best to fix them.

Not the same storm, nor the same boats.

It’s inevitable that our first picks relate to COVID-19. Sifting through the avalanche of research in response to the coronavirus pandemic drove better minds than ours to distraction. Avinash Dixit estimated that the famous R rate for the pace of reproduction of COVID-19 research was as high as 34, though we had one advantage in fighting this pandemic of overconfident prognostication: there were no asymptomatic carriers of armchair epidemiology. Looking back at this wave of content, a few pieces stand out. Our colleague Justin Sandefur and his co-authors—in CGD’s most-read paper of the year—took on the task of estimating the infection-fatality rate from Covid across countries and came to the conclusion that sub-Saharan Africa faced substantially lower death rates from the disease—and the data (tentatively) suggest it may have been even lower than anyone predicted.

Our current  lived experience of coronavirus ranges from total normality in Taiwan to everyday dysfunction in the US and tears over tiers in the UK, but in February many thought every country in the world would and should lock down completely to suppress the virus. Another of our favourite pieces of the year - Mushfiq Mobarak and Zachary Barnett-Howell writing in Foreign Policy made the case that the policy response in poor countries needed to be completely different to that in rich countries - the costs of lockdown were much greater, and the benefits fewer. Policy making during COVID-19 was incredibly hard—but pieces like this helped, as did this early note from Stefan Dercon suggesting where effort could be directed without regret, despite the uncertainty governments faced.

The sudden death of the Doing Business Index

We don’t gloat at CGD (that’s one of our few institutional positions). Yet news that the Doing Business Index was being suspended after allegations of data manipulation presumably raised a few eyebrows in this parish. The Index has long been a punching bag for researchers keen to understand how laws, implementation, and economic activity interact—partly because its construction varies over time, and partly because it doesn’t seem to shed much light on how business is actually done.

Though few tears were shed outside the Bank over its demise, the Index will likely be resurrected. Whether it will ever recover credibility is much less likely, especially after what appears to an incredibly damning internal review, apparently confirming that data were manipulated under management pressures—requiring critically urgent reform. Part of the process of getting better is abandoning what doesn’t work. Expect this one to keep running.

Rebranding the bureaucrat

Dan Honig has been waging a battle on twitter to rebrand the bureaucrat, suggesting that . bureaucratic culture can drive better performance, and that it can be ‘created’ with relatively simple interventions. Two great new papers showcase this: in Ghana, Azulai et. al. implement a large scale training intervention aimed at cultural change in the civil service and find it improved division-level performance where the trainees were placed. And Muhammad Yasir Khan’s study in Pakistan shows that emphasising the mission-driven aspect of health work improves not only performance of health workers (and does so on more dimensions of their work than a simple incentive), it also improves downstream health outcomes in the community.

These are some of the most optimistic and hopeful findings of the year—all praise the bureaucrats. If  large-scale change is going to happen, it will generally not be down to the efforts of a small but brilliant NGO, but because the full machinery of government bureaucracy is capable of action and can improve its performance.

A history of economics in 20 and ½ pages (and the future in 3)

One of the best long reads of the year was the three-way discussion between Amartya Sen, Angus Deaton and Tim Besley in the Annual Review of Economics, dominated by Amartya’s stories of his life as an economist and the people he interacted with. His story is almost a history of economic thought—arguing with Joan Robinson, talking about the environment with Arthur Pigou, being encouraged to folly by Nicholas Kaldor and reminding us of near-forgotten names like Piero Sraffa and Maurice Dobbs. This choice sticks out a little here because it doesn’t highlight a single finding or approach, but rather reminds us of much of the good the discipline has already produced—something economists, a species with a shorter memory than most, tend to forget.

In a similar vein was this superb profile by John McDermott of Leonard Wantchekon: not about a specific paper or finding, but something that should give us hope about the capacity of economics to make the world better. Leonard has had an extraordinary life—from political prisoner to political economist - and his work to create an African School of Economics can only be a good thing for the generation of home-grown solutions and ideas, and for asking the right questions.

The world is still divided, but perhaps we’re redeemable

Back in May the world was rocked by the brutal killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by police in Minnesota. A wave of protests over the way police treat Black people spread from Minneapolis to Manchester to Monrovia, highlighting racism and inequality in society. Floyd’s death was one of many hundreds of police-involved killings that happen each year in the United States alone, and this paper by Desmond Ang shows how proximity to police violence has devastating and long-term effects for teenagers. He found persistent decreases in GPA, increased incidence of emotional disturbance and lower rates of high school completion and college enrollment, with the effects driven entirely by black and Hispanic students in response to police killings of other minorities.

Ang notes that police killings are hyper-local and nearly 80 percent went unmentioned in local newspapers. But it’s not just the media that’s uninterested in violence against Black people. The story of economist Lisa Cook’s struggle to publish her paper on how violence against African-Americans depressed entrepreneurship among that community reveals deep troubles within the economics profession that we have barely started to address.

But, perhaps we should not give up on humans yet. We also read some papers this year that provide more encouraging signs about people’s ability to become more tolerant. Salma Mousa, following her superb paper in 2019 on the effect of Mo Salah on Islamophobia in Liverpool, assigned Iraqi Christians to play football either on teams with other Iraqi Christians, or on mixed teams with Muslim players. Their behaviour changed, but only in the context of the football league - players on mixed teams were more likely to nominate Muslim peers for awards, for example. These behavioural changes didn’t extend to other settings, however. But in every cricket fan’s favourite paper, Matt Lowe finds that contact can reduce prejudice beyond the sports field.  He assigned men from various castes in Uttar Pradesh, India, to cricket teams and measured whether contact reduced caste divisions. It did - cross caste friendships increased by 45 percent, driven almost entirely by collaborative contact (same team) rather than adversarial (opposing team) contact.

In a world where divisions sometimes seem as deep as ever, these papers offer a ray of hope. Perhaps more effort to integrate schools, workplaces, and communities could reduce discrimination in society. And, just like the rollout of vaccinations ends 2020 on a hopeful note, we will stop there.

Thanks to Aisha Ali, Lee Crawfurd, and Dan Honig for contributions. 


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.