Williams International

Doug Gollin, Professor of Development Economics

Professor Gollin in Ghana in July 2012

What is your specialty?

My work focuses on the economies of developing countries, and I am particularly interested in the role that agriculture plays in the development process.  I do some very micro work that essentially involves documenting and measuring the spread of new agricultural technologies (such as crop varieties and natural resource management practices) in the developing world.  I also do some micro work looking at the agricultural research process itself and trying to understand how new technologies are created—essentially trying to understand the research process itself.

This micro work then feeds into a broader set of questions that I study, relating to agriculture’s role in the economies of developing countries.  I am interested in understanding why so many people in poor economies work in agriculture—and in thinking about how different policies, technologies, and project interventions might affect the allocation of people and productive resources within these economies.  I am trying to learn whether there are causal relationships—operating in either direction—between economic growth and agricultural development.

At the moment, I am particularly interested in understanding how rural transportation infrastructure—such as farm roads—shapes the agricultural marketing systems of developing countries.

I initially became interested in these topics through looking at agriculture in the U.S.  My first “serious” job after college was working as a newspaper reporter for the Omaha (Nebraska) World-Herald.  I briefly covered agricultural news and got very interested in the agricultural economy.  I ended up doing my master’s degree in international relations (at Yale) and then worked for a few years in a development NGO before returning to graduate school for my Ph.D.  I have spent a lot of time over the years traveling and working in Africa and Asia, and I haven’t yet run out of questions that I want to answer.

 Why do you think it’s important for Williams students to study the economics of developing countries?

There are lots of possible answers to this question. I could say that Williams students are privileged and have an obligation to focus on the biggest and most important problems in the world; this line of reasoning would surely justify a focus on developing countries and on the problems of poverty, inequality, and low productivity that characterize those economies.  Alternatively, I could say that development economics is full of interesting and challenging intellectual questions, so that bright and curious students can find lots to study in this area.

Both of these answers would be fine… But perhaps another reason is that Williams students should find out that the developing world is not a grim and depressing place, and the world’s poor people are not necessarily unhappy and wretched. I think it’s really important for Williams students to discover that people in developing countries lead rich, dignified, and meaningful lives.  Economic poverty doesn’t imply spiritual or cultural poverty, any more than wealth implies happiness. There are real and important problems faced by the world’s poor, but we shouldn’t objectify them.  Williams students should go to the developing world and see how much they have to learn.

I don’t think every undergraduate should study development economics.  (I didn’t study economics as an undergraduate, so I couldn’t in good conscience say that everyone else should.)  But if you’re interested in understanding why the world is the way it is, then economics is a fantastic analytic tool.  And if you want to know how to change the world, you should understand how markets work — and how and why they fail.  So economics is a great discipline for this.

Why do you think it’s important for Williams students to have an awareness of international issues?

It’s the 21st century, and we live in a world where social networks span continents, where political and economic events anywhere in the world have ramifications for us all.  It’s not conceivable to me that in today’s world, a person could claim to be educated who does not have a deep awareness of international issues and who does not have a strong curiosity about the rest of the world.

If you could go any one place in the world, where would you go?

I don’t really like the first part of the question! I love to travel, and I’ve spent lots of time in places that I love.  I’ve just come back from Ghana, which is one of my favorite countries in the world. In the past year, I’ve also spent time in England, France, and Italy; India, Ethiopia, Brazil, and Paraguay. But if I could only go to one place in the world, it would be… home. For me, that’s New Haven, Connecticut, where I live with my wife and kids.

What are you reading at the moment?

I am a big fan of travel writing and non-fiction, but the book that is open on my Kindle at the moment is an old British mystery story by the marvelous author Josephine Tey, called “The Man in the Queue.”  I’ve read it a dozentimes before, but all her books are worth reading.

To visit Gollin’s webpage, click here.