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Team AfDB at the “Olympics of Economics”


It was during a beautiful breathy summer in Santa Fe, Mexico City, that the 18th International Economic Association (IEA) World Congress was held between 19 and 24, June 2017. Seating 2,2oo meters above sea-level, this white-collar business district in the South Western hills of Mexico City harbors modern high-rise office and apartment buildings occupied by multinational corporations such as Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia and many others. Within a radius of 5 kilometers of the Congress venue, there are more than 10 shopping malls including the largest Shopping Mall (Centro Comercial Santa Fe) in Latin America. It is tempting to forget that the city is located in a third-world country or erase the story of the notorious Mexican drug lord “El Chapo” Guzmán from our tabloid memory compartments.

One might even wonder why economists gather in such a luxurious place to talk about income inequality, poverty, jobs and growth; but the answer can be obvious. Santa Fe has been a city of contrasts: a place once conquered by the destitute and now a bustling business district. Far away from downtown Mexico City, Santa Fe was a place where the poor and destitute once lived in caves, picking garbage from a municipal dump for a living. It was in the early 1990s that Juan Enriquez Cabot, a 33-year-old Harvard-educated city official and private investor invested US$5 billion to bulldoze the garbage and build a new model city. Fast forward 25 years later, one cannot miss the progress. The city symbolizes Mexico’s vision to leapfrog from a third-world country into a complex market based economy. To cut the long story short, there is no better place to gather and reflect on growth, structural transformation, inequality, and poverty other than in a modern city that emerged from a dumpster.

The IEA, founded in 1950 as a Non-Governmental Organization, organizes the World Congress every 3 years. The theme of the 2017 Congress was “Globalization, Growth and Sustainability”. This Congress is the only global event embracing all fields of economics, including all areas and all approaches, from theory to empirics. Because of its broadness, it attracts not only scholars, but also distinguished economists from non-academic institutions such as central banks, multilateral institutions and other public institutions from across the world, for a rich exchange of views. More than 500 economists were in attendance and over 400 papers were presented in parallel and plenary sessions. As the VP and Chief Economist Celestin Monga puts it, the gathering can be considered the “Olympics of Economics”.

For many young and aspiring researchers, it was a humbling experience to listen and pick the brains of three Nobel Laureates that attended the Congress, namely George AkerlofRoger Myerson and Joseph Stiglitz. The Congress was also full of prospective Nobel Prize winners and heavyweights in the profession such as Tim BesleyKaushik BasuDani RodrikLeonard Wantchekon, and many other heavyweights in the profession (see program here).

As part of the Congress, the IEA-AfDB Young African Scholars Program (YASP) was organized on 22 June 2017 by Vice-President and Chief Economist Dr. Monga, enabling young and promising African scholars (including three AfDB staff) from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal, to present their research. The presentations were preceded with a discussion with renowned scholars such as Kaushik BasuTim BesleyHaroon BhoratJuly CagéRavi KanburRoger MyersonDani RodrikFinn Tarp, and Leonard Wantchekon (see YAS program here).

Among the many ideas that were discussed, they all underscored and strongly encouraged African Scholars to look for research ideas in real life contexts and keep pushing for ideas they believe in. This was illustrated by Leonard Wantchekon who analyzed the role of education on intergenerational social mobility in Benin in a paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. This paper was inspired by his own educated uncle who served as a role model in the family and played a monumental role in his personal success. Using an example from Vietnam, Finn Tarp also stressed the need for a data revolution in Africa to enable innovative policy analysis. “I just crossed-off one of my bucket lists” said one of the YASP attendants after listening to the inspiring personal stories and motivations.

The scholars also had the opportunity to attend the Research Institute for Development Growth and Economics (RIDGE) Summer School, an initiative of the IEA aiming to provide young economists the opportunity to be part of the debate in the frontier of knowledge in economics. At the Summer School, lectures were given by Professors Tim BesleyD. MarinDani RodrikPeter Schott, and Joseph Stiglitz.

Overall, the Congress was a great success and an opportunity for young African scholars to interact and network with researchers/students from various parts of the world. Team AfDB was also active in spreading the gospel among world economists (that is the Bank’s research and development priorities particularly the “Hi-5s”), as well as the Bank’s critical role in lifting the continent out of poverty. Team AfDB’s participation in the “Olympics of Economics” is part of the Bank’s new knowledge and economic governance vision to transform itself into a “knowledge Bank”, within the framework of the High Five Agenda. We very much look forward to the next IEA-World Congress in 2020.

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