Sunday, 18 April 2010

Economists sans research

Today Muhammad Yasir Khan a student at Columbia write an article in The NEWS that touched me. Perhaps some of my economist friends would care to respond. I hear the young man's anguish on how Pak economists have failed the country. How should we respond?

Here is what he says?

"Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought. -Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Despite the uni-dimensional education policy focus on churning out PhDs in every field, we have not yet settled for the reality that we are nowhere in the world when it comes to research on economic and social policies.

In any other country a field left so wide open could not have been up for grabs for so long, yet not a single domestic expert seems keen on taking advantage of the situation here. First, without going into individual profiles, let us analyse our experts. A strikingly high proportion of our economic and social development experts have been ex-employees of multilateral agencies. Even those associated with academic institutions have mainly been drawing significant income from working on “projects” as “consultants”, focused mainly on compiling “reports”. If such is the cadre of experts tasked to provide informed advice on matters of economic policy and development, no wonder we are getting nowhere with our policies.

Our ministries have a severe lack of capacity for conducting quality research on any aspect of the policies formulated by them. The government seems to have completely outsourced policy-making to donors and multilateral organisations. Experts are hired to compile reports and even more are appointed to make policy documents based on these reports. It is ironic that these very same experts are then hired from the donors’ side to reformulate the policies after some time. There is a complete institutional failure to develop inquisitive and probing researchers within the setup of ministries, who can at least provide some kind of feedback, if not wholly take the task of policy research, into the policy-making process.

A prime example of the lack of research capacity can be noticed at the premier policy-making body in the country - the Planning Commission. According to its website, this body is entrusted with “organising research and analytical studies for economic decision-making”, besides formulating five-year economic plans for the country. Surprisingly, however, this body – whose main function is to conduct research for economic decision-making - is headed by a respectable atomic energy expert, not an economist. The commission itself includes only four PhDs out of its total eight members, signifying just how much we value research. The story does not end here; under the publications section on the Planning Commission’s website, one finds the refreshing heading of “Research Papers of P&D Staff”- however, enthusiasm soon wanes when one finds that apparently only one member of the staff, Dr Karamat, seems to be interested in research. Dr Karamat again is not an economist; he is a health sector specialist.

The current mindset of our economic policy experts cannot be changed overnight. But it is about time we start moving in the right direction. For now we have a golden opportunity with the return of exceptionally brilliant young minds, well-trained in economic research from world-class western universities, via the Fulbright and other scholarship programmes. If the current mindset continues, we run the risk of wasting the young talent, continuing to depend on multilaterals for policy-making and carry on pretending that we know everything about our economy, when in truth we do not."