What’s Behind the Data?

July 12, 2022

In Economic Development (ECN 230), you will learn to think like an economist by studying global poverty and efforts to alleviate it, says Assistant Professor Tammy McGavock

We will tackle important economic and social questions such as: Is it possible for people and entire communities to become trapped in poverty? Is improving primary education completion simply a matter of increasing supply — by improving schools, teachers, and textbooks — or do families have low demand for schooling because they are not fully aware of its benefits? Does targeting mothers with government support do more to improve children’s nutrition than targeting fathers? And, most important, how can we tell the difference between the causes of global poverty and its effects, and how can we know whether costly programs have made a difference?

In class, we will build models of decision-making under the constraints that global poverty imposes; we’ll also learn how to test hypotheses from those models using statistical analyses of survey data and social experiments. You’ll read cutting-edge research papers in development economics — readings that normally economics majors wouldn’t see until their senior year — as we build a toolkit of causal research designs that credibly disentangle cause and effect. Even for students not intending to major in economics, these skills will stay with you. You’ll be able to critically assess evidence and make better decisions, whether in another class, leading an initiative of your own, or in processing — and identifying flaws in — claims made by others.

Professor McGavock reports that students particularly enjoy the group presentations, where they study a particular research paper in-depth, meet with her for a mentoring session, and then teach the class about it. One such paper explores the optimal pricing of a product that families use to make water they collect from rivers and wells safe for drinking. Setting the price too high means that people won’t use it, and many children under age 5 will die. But sometimes paying slightly more for a product might mean that people value it more and use it more often — what behavioral economics calls a “sunk cost effect.” The authors of the study ran an experiment with door-to-door sales at different prices with surprise discounts to identify the best price, which could save lives and avoid wasting government resources that could be spent on improving education, roads, or nutrition.

At its core, studying development economics is about understanding people, putting yourself in their shoes, and using scientific thinking to inform policy that can make the world a place where all people are free to not only to live, but also to thrive.

Learn more about studying Economics at Grinnell

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